2 May 2020
Joe Schaffers, in spite of his protestations, is no ordinary Joe. On the contrary, this “average Joe”, is quite extraordinary.
He is a household name on the Cape Flats as a health inspector for the Council; he is well known in sports and church circles; and he is highly regarded in the entertainment sphere as a singer.
Now this 80-year-old is soon to add another notch to his belt that gives credence to the widely held belief that he ain’t no ordinary Joe – he is going to be awarded an honorary doctorate to acknowledge, in part, “this tireless campaigner and believer in education as the pathway to a better world”.
The University of Edinburgh in Scotland that has been working with Joe for the last nine years, is conferring the award on him.
Joe, as part of his work at the District 6 Museum, has been the tour guide for the university’s students who come regularly to Cape Town as part of their urban geography studies. Their focus has been on the history of District 6 and the forced removal of the community.
It was a natural fit for Joe Schaffers. For him, it was a lived experience. He was born in the city and spent most of his early life in Block C of the Bloemhof Flats complex in Constitution Street, just up the road from Peninsula Maternity Hospital and The Castle Bar.
This profile is to highlight his award but it is also an opportunity to showcase his other talent as a veteran performer in Cape Town. And it is in that very Block where it all started.
“Growing up, I used to stand on the corners and in those doorways with the other guys in the area and sing all the popular songs of the day,” Joe recalls. “Music played a big part in our lives. That’s just what we did. It was part of growing up.
“We had no skaampte those days. You just stand there and let rip and the people listen to you. We had our own Star Bioscope performances in Bloemhof Flats, right there in the courtyard.”
Those stellar performances would stand him in good stead decades later when he started testing the waters as a stage performer.
Joe schooled at St Theresa’s Primary in the Gardens back in the ’40s, then moved on to St Augustine’s in Parow and Livingstone in Claremont. He offers no reason why he did not decide on Trafalgar High or Harold Cressy right on his doorstep other than “I wanted to meet new friends”.
Apart from the crooning sessions in the neighbourhood with the local “doo-wap doo-wap” boys, Joe also had a taste of music from within the family.
“Music was always in the house,” he says. “My dad and one of my brothers played piano. I tried my hand at piano and guitar but was useless at that. My interest was in sport. If you did music you really had to be dedicated. I do tinkle just a bit on the piano but those scales [routine] was out of the question.”
After matriculating in 1958 Joe worked briefly as a packer in a clothing factory and then at a photographic company developing and printing colour photos. Ever the innovator, Joe worked out a new method in the process and the bosses sent him to Germany to learn more.
“I was smart enough to realise though, that working long-term with chemicals would ruin my hands, so a joined Irvin & Johnson and learnt the intricacies of the new business machines that was the forerunner of today’s computer,” he says.
“While at I&J, a course for health inspectors popped up at the technical college at Roland Street and I&J helped me get through the course.
“When I qualified, I decided I’d rather work in the community and, at a reduced salary, went to work for the City Council. That’s where I got all my experiences that helped me to where I am today.”
His work in the townships brought him into contact with the needy and the seedy. “I knew all the gangsters in townships . . . the Casbahs, The Hard Livings, Fancy Boys in much the same way I knew the gangs in town: the Globe Gang, Jesters, Skull Busters, Dynamite Kids.”
Work came first with Joe and he filled his spare time playing cricket and soccer for Aerials. But the yearning for music was never far. His first public gig was way back in the late ’50s in a place called The Acres in Goodwood (another tight community that felt the harsh hand of the Group Areas Act)
“It was a church fundraiser and I remember doing a couple of Elvis numbers – he was big around that time – and some Johnny Mathis with guys I had never performed with. I remember people throwing money on stage.”
Things got a bit serious more than 10 years later when he was at the popular 524 Club in Lansdowne and pianist Henry February tossed him the microphone and told him to sing.
“I was a bit dumbstruck,” Joe recalls. “I knew all the guys, Henry Feb and Kenny Jephtha, and they knew I could sing, but I wasn’t in their league. They insisted and I opted to do Chick Corea’s Spain that was very popular around then.
“I was petrified but I thought ‘in for a penny in for a pound’. With musicians like Henry Feb and Kenny, you can’t go wrong. It took off. The rest is history.”
In the ensuing years, Joe worked with groups like Backchat and the Godfrey Ulster Trio around Cape Town, including at the swish Cape Sun Hotel when it opened in Strand Street.
“I would do a guest spot wherever the occasion arose. I suppose people liked what I did. The old ballads and jazz standards always go down well and my favourite artist is Sammy Davis Jnr. I also like Sinatra, Perry Como, and Mathis.
“Sammy, though, was the ultimate entertainer. I almost modelled myself on what he did because I could also do impersonations of artists. I imitated all my favourite singers. It was a novelty thing I could do and it added another string to my bow when I was performing.
Joe formed his own group, Rendezvous, about 12 years ago. “We do everything under the sun, as the occasion calls for . . . jazz, funk, rock ’n roll, langarm.”
He performed at Katarina’s in Steenberg every Sunday about 10 years. Those brunch sessions were almost always packed because “I did these different voices”.
Joe is in awe of some of the musicians he has worked with over the years, specially the likes of Henry February and Kenny Jephtha from the old days. In more recent times he looks up to musicians like guitarist Alvin Dyers, bassist Valentino Europa, pianist/guitarist Richard Ceasar and drummer Roy Davids.
Although he is happy to be labelled a jazz singer he has no qualms about offering the crowd funk, pop, langarm and ghoema.
On ghoema, which has morphed into Cape Jazz in some forms, Joe says: “For me our culture was always having music with a nice beat attached to it. This is what the ghoema sound is all about, coming from the slave days. It is actually mixture of a lot of different styles – a creolisation of music, put it that way. It stems from Cape Town being a port city, that mixture of people that came in.”
Twenty years ago Joe retired from his day job as a health inspector and found himself doing the odd tour guide gig once a week at the District 6 Museum.
“It all started in a roundabout way,” he says. “The late jazz pianist, Vincent Kolbe, who also worked at the City Council, introduced me to the local community station, Bush Radio, and I learnt how to do a bit of presenting.
“I had my own program called Memory Maker that I ran for a couple of years.
“My playlist was mainly langarm music because none of the other stations really played it. I brought in my own collection and kick-started a trend playing the likes of Alf Wylie, the Harmony Kings, and Jimmy’s Grand Six. I had quite a following for my program even though we only had a reach of about 80km. Every Sunday when I was on, I would have calls coming in from people requesting songs and dancing to the music. It started as an hour show but was extended because it was so popular.
“Vincent was also the one who suggested I pop in at the museum because he knew I grew up in the area and was able to give people a bit of background on what D6 was all about.
“I was able to build a pretty graphic picture for the museum’s visitors of what people had to go through. Some of those tourists were quite taken aback. They had no clue of what we endured. They thought it was simply a matter of clearing slums. They did not see the humanity involved. I put it in perspective for them.
“That is where my talks struck a chord and its popularity took off.
“Universities in the USA started requesting me to do the tours for their students. I had groups of up to 30 at a time, taking them up Constitution St and painting a word picture – because there is really nothing there.”
Joe was due to get his award from University of Edinburgh in July but this has now been pushed back to November because of the corona crisis.
“I have been working with the Edinburgh people for about nine years. It wasn’t just a ‘Mickey Mouse’ tour that I put on for them. It was the in-depth picture I could paint of the people and the area and being part of the removals and part of the experience that impressed them.
“The one thing that stands out in my mind about that tour guide work was being able to change people’s attitude and thinking about what had been done to the community. They weren’t aware of it. That was the most rewarding part of that job.
“I couldn’t believe it when they phoned me and said they were going to put my name forward for this doctorate. It blew me away but I am humbled. It simply adds to the District 6 story of the huge injustice that people should never forget.”
The awarding of the doctorate closes the chapter on Joe’s work at the Museum. He is now officially retired from that job. But he does have another problem now – how to get the funds for the Edinburgh trip.
“The university is paying for part of it. We have to find funds of our own for it. I’ll have to start looking at a fund-raiser of sorts because with the lockdown the band isn’t playing and we have to dig into our savings,” Joe said.
Maybe there is some good-hearted sort who can fire up a GoFundMe page for Joe.
For the moment, Joe Schaffers sits at home like millions of other South Africans. He listens to music of his choice . . . classics, opera jazz contemplating the big moment in November when he gets his award.
“I’m still the same plain old Joe, the Dr doesn’t come into it.”
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(Photographs sourced from Joe Schaffers)