Saying goodbye to romance

By Leila Dougan

And now it is our turn to say our final farewells, to female jazz legend, Thandi Klaasen, whose sweet melodies captured the romance and troubled times and brilliant artistry of Sophiatown.

“I had no chance to say goodbye to romance
I had no time to leave it all behind
It was the place I knew
Where my dreams came true
Until they broke it down
Sophiatown”

Thandi Klaasen, one of South Africa’s greatest jazz icons and activists, died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer on 15 January at the age of 86. The highlights of her six decade long music career are captured in songs such as ‘My Way’, ‘What a Wonderful World’ and ‘Sophiatown’, which recalls the harrowing history of the forced removals that pulled communities and families apart. Under the 1956 Group Areas Act 65,000 people were removed from Sophiatown by 2 000 policemen armed with rifles and stun grenades, who destroyed the community of black artists and intellectuals who came to define the time.

The musical legend came from humble beginnings. Her mother was a domestic worker and her father was a shoemaker. Klaasen was born in 1930, in Sophiatown, the hub of black icons such as the artist, Gerard Sekoto, journalists such an Henry Nxumalo who pioneered investigative black journalism in Drum Magazine; and jazz musicians including Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Jonas Gwangwa. Sophiatown was indeed the heart and soul of black intellectuals and artists and it was in this environment that Klaasen’s own artistic career flourished.

She started her career at an early age when she began singing in her local church and emerged as a jazz and blues icon during the 1950s. Her six decade long music career started as a dancer and singer she later formed the Quad Sisters, a female quarter including, among others, Hazel Futa.

A heartbreaking attack should have kept her out of the limelight for good, but her determination and love for music was far too great. As a teenager, she was attacked with acid, leaving her face permanently scarred. She spent a year in hospital and had to re-learn many of her singing techniques

By 1960 the jazz queen was touring internationally and starred in King Kong alongside Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka and Dolly Rathebe (composed by Todd Matshikiza and Harry Bloom).

Jazz musician Letta Mbulu spoke to EWN and described Klaasen as ‘multi-talented’. “I want to speak about her in the present. She is a true legend. We learned so much, some of us from the things she did,” said Mbulu.

Klaasen has received a range of awards including the presidential Order of the Baobab (Gold) in 2006. She was also among a number of musicians that were honored with a lifetime achievement award by Standard Bank in 2013. In 1999 she received the Women of Distinction award in Canada.

Klassen will be given a civic funeral in Boksburg on Friday. She is survived by two children (Lorraine Klaasen and Roger Phambane), five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Images courtesy of South Africa History Online (SAHO) and Montreal Community.

Contributors

Leila Dougan

Leila Dougan has worked as a journalist for the past eight years in cities around the world, starting out as an investigative broadcast reporter for Carte Blanche in Johannesburg in 2010. As a traveling documentary filmmaker, she has interviewed scientists in Uganda, entrepreneurs in Cuba and social justice workers in the heart of Los Angeles. […]

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