For a fair number of South African music fans, the enduring memory of Syd Kitchen, who died in Durban from lung cancer on Tuesday, will be his performances at Splashy Fen each year since that music festival first surfaced in 1990.
For me, it’s of Syd and his brother Pete, along with whichever other musicians happened to make it out to Umhlanga Rocks, playing folk music in our lounge, a reel-to-reel recorder turning in the centre of the room.
Back-dropped by a wall of albums collected by my music journalist dad, Owen Coetzer, and surrounded by the low-slung, dark wood furniture of the era, Syd and Pete would perform the material that had earned them a reputation as songwriters to be envied, even at a time (the early 70s) when pretty terrific singer-songwriters spilled out of Durban and other cities at a steady rate.
If this sounds like a snapshot out of hippiedom, it was. At least sort of.
Although my mother kept a firm handle on our home in the way of the teacher she was, my kaftan-top wearing, cigarette-smoking, furiously typing father brought a no-rules energy to the house. He chased deadlines. He played the sitar. He started a music supplement at the newspaper for which he worked. He frequently piled us in the car to see what ships were in the harbour. And he helped run the Durban Folk Club.
It was through this that my sister Catherine and I first encountered Syd, Pete and a whole bunch of other musicians who performed as part of the club. With regularity, my dad would drag us off to watch the Kitchen brothers, Jannie Hofmeyr and John Oakley-Smith when our friends were mucking around riding bikes in the street – and very soon, I was smitten with folk music at the ripe old age of about eight.
It’s been an unceasing love affair that remained undimmed through my teenage pop years of Abba, the Bay City Rollers, Rabbitt and the Bee Gees - and it’s why, nowadays, I can’t go too many days without listening to “Bright Eyes” and why we named our youngest child, Emmylou. For this, I mostly blame Syd.
To a child, he was a fascinating creature: His hair was long, he sometimes struggled to talk through a stutter, he wore outlandish clothes and, even for children used to being around musicians, Syd seemed to us to carry with him something magical.
The way he worked his way around a guitar – later becoming a noted teacher and musicologist – seemed unlike anyone else, and we didn’t need much persuading to keep the noise down when my dad hit record on the reel-to-reel.
More than that though, Syd stood out as a maverick – not just in his music (that would come later when he left the confines of pure folk) but in living. We hardly knew the word then, but it was clear, as Syd would come sweeping into our house, trailing guitars and more, that he would never be like the men whose children we went to school with.
In the 40 or so years that have passed since that time, Syd proved us right – living a life outside of society’s expectations, at times perilously, but never, it seemed to me, without the utmost devotion to what he saw as his particular path.
It wasn’t easy. Syd was frequently cash-strapped and he’d tell you this, in the forthright way he had. He did feel the frustrations of having to fight for his space in a music industry ill-equipped to deal with defiantly individual talents. The consequence of this was a remarkable 40-year music career, filled with live gigs, songwriting, and albums, that simply never benefited from the mainstream business – not just the labels that never signed him, but retail outlets that never stocked his records and radio that never played his songs.
I don’t think it’s something that would have worried Syd, but I looked for a statement from department of arts and culture minister, Paul Mashatile, on the department’s website this morning and came up empty. For a department who has played the cultural preservation card heavily (though admittedly Mashatile has yet to reveal his hand), Syd’s post-folk music embodies everything the DAC says it wants. His acclaimed work with Madala Kunene, for instance, drew deeply on the traditions of both players – Syd with his English grandfather and Madala’s Zulu roots. Syd’s lyrics, on songs like “Africa’s Not For Sissies” and others spoke, with love, of what it means to live on this continent of extremes. Syd even came up with a description for his mix of folk and African music (sometimes tinged with blues or jazz or rock): Afro-Saxon. And, looking at the artists who’ve emerged from under his wing in KwaZulu-Natal especially, it’s easy to see where Syd’s musical legacy will reside, outside of his recordings and songs. Even so it’s hard to imagine the music industry recognising this with a Lifetime Achievement award at any South African Music Awards in the coming years.
Through it all, the personal ups and downs, the musical creation and struggles, Syd displayed a rare loyalty in an industry where expedience often gains the upper hand. In spite of his diagnosis with stage 4 lung cancer a scant few months ago, he signed up to play this year’s Splashy Fen in April, not wanting to miss out on delivering, what for many, had become the festival’s heart.
I last saw Syd play live at Splashy last year. He emerged onto the stage, long hair shorn, guitar in hand and, like a mystical man opening a treasure box, proceeded to work his way through his songs – the intense folk numbers I’ve always loved, the Afro-Saxon cuts and the quirky songs (the live festival standard, “Wash Your Socks”). Syd’s set was followed by Jack Parow – a starker contrast you could hardly have asked for.
In an email a few weeks back, Syd wrote, with more beauty than I have ever read, about watching a body retreat from life as an unstoppable disease moves through it. “But I’ve had a remarkable life, traversing a territory of creative endeavour with no support from the music industry, and I am proud of that legacy,” he said. To secure his legacy, Syd managed to set up the Syd Kitchen Trust to house his music and writings before he died. In time, like the young child I was when I first knew it, the country may come to see this collection as one of its national treasures. DM
To see more of Syd Kitchen get your hands on the documentary “Fool In A Bubble” and the 2004 compilation, “Quintessentially”.
Diane Coetzer is the South African correspondent for Billboard Magazine and its online platforms - and has been writing about South African music and the South African music business in various publications for more than 15 years.