It was all in her eyes. Wisdom. Love. Light. Empathy. Understanding. And more than anything, kindness. I looked into those eyes and the face I was looking at was suddenly beautiful – despite her visage, otherwise, being capable of giving a small child nightmares. But that was the thing about Thandi Klaasen. She radiated. The magnificence of her soul shone out at you. Whoever threw an acid bomb at her when she was in her adolescence damaged her face, but not her spirit.
I can’t profess to have known Thandi Klaasen very well. I met her for perhaps an hour at a time on three or four occasions during the 1980s when I was assigned to interview the jazz singer for my job as arts writer for The Argus (it was during that interregnum when “Cape” had been dropped from its title).
A mere assignment to get an interview and a story out of someone is often humdrum, just a job to do on a slow news day. But now and then it becomes something special – that blessing that a hack gets once in a while that reminds you how privileged you are; moments in a journalist’s life that feel oddly serendipitous. When you meet someone you’ve known of for years, whose art, music or acting you’ve admired, and there they are in front of you. Like the hour I spent on the balcony of Sir Peter Ustinov’s room at the Cape Grace Hotel in Cape Town, he on his chair facing me on mine, and me so mesmerised by the performance he gave me – truly awe inspiring, he slipped in and out of countless characters and as many accents as if he’d been rehearsing for a month – that I could barely scribble a note.
Not all of your highest expectations are met. Christopher Lee, the British actor most famous for his roles as Count Dracula, was gruff and offhand. When I asked him about his Dracula roles he was offended, then gave me a lesson in all the other roles he had played (which I would have got to had he given me a chance). Dennis Hopper, on the other hand, was indulgent and charming when I asked him about his early career acting with James Dean, even though that was only a small part of his work.
Somewhere in the Eighties, one autumnal morning, the newsdesk asked me if I fancied interviewing Cat Stevens. Boy, did I. So a staff car took me and a photographer to a house in Athlone where I was met at the front door by the man of the house and his entourage. I was ushered in and into a carpeted lounge where I was offered a seat on a couch. I sat down, whereupon everyone else sat on the floor facing me, expectant. One of them was a shaven-headed, gaunt man who looked vaguely familiar. I was introduced to him as Yusuf Islam. The subtext: He’s Not Cat Stevens.
It was excruciatingly embarrassing to be seated on your lofty perch looking down on a well-heeled group that included your teenage idol. So I slid down onto the floor so that we were all on even ground, so to speak. You quickly remind yourself that you’re there for one reason only: to get the job done and go back to the newsdesk with a story.
So I asked pretty much the questions you or the next person would, if you loved the man’s music as I did back in the Seventies. Why don’t you record any more? You mean, you actually write nothing … nothing at all? Yes I understand and respect your spiritual convictions but… you did write the music… But what about your songbook, the beauty of so many of your songs… you can’t mean that? Surely? And I told him that his songs had been part of the tapestry that was my adolesence. He was unmoved, regretful, even apologetic.
The man sat there, cross-legged and unsmiling, and told me he regretted having written Father and Son, wished he’d never written Sad Lisa, disowned Longer Boats, Wild World, Peace Train, Where Do the Children Play, Moonshadow. You name it, he denied them like a Judas.
A well of anger rose in me, but I kept my temper in check, went through more questions, recorded more answers, and waited until I was in the staff car on the way back to the office before letting out a primal scream. But it was his life, his music, and his right to keep it from us. If he could. I prize my Cat Stevens albums to this day and, no, Mr Islam, you can’t take that away from me.
Meeting Thandi Klaasen was everything meeting Cat Stevens had not been, if not quite up there with meeting Ustinov. For years I’d been a fan of the Drum magazine era, Can Themba and the Sophiatown writers of his day, and of the jazz songstresses who stalked the nightclubs and taverns of that milieu, wondering what it might have been like to be a part of it. So to meet Thandi Klaasen was thrilling.
It was a shock when you first came face to face with her. But she knew that. Reading your face, your mind, she immediately put you at your ease, touching her own face below her customary hat and asking if you’d like to know how it happened. She told me that the itching never really goes away. You’d read, of course, that she’d been the victim of an acid attack as a teenager, but to hear her open up about it in her own words while looking at that face and into those eyes was almost like being in a confessional. You wanted to say, no mama, you don’t need to talk about that, we can gloss over it… but she disarmed me instantly.
She saw that I was moved, and I’ve never been able to hide the emotion in my eyes, and she stepped forward and hugged me, this only minutes into our first meeting. That evening, a few songs into her set – my first taste of her gentle take on light jazz and her way of caressing a lyric as much as singing it – her eyes found me near the front of the audience and she gave me a private nod and a smile. I felt as special as if someone had waved a magic wand over me, and it’s the kind of small but powerful experience I like to remind myself of whenever life seems drab, uncertain, or when dank characters stalk far corners of the world. That these small moments carry, dare one say, yuge weight.
In the interviews that followed over the next few years she told me what it had been like touring to London in Todd Matshikiza’s King Kong, soon to be revived and renewed by the Fugard theatre in Cape Town; and she painted a picture of life in Sophiatown in the late Fifties. It’s one thing to read about it, but to have a Thandi Klaasen, a Dolly Rathebe or a Miriam Makeba tell you about it – and later I did interview Dolly and get her story from her own perspective – was a special place for a young reporter to be in.
I was reminded of Thandi, and of Dolly, when only a few days after their friend and sister in music Miriam Makeba died in 2008, my wife Di and I were at an African-themed restaurant at Spier in the Cape winelands. We’d had dinner, plenty of wine, and decided it was time to retire to our hotel room a five-minute walk away. Here and there in the sprawling outdoor restaurant – which had several dining areas and a great marquee that operated as a dance floor – were random bars, and passing one I stopped and said, “Hang on, one tequila for the road…”.
We clinked glasses, down the shot went, and as the tequila hit home the strains of Makeba’s Click Song struck up in the nearby marquee. In an instant I was transformed as I hopped-jived my way into the marquee, Di behind me, whereupon a perplexed but game busload of German tourists fell into a conga line behind me. Makeba was celebrated and mourned by happy-sad strangers that night and it reminds me, now, that I need to grab a bottle of honey tequila this weekend, put on some Dolly, some Miriam and some Thandi, and toast the women they were, and what one of them in particular was, briefly, to me. DM
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Tony Jackman is Daily Maverick's Chief Sub-Editor and occasional columnist. In his other life he's a playwright (An Audience With Miss Hobhouse, Cape of Rebels) and author of foodSTUFF (Human & Rossouw), which combines essays and reflections on his life with 60 recipes for some of this foodie's favourite dishes. Though of Yorkshire parentage, he was born in the diamond dorp of Oranjemund, which explains everything.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon