N O T E S F R O M T H E S O U T H
All She Surveys
Peter Machen spoke to the Queen of African pop about the demanding job of being Brenda Fassie
I am staying in room 260 of the Katherine Street City Lodge in Sandton. I mention to the cleaning staff that I am going to interview Brenda Fassie. “Oh Brenda,” they respond, with what I can only describe as serendipitous giggles. “She stayed in your room for six months. She was very naughty.” I laugh with them at this famed naughtiness and decide that fate has smiled kindly on this interview with one of South Africa’s most notorious musical celebrities.
As I start my pilgrimage to Brenda Fassie’s rehearsal room, the image of the scared and unfriendly Jo'burg driver is quickly dispelled – or possibly updated. Brenda’s manager, Peter Snyman, doesn’t really have a clue how to get from Sandton to the backroom in Denver in which she is rehearsing, and he gives me only two street names when we talk on the phone. I find it, but not without help from a score of drivers who, without exception, roll down their windows and head me in the direction of Jewel Street.
Jewel Street runs through the heart of Denver. This is one of the oldest, most beautiful and most dilapidated parts of Jo’burg, but still something shines through the decay. It is still full of life. An apt place to find Brenda, some might say.
And in a way, they would be right. Denver wears its broken beauty proudly and matter-of-factly, looking like some cast-off street from war-torn Maputo, not quite stylish enough to inhabit the Mozambican capital but beautiful nonetheless. It is a place for urban survivors, a place for those who have not been subsumed by the power of Jozi but remain on its periphery.
And here I find Ma Brrr, Ms Fassie, riot grrrl supreme. Self-confessed drug user. Prima donna. Diva to a T. And the owner of one of the most powerful voices on the planet. Tinged with the pop immediacy of Madonna at her 80s finest and with a vocal and emotional range to rival Nina Simone, those who have not experienced her glory, because she is black and sings only occasionally in English, don’t know what they’re missing. When Brenda sings, time stands still.
Over the last two decades she has used that voice to awesome effect, establishing herself as one of Africa’s biggest recording stars recording artists and creating an astounding catalogue of afro-pop albums. And also, it must be said, attracting ever so slightly more than her fair share of trouble – through her fondness for substances legal and illegal, her unconventional sexuality and her utter determination to do things her way and on her terms.
To put it bluntly, Brenda Fassie really doesn’t give a fuck. To put it more proverbially, she couldn’t care two hoots what people think about her. But I’ll stick with the former phrase because there is no other expression in the English language for the attitude that she constantly exudes and exacts on both herself and everyone around her. And this is no act. This is Brenda pure and simple. She refuses to act.
And that is, in a way, the entire point of being Brenda. It also makes her completely glorious. Because she is so sweet, so vicious, so venomously loving, so unapologetically human. In the most sensational way possible she plays the media game by simply not playing the media game. By being her naughty, beautiful self and exaggerating that self as much as she wants, when she wants.
Brenda always knew she would be famous. There was no other possible path. In 1979 record producer Koloi Lobona journeyed to Langa, the Cape township where Brenda lived, to hear this amazing voice he’d been told about. Brenda sang for him, and when she’d finished singing, the 16 year old siren turned to him and said “So when are we going to Jo’burg?”
Twenty four years later I walk into the rehearsal room with Peter Snyman. He wears a look on his face that suggests he’s seen it all, and my guess is that he has. Certainly, hanging out with Brenda would increase the odds.
In the rehearsal room it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. The band is going off to the rousing pop anthem 'Thola Madlozi'. Brenda Fassie is swirling around the room like a dervish, her impish face listening carefully to each note, each sound emerging from the musicians. Her body flails in an involuntary dance as she moves from musician to musician, a micro-conductor intent on perfection. She looks as if she is having the time of her life.
The band breaks and Peter introduces me to Brenda. I give her a T-shirt with a picture of Nefertiti on it that I got from Fashion Week and she gives me a big hug. Later at her house, she looks down at the shirt and says “Egypt! Where is that?”, more a statement of contempt than a geographical confusion.
I meet Nathi, one of the backing singers, in the backroom. Brenda introduces her as her daughter. She has a beautiful voice of course, entirely different to her mother’s – sweeter, less primal. She is a strong, gently mature match for Brenda’s eternally 16-year-old diva. I tell Brenda that Nathi is the mother and she is the daughter. “Everyone says that,” she responds. Later, I discover that Nathi is actually Brenda’s girlfriend.
Then we all end up at her house in Buccleugh – not without a short trip to the bottle store where Brenda stocks up on an entire shopping trolley of alcohol, me laughing hysterically in my car from the other side of the parking lot. I meet the beautiful James, over whom Brenda drapes herself with ease and affection. “Don’t tell anyone about James,” she says, “I want everyone to think I’m a lesbian.” I tell Brenda that I’m used to bendy-bendy people and also that people with power as godlike as hers are often bisexual in nature. She says nothing, giving a funny sideways smile as I follow her around her sprawling suburban home. She shows me a bullet hole in her bedroom window, a result of a recent, much-publicised burglary. My mind flashes to the newspaper article, Brenda saying, “Why would anyone want to kill me? Don’t they know the whole country loves me?”
Then it’s back to the music room where Bongani, Brenda’s son, sits down at the keyboard. He is a classically trained pianist and the room melts into beauty as he plays the keys with his hands, body and sweet, sweet face. Paitjie, Bongani’s friend, is sitting next to me, dressed head to toe in yellow hip-hop gear. It’s his birthday and Brenda sings her own almost deep-deep house interpretation of Happy Birthday. Paitjie’s smile exceeds the breadth of his yellow. Later, I tell Brenda how lovely I think Bongani is. She smiles pensively. “I think he smokes zol,” she says with a slight look of worry on her face. I say that it would be surprising if a South African boy his age didn’t smoke dagga.
Brenda asks me for a light. She is burning imphepho in a small ceremonial area near her front door. This is where we conduct the actual taped interview. Though, by now, I have realised that you don’t interview Brenda Fassie – you write a story about her or, ideally, a novel. She instructs her bodyguard to bring some drinks. A Bacardi Breezer and a Smirnoff Spin arrive and then she requests a metal spatula. The spatula arrives and she slices it upwards through the air, expertly removing the top from a bottle. One more slice through the air for the other bottle and then her gun is requested.
A handgun is delivered and she looks at it and then throws it down among her ceremonial clutter. I half expect her to point it at me, as some kind of test, as a demonstration of her skittishness. But no – she just wants me to know that she has a gun. I switch on the dictaphone and she says “Have you seen my dogs? Chico and Lesley. I named those dogs after two people I think are dogs. Chico was my manager and Lesley was my lawyer. They got together and fucked me.”
Before I have a chance to ask her a question she breaks into song, echoing the tune emerging from speakers in the other room where her new song 'Ngiki Kotola Malini' is playing. “You got the wrong door,” she sings, “You got the wrong door. You pressed the wrong button. You got the wrong door.” It is spine-chilling and movingly beautiful. Her voice starts as a wail and transforms into almost existential pop. As Brenda sings, she disappears into the song, into that place where the finest performers go when they sing. When she finishes the song, she tells me the interview is over. I tell her that’s fine, that in fact I have no questions for her. She responds that I have the answers. This is more like an exercise in Zen Buddhism than an interview per se.
But it doesn’t matter. Her presence is almost too overpowering for such simple concepts as questions and answers. Besides, during the few hours I spend with her, every time I ask her a question she responds by talking about something else entirely. And so, on my tape I have little else but her singing and talking about her dogs and lawyers. And I will treasure it forever.
We are sitting on Brenda’s bed. She asks me to try to fix her video camera. Nathi gets it down from the cupboard. The cord to the battery charger is missing. I take the whole thing away with me and promise to try to fix it. Like everyone else who glances against her world, I am duty-bound to follow her orders. She is a queen. Despite being the size of a battle-scarred urchin, she is a huge mad goddess filled with warmly psychotic power.
As I’m sitting there, I think of one of the first questions she asked me when I met her this afternoon. Looking at me in my own punked up hairstyle and Craig Native T-shirt, she says to me, completely straight-faced: “So do you smoke cocaine?” “It’s much better than snorting it,” is my hedge-betting reply. Now sitting on her bed in a state of relative calmness, I ask Brenda if she’s ever had any problems with the police, being such a public drug-user.
“They wouldn’t dare,” she says, and we talk about the secret history of cocaine in this country. Of course, she mentions no names but the implication is that, were the law to clamp down on her, she could bring a lot of important people down with her.
And then it’s time for Brenda to take a bath and for me to leave, but not without a metal bracelet that she places firmly on my arm. That, and the video camera. The beautiful James leads me out of the suburb and onto the freeway back to Sandton. I am leaving Brenda World and heading out into the big wide sky of a Jozi evening.
And I wonder if she’s going to have a bath and go to sleep, or whether the whole family is going to be up at two o’clock in the morning having a party with that booze-trolley. Either way, in her dreams, or in her mad lullabies of reality, she’ll be wearing with ease and pride that scarred, beautiful face that has to put up with the extremely full-time job of Being Brenda.