15 May 2004: Thinking of Brenda - Njabulo Ndebele - PART 1 (1 of 2)  
'THINKING OF BRENDA' article by Njabulo Ndebele. pic © Steve Gordon 1985

Thinking of Brenda - Njabulo Ndebele - PART 1 (1 of 2)
www.music.org.za 2004
By Njabulo Ndebele 2000

Brenda Fassie is without doubt one of the dominant icons of contemporary South African popular music. From about twenty years ago, when she broke into the musical scene in the early eighties with "Weekend Special", she has continued to evoke strong reactions. Whether she is adored or disliked, she is always there to react to. It is in reacting to her that we discover we are actually reacting to ourselves. We are compelled to confront in ourselves the implications of the ups and downs of her life: marriage and divorce; drugs; homosexuality; and healing. Stages of her life are reflected in her songs with a candour that approaches pure innocence. We ask: how is it to be innocent in a dangerous world?

e world demonstrates the notion of slowness. There was the blue haze in the horizon, rural smoke rising slowly against the sky until it seemed as if the sky was floating. I remember the distant kra-a-a-k of a white-necked raven gliding somewhere in the sky, and the trees so still as if they had sucked in through their leaves, all the motion there ever was. That is the scene I saw when I finally got out of bed after waking to the sounds of "Weekend Special" on Radio Lesotho somewhere in the house.

The music had reached me while I was hovering between the states of waking and sleeping, suspended between re-emerging consciousness and the continuation of sleep. I had not heard the song before, nor did I know who was singing it, but I will never forget the pounding thrill of it, the rhythms that I felt certain could keep a party going endlessly. And that is exactly how it turned out at many parties in Maseru those years. Much later, Elliot Makhanya was to capture what many felt: "Brenda Fassie is a unique creative energy and an overwhelming talent. ...Fassie has been singing for just over two decades, but every time you listen to her, it seems as if she has just begun" (Sowetan. November 5, 1999). It is of personal significance for me that I remember my first experience with "Weekend Special" so vividly. Over the years, I have accumulated a repertoire of songs that first came to me at precisely that time of the morning, in that same floating state of being. That is how "Jesu, joy of man's desiring" first floated towards me from the dining room of our four-roomed home, where my father played his vinyl of classical music records on a gramaphone, on a Sunday morning as he typed away a school Inspector's report on a Royal typewriter.

Some songs invaded my home from outside, and found their way into my ears, particularly on Saturday mornings. There were neighbours who loved to show off their hi-fi sound systems by turning on the volume so high that I would wonder if they could hear one another from where they were, being so close to their booming sets. Only now I know why they shouted so much when they spoke, especially when they greeted people passing by in the street. It is such neighbours who would be the subject of many disapproving sermons in township churches. "The devil comes in dancing into your house through your loud hi-fi sets," many a preacher warned. " And as you fry in the flames of hell, the hi-fi sounds ringing in your head and driving you to unfathomable madness, you reap the terrible fruits of showing off your worldly possessions. "

But many neighbours loved their sets and their music too much to be intimidated. In that way, 'Rosie my girl' of the Dark City Sisters, floated into my mind, to stay there to this day. So did "Darlie Kea Lemang" by Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks. So did "My Boy Lollipop" by Natalie Cole. So did Jim Reeves of the ‘Distant Drum?also wake me up to his cruel lover who was the ‘judge, the jury all in one.?

Many years later in Duduza, visiting my sister's home, I would wake up, on Sunday mornings, to other sounds. A few houses away, a Zionist Church held its all night service of prayer through singing, dancing, clapping, and the beating of drums. The drums had pounded away until I could not hear them anymore, as my mind succeeded in fusing their rhythms with the general background of life inside and outside, filtered out until unheard, as such, and I could fall asleep. But something happened in the morning: the rhythms shook me awake, when the worshippers finally came out of the house of worship at first light of dawn, to perform the grand finale to the nightlong service. This they did in the street. They come out in single file, and once they are all out in the street, quickly form into a fast spinning, whirling, and frenzied circle of prayer in movement and song. And then they break up for the day, ready for the next week.

The mornings and the particular state of waking have given me many musical epiphanies. They remain as lasting memories, capturing the manner in which vital bonds were established between myself, the songs, and where they were first heard. To remember songs is to remember time and place and circumstance. In the same way, memories of place can trigger memories of song and circumstance. Memories of events can bring a flood of songs associated with them and the places where they were heard. Thus, music can become one of the vital ways by which we connect with the world. How we map the trajectory of our feelings about where we have been, and where we are; about personal and historic events that we live through. Music yields us a complex of intuitions about being there in the world. It connects us to our neighbourhoods, be it through blaring hi-fi sets, or singing and drumming in the streets, or the quiet of the home where we listen to the gramophone and the typewriter (which evokes the world of work, beyond). Music connects us too, to far away places across the seas from where we hear their plaintive voices, evoking familiar joys and pains of bonding and loss, striking intimate chords that link people across unimaginable distances.

So, my conception of the world has grown partly as a result of the intangible worlds of sound, which formed vivid impressions in my mind of the possible social worlds from which those sounds originate. Through my imagination, from my still position in bed, I have travelled extensively: first to other rooms in my home, then out into my neighbourhood, and through the music floating towards me from these sources, on to distant places far beyond. I will not be surprised that many of us have most probably encountered music in a similar manner. Not necessarily lying in bed in the morning and emerging from sleep. Time and place and circumstance will be different, for each of us, but the impact, if we have been receptive to those special sounds coming at us, will have been profoundly similar. Time and place and events converge in sound and rhythm. In this way we have another means by which we accumulate memories that define our journeys through the world.

And so do we become members of musical communities distinguished by rhythms, voices, and instruments. Sometimes these kinds of musical communities will coincide with national communities and become a part of how national communities define their identities. It is this difficult question of identity, within the context of our own unfolding national identity, that I am struggling with as I try to unravel my intuitions about why I have found the phenomenon of Brenda Fassie so particularly intriguing. It turned out not to be a particularly easy task to undertake.

There are few controversial characters in contemporary South Africa, who stand out like Brenda Fassie. Besides her musical talents, she has some highly marketable qualities. For example, there is an unmistakable outrageous brazenness about her that newspapers are bound to love. That they quickly recognized what a musical catch they had in their hands comes through in many headlines. At first, the headlines reflected a genuine discovery of a major musical talent: "There's no stopping Brenda", says `Bona' magazine in April 1984, soon after Brenda's dramatic entrance into the entertainment industry through her hit song "Weekend Special".

But even back then, there were signs of another media prize: Brenda's mouth. "I have been through a lot of difficulties paving my way to success," she says. "Now that I have reached this stage in my career, I am not going to turn back. My ambition is to become a number one musician in this country and....well...make a lot of money" (2 Bona. April, 1984). Here was a rags to riches story that landed on the press's hand like a bird. The profiling of Brenda as a musician shifted dramatically towards the drama of her private life.

There is a telling sequence of pictures in the supplement to "Drum"' magazine of December/January 1991 entitled: ?951 to 1991 Then and Now. A 40 year perspective of township Life as seen through the eyes of Drum.?There are many pictures of musicians and dancers, particularly in the fifties and sixties, who are shown performing on stage. Dancers, in particular, are captured in dramatically frozen motion. In contrast, Brenda Fassie, a dynamic contemporary performer, is shown in her wedding dress, on her wedding day, with Yvonne Chaka Chaka, her senior bridesmaid, mopping the brides' brow on a "steaming hot Durban day" (3 I am grateful to my research assistant Megan Samuelson, for making this observation). Chicco Twala is shown leaning against his Mercedes Benz with his huge double-storey house in the background. At the bottom is a shoulder and head picture of Mbongeni Ngema, accompanied by a comment on how he "is now a wealthy playwright and music producer who counts among his friends Quincy Jones and Oscar-winning actor Denzyl (sic) Washington. "AFFLUENCE AND CONFUSION STRIKE A CHORD IN THE 90’S" goes the summative headline. The music and performance of these artists are downplayed in favour of gossip about their private lives.

Indeed, in 1987, three years after Brenda has broken into the musical scene, she is on the cover of Drum with half of her picture, in which she is seating on the floor, dominated by her exposed right thigh, knee and boots. The other half is her smiling face. Her face radiates a mix of innocence and calculated sexuality. "BRENDA- I CAN'T BUY ME LOVE" goes the cover headline. The story inside has a juicy heading: "SHE'S LOOKING FOR A LIFETIME SPECIAL. Brenda tells all on Chicco, a lesbian fling, and one-night stands." And Brenda, the star of "Weekend Special", rises to the occasion and rattles off about men and love, building on what is to be her characteristic style of self-exposure: "I know that most of them are just lusting after me. They don't love me. They just want to go to bed with me". And then follows her characteristic sudden shift in focus as something strikes her mind: "I can also seduce a man if I want to."

Later on in the same interview, she pronounces: "it was a good experience," referring to what the article calls 'a lesbian fling.?"I was just curious. I wanted to know how they make love to other women." Just an experiment, which, it turns out later, has been a defensive method to maintain self-respect. If the public have a problem with lesbians, Brenda was merely experimenting. She was not one herself. But because a part of her really is, she has to protect herself against her self and maintain her self-esteem to herself: "I am always nice to the lesbians. I don't snub them. I hope I will never become a lesbian." A verbal distancing effect for the public designed to facilitate and maintain an internal coherence. And so, Brenda keeps "telling all" to the thrill of the magazine and many shocked readers whose appetites are whetted for more stories, more of Brenda's musical hits, and more appearances at festivals, where they will endure long hours waiting for her to appear.

"One malicious columnist," complains Brenda, "wrote that I look like a horse. And some people say that I am ugly. I don't want to be beautiful. My ugliness has taken me to the top. I have proved that I have style, and all that glitters is not gold," she says, revealing another talent for the art of reversal. Once she was asked why she hasn't been to the United States where she could build on her fame. She retorted that Michael Jackson did not come to South Africa to be famous. Very early, Brenda firmed up her mouth as one her best assets.

Covering the next major episode in her life, "Drum" magazine is later found standing diligently on Brenda's side in March 1989 when she does indeed, find her 'Lifetime Special' in Nhlanhla Mbambo. "MASS HYSTERIA AS BRENDA SAYS ‘I DO? announces the cover of 'Drum' with a picture of the smiling couple dressed in white. 'Drum' dubs it the "pop wedding of the year". However, in August 1990 "Drum" announces a dramatic end of Brenda's marriage with another cover story. It shows us another picture of the couple. This time they are dressed in black leather clothes. There is no smile on Brenda face. She is looking pained and sad, but also decidedly petulant. Her husband is trying to smile, while the headline goes: "BRENDA AND HUBBY 'OUR MARRIAGE BASED ON JEALOUSY AND INFIDELITY'. It is not long after this announcement that the couple makes up. But marriage bliss is not for them. After a separation announced in November, `The Sowetan' later announces on December 10, "Curtain falls on Brenda's marriage". And so it does.

Since 1984 when she broke into the musical scene with "Weekend Special", Brenda Fassie, Ma Brr, and her music have lived through some of the most significant changes in the history of South Africa. Today, she still 'wows audiences,' as a typical Sowetan headline may put it. In that time, she floated into our personal and public lives as sound and rhythm. As sound, she has come at us in two ways: as music and as speech. In a way, whether she has been on stage or off it, hers has been a continuous performance. That is why, in this connection, it seems inappropriate to separate her public from her private persona. They are one.

It is useful to recall some of the major public events through which we travelled with Brenda Fassie, and during which, for sixteen years, she has been at centre stage. Some of these events are captured so well in a book called Mandela, Tambo, and the African National Congress. We were listening and dancing to "Weekend Special" when a:
"new pattern of protest grew throughout the South African summer of 1984-85. It consisted of stay-at-homes, roving demonstrations challenging the police patrolling the townships, and attacks on the businesses, houses, and persons of African charged with collaborating in the new Community Council system. Local grievances became the vehicle for protest against the apartheid system as a whole, spreading from township to township through a population thoroughly mobilized by student participation in school boycotts and broader involvement in the anti constitution campaigns. At the same time, the existence of national bodies such as the UDF provided new means for coordination or protest, epitomized in the Transvaal stay-at- home of November 5-6, 1984, in which an estimated 800,000 participated" (Sheridan Johns & R. Hunt Davis, Jr. (eds.). Mandela. Tambo and the African Nationa/ Congress. (New York: OUP, 1991), p. 198.)

Beyond that, the struggles progressed through several other phases. We witnessed the state of emergency, necklace killings, economic sanctions, rent and rates boycotts, the calls for "liberation now, education later," increasingly successful ANC guerrilla attacks against the apartheid state, the release of Mandela, the constitutional negotiations, and the historic elections of 1994, tens years after `Weekend Special'. And now, we have entered the phase of democracy, governance and delivery. Brenda is still there, continuing to make an impact.

In that time she hungered for love, made money, got married, divorced, confirmed her bisexuality, wrecked her life through drug addiction during which she experienced one of the painful moments of her life: the death of her lover Poppy, seemingly from a drug overdose. Through a difficult struggle, thanks to her producer Chicco Twala, she recovered and is falling in and out of love once more, while continuing to make new music, which continues to enjoy enormous popularity.

As Namibian interviewer, Immanuel D'Emilio observes: "controversial songstress Fassie has an honours degree from the University of Hard Knocks, but she never let traumatic life events get in her way having a good time. Now that she has made peace with her odious past, she's embarked on a mission to regenerate her reign as the inimitable queen of the South African music industry. Her Highness spoke to me about love, drug addiction, loss and power of fame." (The Namibian, August 14, 1998. 6 Sowetan. February 7, 1997.) Although the tone of D'Emilio's writing is exploitative and disparaging, it shows how the media, in reflecting the ups and downs of Brenda's life, took advantage of her. But it is Brenda's own words than ring loud: "I am a born again musician."

Remarkably, these ups and downs are reflected in many of the lyrics of her music. Her life and her music are inseparable. What could it all mean?

For one artist to remain at the centre stage of South African popular music for sixteen years is a phenomenon that necessarily has to resonate with special meaning for the times. Allister Sparks makes an interesting observation of crowds at political rallies in the eighties:
Here the anonymous individuals of a humiliated community seemed to draw strength from the crowd, gaining from it the larger identity of the occasions and an affirmation of their human worth. Their daily lives might seem meaningless, but here on these occasions the world turned out, with its reporters and its television cameras, to tell them it was not so, that their lives mattered, that humanity cared, that their cause was just; and when they clenched their fists and chanted their defiant slogans, they could feel that they were proclaiming their equality and that their strength of spirit could overwhelm the guns and armoured vehicles waiting outside. (Allister Sparks. The Mind of South Africa: The story of the Rise and Fall of Apartheid. (London: Heinemann, 1990). P. 341.)

Similarly, in the apparent futility of daily life under oppression, Brenda seems to succeed in giving meaning to the daily details of life by affirming them in song. When her audiences recognise those social facts, and sing along, imprinting them anew in their minds, and dancing to the rhythms that carry the picture or message-bearing words, they participate in a vital process of self-authentication and regeneration.

"Zimb' izindaba ..." Begins the song "Kuyoze Kuyovalwa" in the CD "Abantu Bayakhuluma. " Mina Ngihamba no- Kuyoze ku clozwe Izikhiye zilahleke, bese bayavula vele kuyoze kuyo valwa-ke
Sihamba ngo (Allister Sparks. The Mind of South Africa: The story of the Rise and Fall of Apartheid. (London: Heinemann, 1990). P. 341.

Thina siyalala la
Thina siyahlala la

We're not leaving this party. We'll be here until daybreak. They may close and lose the keys, but will surely open again until daybreak. This mock defiance of hosts is partly a result of known characters who never take hints, and over stay their welcome. But is also an expression of pure pleasure: just how fun it is at the party. However, hosts must be warned, the partygoers may just stay until daybreak. The popular format of 6pm to 6am festivals (dusk to dawn) replays this potentially anarchic social game at an immensely grand scale.

"Lyrically, Fassi's (sic) songs are a mish-mash of the latest township lingo, sometimes barely comprehensible even to locals, but they stick in the minds of her listeners", (Kim Burton (ed.). WorldMusic (The Rough Guide). (London: The Rough Guides, 1994) says a report on Brenda Fassie "World Music: The Rough Guide". "Mish-mash" suggests confusion. Not necessarily. What Brenda does, and this seems a part an ingrained pattern of behaviour, as we shall see later, is bring together unusual, apparent unconnected juxtapositions that make sense only in context. For example, the bumper sticker on her car reads: HULLO BU-BYE KOKO COME IN (Vrye Weekblad. Desember/Januarie 1993)

This may look like incomprehensible "mish-mash" to the socially uninitiated. But it is a free spirit expression of the social energy in the endless comings and goings in the township, the meetings and the partings, and the opening and the closing of doors. It is a dramatic validation of common experience.

Perhaps the most controversial act of validation is Brenda's outspokenness on the taboo subject of sex. The problem, for society, comes precisely at the point where, for Brenda Fassie, the wall between the private and the' public totally collapses. What could be more outrageous in public, coming from a popular star than: "Some men cry... (8 Abantu Bayakhuluma. CDBREN (WL) 94 CCP 1994.)

Because I sing... I sing when I make love... I sing for them." This obliteration of the divide between the private and the public is at the bottom of her verbal ungovernability. Indeed, if the state is to be rendered ungovernable, and if that ungovernability IS a factor of not only of the intention to be free, but also that the act of rendering the state ungovernable is itself an act of freedom, then Brenda's voice enters the public arena as ungovernable, the ultimate expression of personal freedom. While she may shock, she is at the same time admired, not for her courage (for this is not courage at play), but for being representative of the value of expressiveness. She made real in the personal dimension, the political quest for an abstract notion of freedom. She brought the experience of freedom intimately close.

........ continues >>>>

|THINKING OF BRENDA - ?Njabulo Ndebele 2000 - END OF PART ONE |
for purposes of this posting on www.music.org.za, the text has been divided into two parts.


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