Last Wordsby Anya Klaassen / 25.03.2011
Syd Kitchen died this week. A legend in the South African folk community, and far more respected in some circles abroad than he was at home, many people outside KwaZulu-Natal don’t know who he is. That’s sad. But as people tend to do when someone dies, a lot of people are saying a lot of things about Syd right now. As a journalist, your job is to sum up a person’s life in a single trite sound bite, and you never quite manage to do it.
Syd was known for his liberal borrowing of elements of Zulu music to create a sound that was harder to define. That combined with strong opinions and a lifetime struggle with drugs added up to a person that, having met, you never forgot. He died losing a battle with cancer but winning at life as he was clean and sober, happily married, and the star of the documentary Fool in a Bubble.
I had the privilege of interviewing him a few years ago for no reason whatsoever: he had no album to plug, and I wasn’t even a journalist yet. But I felt it right, that in death as in life, the King of Umbilonia should have the last word. Because Syd was worth knowing for his handicaps as well as his genius; they sometimes blurred together. One was an unwavering devotion to music, and the other a complete inability to see boundaries. You tell me which was which.
Syd Kitchen: Durban is a particularly interesting place because it converges African Zulu, Indian, and Afrikaans, and like English music. Which they don’t in Bloemfontein, or they don’t in Pretoria…there’s no Zulus in Pretoria. There’s no Indians in Pretoria. For me living in Durban, I have to say that Indian, African, Aglo-Saxon music has been my kind of awakening, my conduit that woke me up.
Essentially, radio was my big thing. And the guys on the street going past after they finished working in the garden, because there was nowhere else for them to go, they’d walk around the streets playing the radio. And it was just so amazing, and that’s one thing I miss. I miss that stuff because now they’re all yuppies and we can call them buppies: black yuppies. Buppies! It’s terrible that there’s no more music in the streets.
You can’t say that you’ve grown up in Dallas, Texas and you’re into Zulu music. How can you say that? Unless your father was into Zulu music and that’s all he fed you, so that all you had from when you were a baby was Zulu music even though you were in Dallas. But otherwise, you can say that in Dallas you have that whole Texas swing, Texas blues, Texas rock—all that stuff is going to influence the way you are as a musician living in Texas.
The biggest compliment of my life was “you’re a white man with a black man’s heart.” Some people say I shouldn’t play it, but for me it’s about regionality. I think the people who live in Texas won’t have a remote interest in music unless they’re exposed to it—it’s just way beyond them, just like latin music is way beyond me. It’s cool, I can dance to it, I can pump to it, or whatever it is I have to do to it…but it’s way beyond me, because it’s not part of my fibre, it’s not part of my regionality.
Regionality isn’t part of race, though. This block of flats now, there’s blacks, whites, coloureds, Indians in this block. I don’t see myself as being part of some race thing.
Like the hosepipe in Africa’s Not for Sissies. Zulus have a culture of hose-pipe flute. It’s basically a length of hose-pipe that’s cut and blown into. I suppose it’s much like kwela, how that started was that young black dudes in the streets of Johannesburg saw guys playing saxophones, but they didn’t have the money to play sax so they bought these little pennywhistles and they started to emulate the saxophone. So I think the hose-pipe flute was originally encountered in terms of imitating something else, whatever that was. It’s just a form of expression.
What I was trying to say with that song… I wasn’t complaining about people who’d left, I was complaining about people who stayed and complained—people who stay and moan about how bad things are, y’know, but they don’t go, they don’t do anything. The people who’ve left—that’s cool, that’s their prerogative. It’s their whole thing—my brother’s left. I don’t have a problem with anyone, but it’s the people who stay and make life a misery for the rest of us by virtue of their attitude – those are the people who are either economically enslaved here, so they’re millionaires here, but if they go to London they’re fuck-all.
If you think like ‘Well I don’t know about you/but when I read the news/I get desensitized/I hear sirens in the night/they bring me fear and fright/they leave me traumatized” So those are conditions that we live in. I mean, it’s a trade-off. We had an option: we could either have a bloodbath, and they’d fucking take everything; or we can have this seeping violence that’s happening. But that, I think, for me is a small pay-off. I would rather have that violence than the bloodbath.
Mandela made me realise that it’s possible: I can live here. That only if they’re marching out in this street with millions of throngs shouting ‘we’re gonna kill Syd Kitchen’ then I would run. Otherwise, I’m staying here. I’m going nowhere. I don’t care if the rand crashes, if the Gautrain crashes right up the ass of the Pretoria train… I don’t give a shit, bru! I’m staying here!