Legendary South African jazz singer Thandi Klaasen died on 15 January 2017 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. The news was announced by her daughter, jazz singer Lorraine Klaasen, who lives in Canada.
As one of the country’s foremost singers, Klaasen was comfortable in a number of genres, from big band and intimate songbird jazz to more traditional as well as modern African music.
She was best known for her breakout role in the Sophiatown musical King Kong, performing alongside other South African music legends such as Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and Kippie Moeketsi. Klaasen was in the original South African production and reprised her role in the hugely popular London West End production in 1961.
Growing up the Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown, she was the daughter of a shoemaker and a domestic worker. As a child, she sang and danced in various church choirs; later – in the 1950s – becoming a street performer. As a teenager, Klaasen was attacked with acid, leaving her with permanent facial scarring.
While the injury severely affected her singing voice, it did not stop her from achieving her dream of becoming a professional singer. Instead, she used it as a positive and developed her distinctive world-worn rasp. Despite her circumstances, she persevered in forging a remarkable career as a singer. Speaking of that time, Klaasen recalled: “Even if people in the street make you feel like you have leprosy or like you’re dirty… you must be strong.”
Beginning her professional singing career with a number of local jazz groups, Klaasen met King Kong creator Todd Matshikiza when she was with the Harlem Swingsters.
She performed regularly with other jazz greats of the era, including Dolly Rathebe, Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuku and Sophie Mgcina. Following the King Kong years, Klaasen went on to perform around the world for more than 40 years, alongside top international artists such as Roberta Flack and Patti Labelle.
On news of her death, South African Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa tweeted: “We are saddened to learn that jazz legend Thandi Klaasen has passed on. (She) will be remembered for her indomitable spirit, who succeeded against all odds… her silky smooth voice serenaded audiences the world over. How much richer we are having heard her sing. How much she touched our spirits and made us complete beings in a world in which things were falling apart.”
For “her excellent achievement in and contribution to the art of music”, Klaasen was awarded South Africa’s Order of the Baobab (Gold) in 2006. She also won a number of South African music awards and lifetime achievement accolades throughout her career, including the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Lifetime Achievement award in 2013 and an MTN South African Music Award. She also received a Woman of Distinction award from the Canadian government in 1999 for her tireless dedication to the anti-apartheid struggle.
Klaasen married, became a mother and lived in Canada for most of the 1970s and 1980s; however, in 1994 she returned to live and perform in South Africa permanently, reliving her humble beginnings in her beloved Sophiatown.
Her life and work was an inspiring mix of determination, joy and beauty, rising above limitation and setback to beat the odds and reach the top of her art.
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