Legendary singer Abigail Kubeka features in the second episode of Brand South Africa’s Play Your Part TV series, to air on SABC2 on Sunday 22 June at 9pm.
“When I think about uTata and all that he has given us I know we will never see another man like him. He had a heart of hearts,” Abigail Kubeka says. (Image: Abigail Kubeka)
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You can hear Abigail Kubeka running through scales as she warms up her voice. From somewhere in her Soweto home, you hear the opening notes of Yini Madoda, a favourite song about the indomitable spirit of rural women. Her voice is warm, playful and clear, as if washed by angels. It’s still tinged with jazzy inflections, as it was four decades ago, when she first sang the song with the legendary Skylarks.
With Kubeka’s jazzy voice as the soundtrack, the 20-minute wait is a joy. She sashays into the room, trailing diktats for tea to an unseen maid. Music has been good to Kubeka, who still performs today. It has built her home, a few blocks away from Vilakazi Street in Soweto, and allowed her the opportunity to travel the world. She has performed on stages in the US and for the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
In a legendary career, the performances most meaningful to her were the intimate evenings she spent singing to an intimate audience in a home in Houghton, Johannesburg: Kubeka, Thandie Claasen and Dorothy Masuka were often guests at Nelson Mandela’s private birthday dinners.
“We talked about music, he loved mbaquanga music. It was a change from the political discussions he had every day. Towards the end of dinner, he would got really quiet and say, ‘It’s a pity that Miriam [Makeba] and Dolly [Rathebe] could not be here’. That was such a special moment for me.”
Kubeka’s smile warms her voice, staring off into space remembering the evenings. She begins talking about Mandela’s smile, his warmth. And his mischievous expectation of his guests. “He would begin by saying in his gentlemanly manner, ‘Ladies’. You would turn all your attention to him waiting for some pearl of wisdom. Then he would say, ‘You know what I have not heard in a long time…’, then we would sing for him.”
A heavenly choir: Kubeka, Thandi Klaasen and Dorothy Masuka were birthday guests at Mandela’s Houghton home. (Image: Abigail Kubeka)
Kubeka first met Mandela as a 16-year-old member of the Skylarks and a protégé of the legendary Miriam Makeba. She remembers the lawyer he was, the well-dressed gentleman, the music fan – not the political firebrand he was. “When you’re young notice things without taking note of everything,” she says.
The songbird was among Mandela’s first visitors when he returned to his home on Vilakazi Street. Kubeka remembers the warmth of his smile when he laid eyes on her. As she talks about those early days before he was claimed by the world as an icon, her voice cracks. “He asked about Dolly and Miriam. Even in prison, he followed our music. He said we spoke to people through our music.”
When she could, she would join Mandela on his early-morning walks. They would chat about people in the music business, some of whom she had forgotten. The walks were long and often interrupted. Mandela would stop at neighbour’s gates and reminisce with families he had last seen 30 years before. “He would always say, ‘I am back amongst you’, and it was true.”
Kubeka says she is glad that Mandela is at peace now. When she thinks of him she remembers the man who hugged her warmly on his triumphant return to Soweto. The man who lingered alone with his God is not the man she knew and loved. “Forever I will remember him saying, ‘Oooh Abigail’ whenever we sang one of his personal favourites.”