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The Order of the Baobab in Gold
Awarded to Thandi Klaasen (1931 - ) for
Excellent achievement in and contribution to the art of music
Profile of Thandi Klaasen
Jazz legend Thandi Klaasen, née Mpambane, child of the Sophiatown that defied apartheid with its creative spirit, was born to a shoemaker father and domestic worker mother.
Growing up in Sophiatown at the cutting edge of black urban culture and resistance politics, so dynamically expressed in the music of the time, Klaasen already showed her talent for song and dance in primary school.
Inspired by lead singer Emily Kwenane and The Jazz Maniacs when the band visited her school, Klaasen began her career singing in local churches. Later, to compete with the popular local male band The Manhattan Brothers, Klaasen pioneered an all female quartet, The Quad Sisters.
While still in her teens, she was attacked with acid, resulting in a permanent disfigurement of her beautiful face. She spent close to a year in hospital and her singing career was nearly ended. But she courageously overcame the obstacles of the tragedy and persevered with her singing career.
Speaking of these early days many decades later she would say that 'although people in the street make you feel as if you have leprosy or you are dirty…you have to be strong'.
She then performed with The Gaieties and The Harlem Swingsters, but her career took off seriously when she performed with Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Dorothy Masuka and Sophie Mgcina – all legends of song.
By the early 1960s, Klaasen was a cast member of Todd Matshikiza's famous musical King Kong, which went on to tour internationally to great acclaim. Written by and set in the context of the 1956 Treason Trial and the dynamics of black urban South Africa at the time, it told the tragic story of the boxing champion Ezekiel 'King Kong' Dhlamini who committed suicide after he was jailed for the murder of his girlfriend.
Like many other black artists, Klaasen was forced to leave apartheid South Africa to transcend the obstacles to selfexpression. Abroad she campaigned against apartheid and continued to make music that spoke to the situation back home, and South Africa's yearning for freedom. As writer Gwen Ansell says, lives in exile were 'composed of memories and dreams – sometimes prophetic visions'.
In the course of a long career, Klaasen has shared the stage with many great performers, including Roberta Flack and Patti Labelle. Despite many years touring overseas, she remained true to her roots and humble beginnings in Kofifi (Sophiatown). Indeed Klaasen is well-known for her use of e'Kasi lingo, the colloquial language of her much loved Sophiatown.
Indeed for Klaasen, her inspiration and strength comes from her being a member of the oppressed who resisted police harassment and violence in the streets of Sophiatown – experiences she evokes hauntingly in her singing. It was this strength and inspiration which infused Thandi Klaasen's performances as an artist, and which had led photographer Paul Indigo to describe her as 'the very embodiment of the passion of an artist'.
Klaasen has received numerous awards garnered over more than 50 years of superlative performance, including The Woman of Distinction Award received in Canada (1999) for her outstanding role in the political struggle. Most recently, Klaasen was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 12th MTN South African Music Awards. Thandi Klaasen ranks as a defining symbol of South Africa's musical golden age, to which she contributed so much. She has also contributed lastingly to the creation of authentic modern South African cultural forms – against the designs of the apartheid master planners. She remains an icon and model for many other aspiring young South Africans.
Thandi Klaasen is retired but continues to perform when persuaded to come out of retirement, which isn't hard to do.