Must-read: This biography of South Africa’s legendary ‘Afro-saxon’ muso, Syd Kitchen

You may not know of him, but everyone from Durban, like me, does. Thankfully, a just-published biography by Donvé Lee introduces readers to the poetic misfit who mentored many musicians.

mural-syd

A mural of Syd, which was at Durban’s old Corner Cafe

When I heard that a biography of Syd Kitchen was being published,  I immediately marked it as a must-read. I’d seen him perform at Splashy Fen, where he played every year from its start before he died, and had seen him around. With his long hair, floppy hat and bare feet, he looked the quintessential hippie muso − no doubt with plenty stories to tell.

Here’s the book’s blurb:

“Skollie, saint, scholar, hippest of hippies, imperfect musician with a perfect imagination, Syd Kitchen was, like all great artists, born to enrich his art and not himself. Plagued by drugs, alcohol and depression, too much of an outlaw to be embraced by record companies, he frequently sold his furniture to cover production costs of his albums, seduced fans at concerts and music festivals worldwide with his dazzling ‘Afro-Saxon’ mix of folk, jazz, blues and rock interspersed with marvellously irreverent banter, and finally became the subject of several compelling documentaries, one of which −‘Fool in a Bubble’ − premiered in New York in 2010.”

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The book’s title is a reference to Syd’s poetry collection of the same name, published in 1974. I have a signed copy – I pounced on it when I spotted it at the Milnerton Flea Market several years ago. See below … I wonder who the mysterious Michelle was?

 

Syd Kitchen poetry book

“Michelle, Thanks for the past help regardless how small. You’re a pretty lady. Luv on ya. Syd”

In the foreword, the late veteran journo Owen Coetzer, who helped run the Durban Folk Club back then, wrote:

“Syd Kitchen is the poet. The seeker. His touch is masterful. His omni-luminescent eyes see it all. His words tell the rest. But more important, he is a musician in the tradition of the ancients – the storyteller who journeyed from land to land singing of the past, the present and the future. The minstrel who laboured for love, and who found peace and satisfaction in the giving of himself and his art.”

When Syd passed away early in 2011, many obituaries followed. In one of them, Owen’s daughter Diane, a music journalist, shares her childhood memories of Syd, and laments the fact that he never received proper recognition, both when alive and at his death.

“To a child, he was a fascinating creature: His hair was long, he sometimes struggled to talk through a stutter, he wore outlandish clothes and, even for children used to being around musicians, Syd seemed to us to carry with him something magical …”

“[His] remarkable 40-year music career, filled with live gigs, songwriting, and albums […] simply never benefited from the mainstream business – not just the labels that never signed him, but retail outlets that never stocked his records and radio that never played his songs […] And, looking at the artists who’ve emerged from under his wing in KwaZulu-Natal especially, it’s easy to see where Syd’s musical legacy will reside, outside of his recordings and songs.”

This is where the book comes in. At the launch at the Book Lounge, we were treated to a performance of Syd’s song Walking, by two muso friends of his. Then Donvé was interviewed by Stephen Segerman, one of the men who ensured ‘Sugar Man’, the musician Rodriguez, finally got his story told.

Donvé spoke of the research she did to compile the book – interviewing over 120 people, pouring over Syd’s lyrics and letters to an old girlfriend etc. – and how she tried to make Syd’s voice prominent. In the “magical process of giving over to his voice,” she admitted the boundaries at times blurred: Syd was under her skin, in her head.

donve-lee

The biographer

This seems appropriate, given that Syd once asked her to write a book on him. In response to an audience member’s question about the ethics of creating Syd’s ‘voice’, Donvé said the book is “artistically true, not literally so. I put words into his mouth, but they’re what he could’ve or would’ve said … I think he would approve.” At this point, Syd’s daughter, Sev (I think), nodded from her front-row seat.

The biographer had the full support of Syd’s family, and she didn’t shy away from depicting the good, the bad, the ugly. “I had to make it honest,” she explained. And “in the darkness, beauty has its depth”.

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Syd’s lack of acclaim and recognition was mentioned, as was a high point in his musical career: Travelling to Scotland to be one of the featured artists (along with the likes of The Cure’s Robert Smith, Beck, Morcheeba, Snow Patrol and Paolo Nutini) on a tribute album to the late John Martyn, who was a Syd Kitchen fan.

It’s hoped that the book will revive interest in Syd’s music, and apparently the Kitchen family will soon be in talks with Robin Auld to see what can be done about, perhaps, getting his music reissued.

For now, you can get the book at all major SA bookstores and online. Or follow the links below to learn a little more about the man and his music.

Here’s a clip of Syd with Die Antwoord.

Here’s the trailer for the documentary on him, called Fool in a Bubble.

You can listen to the MixCloud tribute to him by Mabu Vinyl (called ‘The last of the bohemians’) here, and there’s also plenty more to read on him here.

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I’ll leave you with a short but sweet poem, from page 15 of Scars That Shine (1974).

SPOKE THE WIND
By Syd Kitchen

You have your eyes
as green as the sea,
you have Life
you have Love
you have Word
speared by me.
What more could your soul
set its sights on to be,
but a creature so fair,
so lost,
yet so free?

 

Whale song: An evening with The Story Club, Cape Town

whales cape

Last month, I finally got to one of the storytelling gatherings hosted by The Story Club, Cape Town, every month.

My friend Lisa Cohen, a talented storyteller with just the warmest heart, is one of the organisers. When she sent me the flyer for the February event − Whale Song, with Sue Hollingsworth, from the International School of Storytelling in the UK (currently hosting a storytelling workshop here in South Africa) – I knew I had to go.

whale flyer

Lisa is a “co-dreaming” friend, so when she asked: “Have you also been dreaming of the sea and its creatures lately?” I wasn’t surprised that the answer was YES. Like Lisa, I’ve been flooded with images of the sea during dream-time of late.

Whales and the sea call me strongly, especially since moving to the Cape. Here, I feel closer to whales than ever before. Every year, Southern Right whales migrate here to calve and nurse their young, so whale-watching is a popular tourist attraction. I’ve seen many whales here; yet each time is an awe-filled delight.

The intimate monthly Story Club events work like this: After an open-mic session, in which anyone can get up and tell a story, even in another mother tongue (with a quick synopsis in English), a guest storyteller takes to the “stage”.

The setting is usually St Mark’s Anglican Church in District Six, a church with a spine-tinglingly significant history. Read the history below, from their website:

There is a stone church on a hill in Cape Town that shines like a beacon flame in our city’s history. It was built in 1867 in District Six and has served the Anglicans of that community since then to the present day.

You may ask how that can be when, between 1969 and 1984, some 40 000 District Six residents were evicted by the Group Areas Act, and relocated in houses scattered all over the Cape Flats, their homes demolished.

Faced with the prospect of their church being de-consecrated, the St Mark’s congregation firmly rejected the Government’s offer to rebuild the church, stone for stone – an exact replica – in Athlone, and returned the two million rand compensation cheque. At the same time they decided that, regardless of distance, “they would, as far as possible, continue as before.” And so they did. Which is why, each Sunday, 30 years on, cars travel to attend the 9 0’Clock service from as far afield as Kuil’s River and Bellville, Mitchell’s Plain and Athlone, even Strandfontein – to honour their undertaking, and that of their parents.

In St Mark’s District Six the spirit of the Community lives on, and is now known throughout the world. Like the District Six Museum in Caledon Street, it will become a pilgrimage for all who truly love Cape Town.

The section they host The Story Club in is a small Heidi-like wooden enclave. It’s set up with candles, flowers and carpets, and with tea-time at interval, it’s all rather cosy.

During the open-mic session, a lively American guy named Greg, a former maths teacher now doing Sue’s “Storytelling in the community” course, told a funny old folk tale. Then a woman stood up to do an animated retelling of “Seal Skin, Soul Skin” by Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes. A young man told of a palace somewhere between Orania and Bagdad – in which we met an Afrikaans king and his right-hand man, Abdul, who had a brush with Mr Death in the market.

Next, veteran SA journalist Nancy Richards, who hosts the SAfm Literature show, stood up to tell an impromptu tale of a warm-hearted “salty sea dog” kind of man and his daughter. I’m familiar with her written and spoken voice from print and radio, but it was special to watch her tell a story in person – like sitting across a table from her, sharing yarns after a few glasses of something special. Her story ended with a great twist – the story she’d shared was actually true; about a moment she shared with her father when she was being courted by her husband.

Nancy+Richards+SAfm

After a fortifying cup of tea – taking in some fresh air, gazing at the green lights on the towers of the nearby mosque and the Church’s statue of Mary holding a cross while the evening clouds drifted by in that lazy, luring way that’s so hard to tear your eyes away from – Sue was up to regale us with her tales.

Sue Hollingsworth

Like most who are well travelled, Sue has many stories to tell. Hers took us across the oceans of the world – fitting for an evening devoted the sea’s largest sailors, whales.

We were taken to a Lamu café, where Sue first heard a man tell a whale story that she spent years tracking down. The creation story was the Swahili tale of Chua the whale, and how the low and high tide came to be. Clue: it was to do with the enormity of the whale’s grief.

Then, she told us of her first whale sighting, aboard a ship in the Galapagos islands.

From there we moved to NZ, to share a sighting of a whale she surreptitiously shared with a stranger.

Next, Sue brought the memories of her late husband into the rapt room. In 1976, he was part of the epic Clipper Race, aboard Great Britain II. On Christmas day, in icy Arctic waters, he saw his first whale. Reading from his diary entry, we heard how he felt forever changed by the moment he looked into the grand creature’s eye.

Sue then recited the most appropriate poem, by Mary Oliver.

Humpbacks
by Mary Oliver

There is, all around us,
this country
of original fire.
You know what I mean.
The sky, after all, stops at nothing, so something
has to be holding
our bodies
in its rich and timeless stables or else
we would fly away.

Off Stellwagen
off the Cape,
the humpbacks rise. Carrying their tonnage
of barnacles and joy
they leap through the water, they nuzzle back under it
like children
at play.

They sing, too.
And not for any reason
you can’t imagine.

Three of them
rise to the surface near the bow of the boat,
then dive
deeply, their huge scarred flukes
tipped to the air.
We wait, not knowing
just where it will happen; suddenly
they smash through the surface, someone begins
shouting for joy and you realize
it is yourself as they surge
upward and you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again
through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky–
like nothing you’ve ever imagined–
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping
out of darkness, pouring
heavenward, spinning; then

they crash back under those black silks
and we all fall back
together into that wet fire, you
know what I mean.

I know a captain who has seen them
playing with seaweed, swimming
through the green islands, tossing
the slippery branches into the air.
I know a whale that will come to the boat whenever
she can, and nudge it gently along the bow
with her long flipper.
I know several lives worth living.

Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,
its spirit
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones
toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire
where everything,
even the great whale,
throbs with song.

To end off, Sue sang a Pete Seeger song.

I left that night feeling content… comforted by human voices and expressive bodies that told tales full of images of kayaks and seers, of seal eyes and whale bellies, of dancing women and glittering stars…

TO LISTEN TO AND SHARE STORIES IN CAPE TOWN

Author and poet Sophie Hannah on poetry and dealing with the dark side

A couple years ago, when I was still working at O, The Oprah Magazine SA, I was lucky enough to interview the British psychological crime writer and poet Sophie Hannah about the books that made a difference to her life. In this transcript of unused material, she discusses writing about the dark side, and the poetry collection that made her decide to write poems about contemporary issues of the heart…

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I’ve always written both mystery fiction and poetry. The two were always side by side; I’d write poetry one day, fiction the next. But I got published as a poet first. And I think my poetry became mature much sooner than my fiction did. I mean, I remember a moment when I wrote a poem and thought, ‘That’s significantly better than anything I’ve written before. I’ve turned a corner.’ And from that moment onwards my poetry was on a certain level. At that point, my fiction was certainly nowhere near. Perhaps it’s because you need to write a certain number of bad poems and novels before you can write a good one. And it just takes so much longer to write a novel than a poem.

Wendy Cope is my favourite living poet. When I read her poetry for the first time, it really was a eureka moment, because I’d been studying poets like TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, DH Lawrence and Ted Hughes at university. They wrote serious nature poems or serious fragmented modernist poems. While I could see there was literary merit in it, I could also see that it was not the sort of thing I would ever read for fun. I would never take The Waste Land and lie on a beach reading it. Round the same time, my mum bought me Wendy Cope’s first collection, which was called Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, and was full of poems about relationships and the urban modern world. I mean, she writes about things like the difficulty of finding the perfect parking space and what to do if your boyfriend turns up without a bunch of flowers, saying he nearly bought you a bunch of flowers but decided not to… all these kind of things that I identified to and related to real life. All this other poetry I’d been reading didn’t have anything to do with my life, and it didn’t seem particularly enjoyable to read. So this collection made me realise that I could actually be a poet, writing the kinds of things I was actually interested in. Previously, I’d imagined that if I wanted to be a poet I would have to stop writing what I wanted to write about and instead write about windswept moors and dead sheep… that sort of thing.

At the same time, I discovered the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. She’s probably my favourite dead poet. I discovered her collected sonnets in the library, and it was a huge eye-opener. Her poems are all about love and broken hearts and dodgy boyfriends, basically. It felt such a coincidence, because I’d always written poems about my love life. The Edna St. Vincent Millay Collected Poems was a hugely significant book for me, and I kept it out from the uni library for the three years I was there. I just kept renewing it. Nobody wanted to take it out other than me because she wasn’t on the poetry course. She wasn’t considered high-brow enough, because she writes rhyming metrical poetry about love. At the time I studied, it was about the most unfashionable type of poem you could write. The sonnets are all 14 lines and they’re brilliant. There’s one that begins. “Time does not being relief; you all have lied…” Basically someone has told her that it she gives it time, she’ll get over a man. But she’s given it time, and has avoided all the places that remind her of him. Yet every time she goes to a place that has nothing to do with him, she stands there and thinks ‘This has nothing to do with him,’ and then thinks of him anyway. That’s paraphrasing, but it’s an absolutely brilliant poem. All her poems, although they’re written in slightly archaic language, are about emotions that everyone recognises. I think she’s much better than TS Eliot.

For me, a poem has to be musical. It has to work in the same way that a song works. Think of a piece of music: You hear the beginning and it creates that expectation, so you want to hear the rest. You get hooked at the level of melody or music. For me, the most important thing when it comes to writing a poem is ensuring there’s as much music in it as there can be. That’s where the bestselling album at any given time will sell millions of copies, because music is something you wouldn’t want to live without. Now, a lot more people will quite happily live without poetry, and I think that’s because so much poetry that is being written now doesn’t have that kind of melody. Rhyme is quite unfashionable, traditional metrical forms are unfashionable. But why can’t you use rhyme and metre in a non-old-fashioned way? I mean, you can. I do. Wendy Cope does, as well as a few others, so it can be done. But a lot of people think there’s that danger that a rhyming poem will be “Thou art my one true love, sent to me from heaven above.” They throw the baby out with the water, thinking that rhyme and metre have to mean that kind of archaic poetry. They don’t at all. So I tell new poets to try and make sure there is music within their poems. It’s quite hard to do, because poetry isn’t a musical form. How do you do it? Well, that’s the key. I can’t explain how you do, but if you try to do it…you will write a better poem.

A poem I wrote that I’m rather attached to is called ‘In the Chill’. It’s a love poem, and the rhyme and metre is very traditional. It’s made up of four verses of four lines, so 16 lines in total. It looks like an old-fashioned poem and it even uses seasonal imagery to talk about love blossoming and so on, but it is absolutely a contemporary poem and it expresses exactly what I wanted to express about my feelings at that time. It came out almost fully formed; I didn’t need to labour over it. And you don’t have to be a poetry person to love it.

There are some people, who, as long as their lives continue to be safe and happy and reasonably normal, just don’t think of the dark side, as if it doesn’t exist. But I’ve always been quite aware that all the good stuff in life is sitting very close to all the bad stuff. You can be sitting on the train and reading a novel on your way to meet friends for lunch, and next to you the person could have lost their whole family in a house fire. Or someone commits a crime and all the neighbours say, “Oh, he seemed so lovely and polite.” That dark side and the danger of people who aren’t quite who they seem to be is always there. My preferred response is to tackle the darkness in books, because I can’t pretend it’s not there. And once I’ve got it out of my system, then I can be jolly and happy. People are often surprised when they meet me: While my books are quite sinister and dark, I’m happy and chatty. They say, “How can you write those books?” A lot of it is a kind of therapy, a way of processing the negative things that comes up in life.

Funnily enough I don’t, I don’t creep myself when writing my novels. I find other people’s books scary, but with my own, I’m usually thinking, ‘Should I say silver or should I say silvery,’ in terms of the glint that is coming off the psychopath’s knife. If you’re focusing on that level, it’s hard to find it scary. Plus, you know you’re making it all up.

I never get scared when doing background research, either; it’s just so fascinating. For the scary parts of novels or films to be scary, you have to be caught up in the pretence; pretend that it’s all real. The creator of the work can never be caught up in that, because they are creating it.

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Sophie Hannah’s latest novel, The Narrow Bed (Hodder & Stoughton) was released in the UK this week.