Traditional South African Mbaqanga music will be flowing out of the Art Gallery of Hamilton on Friday February 22. Montreal based South African singer, Lorraine Klaasen, will be honouring one of South Africa’s most famous singers, Miriam Makeba, by singing her classic songs for the night. Lorraine Klaasen is one of the most high profile acts participating in the Roots en Route festival organized by Matapa, an organization that celebrates diversity in the Hamilton/Burlington area. Klaasen will be in Hamilton as a part of their Black History Month celebrations.
Miriam Makeba was nicknamed Mama Africa by those who she spoke for. During the apartheid in South Africa, it was her voice that brought the struggle of the country’s black majority to North America and the world. From 1948–1991, black South Africans were forced to live in segregation from whites. They suffered greatly under the rule of Afrikaners who were the white minority in the country. The government instituted laws that supported white supremacy. Afrikaners enjoyed privileges and lifestyles that were far superior to that of the black natives who did not even have the right to vote.
Makeba’s music was well known in her country before she moved to the U.S. in 1959. While in America, she had the support of superstar singer Harry Belafonte. She soon released her first album which received widespread media attention making her one of the most famous South Africans. During the 1960’s, she spoke at the United Nations on the plight of her people. Because of this, the South African government revoked her citizenship. During her exile, Makeba continued to make music, even winning a Grammy award but remained a vocal critic of the racial segregation instituted in her country. Her music and her story were inspiration over the years for people that were still suffering under apartheid rule. Just months after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Miriam Makeba was allowed to go back to her homeland for the first time in 30 years.
Lorraine Klaasen grew up being deeply influenced by the music of Miriam Makeba and others. She was born in South Africa straight into the music business. Her mother Thandi Klaasen is a famous singer in her own right and is reportedly one of Nelson Mandela’s favourites. “He (Mandela) remembers my mum from those days of the fifties so when he got out of prison... he requested [her].” Thandi was invited to Mandela’s home to receive an award in 2007.
Lorraine grew up watching her mother perform and always knew that she would follow in her footsteps. Although she saw her mother’s success, she also saw the sacrifices she had to make. “I saw the hard work that most people didn’t see... during those days of apartheid, they would have to go [through] the back room. It was humiliating. You knew the white people. You could host for them but afterwards you had to go out through the back rooms... so I remember that part. You know, you dress so beautifully and you have to go through the kitchen. Why can’t you go through the front door? But I didn’t understand it because when you grow up with the apartheid system, you just think that’s just how things were.”
Being brought up in the music industry, Lorraine met many of musicians including the late, great Mama Africa. “I call her auntie Miriam Makeba because she knew me since I was a little girl.” Miriam was banned from South Africa when Lorraine was still very young but she always remembered her mother, Thandi Klaasen, very well. “When I saw her, we performed together in Holland in 1987, a long time ago. I remember she said to me, ‘oh my goodness! You’re a photograph. You look exactly like your mum. You’re a photocopy of your mum.’” When Lorraine expressed her desire to one day record some of her favourite of Makeba’s songs, Miriam gave Lorraine her blessing. “...she said, ‘you know baby, just do it your way. Don’t try to do it my way, do it your way.’ ” Lorraine has finally been able to achieve her lifelong dream. Her latest album is called Tribute to Miriam Makeba.
“It’s really rendering homage to her... In a sense, keeping my word... I just wish I could have done this while she was still alive.”
Lorraine is acutely aware that life is fragile and unpredictable. Over the years she has learned to celebrate life before it is too late. Lorraine saw her mother’s career almost destroyed. During her 40’s, Thandi Klaasen was attacked by someone who threw acid in her face scarring her for the rest of her life. Although Lorraine did not go into many details she said, “It was pure jealousy. A very best friend of hers did that to her. So my mum often tells me, ‘you don’t have to look far for people who want to hurt you.’” Instead of seeing her mother hide herself away from the public after being victimized in such a cruel way, she saw a woman who rose above her circumstances. “I think for me it’s my mum’s strength and determination and endurance that played a major role in how I view things and do things in my life.” During our interview, she informed me that the day before she had just arrived back to Canada from South Africa. She had gone back to celebrate her mother’s 80th birthday. Celebrating the people that mean the most to her is a high priority for Lorraine. “We can’t procrastinate. We always think we have tomorrow.”
Her mother Thandi has played such a major role in her career. She taught her daughter to do something with her life that she truly loves. “She has a great passion for what she does and I always remember my mum [saying], ‘you got to enjoy what you do. You got to have passion... respect your work, it’s your art.’ ”
When it comes to her own music, Klaasen calls it “Mixed Masala. You know when you’re cooking, there’s different ingredients that you put in that makes the food flavour and nice and spicy and interesting? It’s all that mixture. Although the biggest flavour, the strongest will always be South African Mbaqanga music. But always making sure that once in a while I have all these little other ingredients in there to make it very palatable.” Klassen credits Montreal’s mix of cultures as being a major influence on her own sound. “Montreal with the diverse of so many different cultures... we have Haitians, people from the Caribbean, it’s a very small cosmopolitan intercultural community that I live... It’s really contributed tremendously to my work.”
Lorraine Klaasen grew up in South African but has lived in Canada for most of her adult life. She settled in Montreal over 30 years ago and has raised her own children there. She says that after being here for so many years, her heart is truly divided. “When I’m in Canada I would say I want to go home meaning South Africa but when I am in South Africa I say I want to go home meaning Canada. I find that it is so hard to choose.”
Lorraine expressed her excitement in having the opportunity to bring the Mbaqanga sound to Hamilton. Although she is performing for Black History Month, she wants to show her audience that this type of music is not to only be celebrated one month a year. “For me right now its black history month but every day for me, every time I perform it’s a black history month because every time I perform I tell my stories.”. V
February 22, 8pm
General Admission $25
ART GALLERY OF HAMILTON
123 King Street West, Hamilton
or 905-527-6610, ext. 232