Brenda Fassie, alcohol and my sister’s fading youth

I like Bongani Madondo’s I’m Not Your Weekend Special book. In it, writers recall their encounters with Brenda Fassie and/or her music. Here’s a piece I wrote following the same editorial concept.

I don’t remember a time when her music wasn’t part of my life. I don’t remember not knowing “Too Late For Mama”, “Black President”, “Ngek’ung’confirme” and of course “Weekend Special”.

She has always been there, through my childhood and my teens. She still lives, in my adulthood — through reflective think pieces, musicians who claim to be the next her, and the mp3 files on my hard drive. Brenda Fassie, just like Michael Jackson, was more than a great musician, but a needed example of living one’s dream and going against convention.

But never was she as there as the time when she released “Vul’Indlela”. My mother was humming it as she paced about the kitchen. At school, it, of course being “Vul’Indlela”, was in every girl’s songbook. The radio was abusing it. And it was blowing up every bar and shebeen speaker my brother and his squad managed to bully the security guard to allow me into.

No one loved “Vul’Indlela” like my sister Q and her squad. She was enjoying what I, in retrospect, realise were her last days of youth. I was about 11 while she was in her late 20s. She was dating an old, light-skinned man who drove a light-brown Ford Sierra. His first-born daughter was almost my sister’s age. I don’t remember seeing him sober, not even once. His eyes were always half-open; his lips an unhealthy red, damp from saliva. He staggered every time he came out of his car to hug my sister good-bye when he brought her home. He always gave her a half-hug, as his Amstel dumpie was always in the way.

He fetched her almost every evening. Where they went, I don’t know. On some nights, Q would take her friends with. The whole squad, each had a kid whom they left in the custody of their mothers while they went about enjoying their youth.

“Vul’Indlela” was their jam. The song had two versions; it was not clear which one was the remix. The one that starts with Brenda crooning was their favourite. It started with mellow keys and then morphed into everything the other one was. They called it “leyas’emshadweni”: the wedding version. They screamed and giggled a lot, filled to the brim with the youth age was slowly robbing them of. They were a noisy bunch.

In the dead hours of the night, her boyfriend’s Sierra’s engine would kill the dead silence of the rural village I grew up in. The car’s headlights would penetrate through my curtains, and bounce on my small bedroom’s wall, as it parked by the gate. My sister would get out after a few minutes, with a few cans of Hunter’s Gold (I think) in her hand.

She had her own key to the front door, so she would let herself in without bothering anyone. I would hear her dragging her feet in the passage to her bedroom where, upon entering, she would play Brenda’s Memeza album as loud as her small cassette player would allow. The tape was arranged such that when the wedding version of “Vul’Indlela” faded, the other version begun on the other side. So she would flip the tape, and play that version. She would repeat the process until she fell asleep, or until my mother couldn’t take it anymore. My mother would bang on Q’s door and shout, “Can we sleep, please? It’s 2 in the morning!”

On some nights, my brother and I would steal my sister’s Brenda Fassie tape when she was away with her boyfriend and/or friends. We would play it on my brother’s Omega cassette player, which used to be my late father’s. My sister, when she was drunk, would sometimes claim that that Omega was hers. She also claimed that she was heir to the family wealth, and that everything, including our house, belonged to her. We would run to my sister’s room to return her tape when we saw lights on my brother’s bedroom wall.

Me and my brother’s favourite song on Memeza was “Sum’bulala”. My brother loved the song mostly because of the Black Mambazo feature. He has always been a fan. It reminded him of our father, who used to be a big fan. I loved it because he did. The way he spoke about the song — he liked the anti-murder message on it, and the Mambazo chants and antics which he imagined and, on happy days, emulated, much to my amusement.

I get it now.

A few years down the line, we read a story on Drum magazine about how Brenda’s vocal cords were damaged by drugs. She couldn’t sing anymore and on some songs the gospel singer Deborah Frazer was doing some of the singing, so went the story. We picked that up on “Sum’bulala” — it was definitely Deborah singing on there.

Brenda, since she showed up in the 80s, had never been a stranger to controversy. I remember how I would stare at a cover of either a Pace magazine (or was it Bona?) — long before “Vul’Indlela” was released. Brenda was rolling her eyes, posing with a sneer fraught with an obnoxious attitude. Her eyes were blood-red. She smoked weed, my brother would tell me every time I asked what was wrong with the lady’s eyes. She was a woman who smoked. A bad woman. I only knew like, two or three women who smoked in real life, and they were all immoral. They were either whores or drunkards, the type of woman you don’t want to bring home to mama. Especially in rural Swaziland.

The way Brenda conducted herself is, apart from her music, why she is still a hot topic in blog posts. Women, who are facing the same set of prejudices she was facing, are musing about how badass it was of her to exist as seamlessly as she did in a society that was denigrating her for exercising what we all long for — freedom. Brenda lived. She didn’t give a flying fuck what anyone thought. If that’s not easy to pull off in 2016, it was harder in her days.

The news was on everyone’s lips. On the paper, the radio, and probably television (we didn’t own a TV set at the time). Brenda had been rushed to hospital, and was in critical condition. She would fall into a coma for two weeks before her demise. She had overdosed on drugs.

One radio presenter — Magalela “The Senior Citizen” Mtshali — got it all wrong. I was home on that day. Brenda was late, he announced to the nation. He played a tribute to the pop idol — a selection of her hits, followed by somber gospel tunes, as was tradition on Swazi radio when a musician died (not sure if it still is).

Gogo on the Wyless, a radio critic column in the weekend newspaper The Swazi News, wasn’t going to let it slide. Gogo poked fun at the poor man for his mistake. It was a tragic comedy, one that a lot of us laughed at.

When Brenda finally died, The Senior Citizen was quiet. He had somehow predicted her death — though unwillingly. He wasn’t the only one who had nothing to say about it. I didn’t cry, but I knew December would never be the same without a Brenda hit.