Jazz legend Thandi Klaasen (86) passed away on Sunday, January 15. Klaasen was one of a few still-living jazz legends from the 1960s jazz era. Klassen was born in 1931 and grew up in the incomparable Sophiatown. Of course, Sophiatown was a cultural hub bubbling with the arts. It was a haven for writers, musicians and overall politically aware and active people living full lives on apartheid South Africa’s door step. It seemed an inevitable that she would end up in the arts because the environment enabled it.
Her peers were such iconic jazz figures as Dorothy Masuka, Dolly Rathebe, Miriam Makeba and Sophie Mgcina. At a time that was marked by all-male, or male-led groups such as The Manhattan Brothers, Klaasen formed a quartet called The Quad Sisters. They became the first all-woman group to make a recording in South Africa at the time and led to a trend of all-female bands. She was part of Todd Matshikiza’s landmark musical, King Kong, when it debuted in 1959. When the play made its international debut in London’s West End I 1961, Klaasen was among the stars who travelled outside apartheid South Africa to perform.
Over her decades-long career, Klaasen received numerous awards including a Woman of Distinction honour from a Canadian arts organisation and a Lifetime achievement award from SAMA in 2006. Also in 2006, Klaasen, along with her music contemporaries, Abigail Kubeka and Dorothy Masuka, won The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for her “excellent achievement in and contribution to the art of music.”
In her late teens, her growing singing career was dealt a blow after Klaasen suffered a tragedy. Klaasen was burnt after someone she considered a friend attacked her with an acid concoction. She was hospitalised for nearly a year, undergoing a long healing process. Much of her face was scarred as a result. This did not break her sprit or desire to pursue her music career. Klaasen often spoke about the vicious attack on her and the strength it took her to carry on performing.
While abroad, Klaasen collaborated and shared stages with such international artists as Roberta Flack, Ray Charles, Eartha Kitt and Patti Labelle. She was often referred to as anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela’s favourite singer. She performed at the late stateman’s third wedding, his 80th birthday and at his memorial service.
In December 2016, Klaasen was admitted to hospital after suffering a stroke. It was revealed that he had also been battling pancreatic cancer.
She is survived by her daughter, musician Lorraine Klaasen.