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Lorraine Klaasen: Learning from Miriam Makeba

Gigi Brooks interviews Soweto-born vocalist

Lorraine Klaasen

The classic sound of South African Township music is one of distinction and spiritual energy. The Soweto-Born vocalist, Lorraine Klaasen, has continued to uplift and expand this unique, electrifying music in her latest release on Justin Time Records, A Tribute To Miriam Makeba, nominated for the prestigious Juno Award in Canada, the country’s equivalent of a GRAMMY® in the world music category.

Klaasen is the daughter of world-renowned jazz vocalist, Thandi Klaasen, who shared a very close friendship with Miriam Makeba; and as a result of the bond between the two women, Lorraine Klaasen affectionately referred to her as “Auntie Miriam.”

I had the honor to speak with one of our most gifted South African singers of all time and learn of her life-long, cherished relationship with “Mama Africa.” In this interview, Klaasen shares her fondest memories and lessons learned with the late, great, Miriam Makeba.

Gigi Brooks: Your music and vocal ability are beyond words and I’d like to acknowledge your legacy over the years. I want to thank you for this new release, which pays homage to the late, great, Miriam Makeba: A Tribute to Miriam Makeba. We have loved her for many years and even though she is no longer with us, she still lives through your music.

Lorraine Klaasen: For me it was a great honor to have this music out there, because the younger generation has no idea who Miriam Makeba is; the older generation knows about her music. I feel like I was resurrecting her songs…bringing it back to life. At the same time it’s making sure her name remains up there, because she really did grace the past, you know? I want her music recognized. I just got nominated for another category, so it makes me very happy that I had this conversation with her in 1986 and even though it’s almost thirty years later…I kept my word. I am very pleased about their reaction.

Gigi: I am very pleased also and so very excited about this album! I was thrilled when I received it in the mail and I was like oh my goodness someone actually recorded this! You’re the daughter of South African jazz singer Thandi Klaasen, so there’s no need in me asking you where does your voice come from. Tell me what it’s like to be able to sing and perform in South Africa and bring the music to America. What is that transition like?

L.K.: Well, the transition is amazing! I mean it’s really a God given gift that my mother has passed on to me. Miriam Makeba and my mother were childhood friends and they went together in 1961 to England for the South African jazz musical, “King Kong.” Auntie Miriam spread her wings and stayed, but my mother went back to South Africa. I just think that performing in South Africa is one thing, but performing in America…the music of your country is amazing! I think the contribution of continuing the work that Auntie Miriam did in our language, even though people cannot understand the words they can sense the sentiment. For example, just on this CD, I had a huge catalog of music to choose from to record and it was difficult to choose what to perform, because when I was performing people would say to me you sound like the young Miriam Makeba; so for me it’s a great honor for me to do the music of my culture and people started reacting. Culture is an amazing thing no matter what the language, people in this generation love music and even though they don’t understand it, they know it’s good music.

G.B.: Yes, they do! You and your mother have been bringing this beautiful music and this beautiful culture that we here in America and even African Americans wouldn’t have known existed if it weren’t for what you’re doing. I’m so happy that you have recorded this album. When I was growing up we listened to Miriam Makeba and we listened to the recordings from South Africa by the South African artists of that time. We had no idea what impact it would have on our souls and in our lives just by being exposed to it, because we weren’t going to be able to go over to Africa to hear this music; so for you to come over here to bring this to us and for us to be able to hear it and share how beautiful the music really is and to bring the joy and the love that comes in the music is such a wonderful joy!

L.K.: Well you know my mother is one of the living legends and she is still standing. She’s called Nelson Mandela’s favorite jazz singer, because mother exuded that same joy when she walks on stage; she’s funny and has a great sense of humor, but she loves her art and she gets great respect and she walks away making everybody smile. When I was a little girl I used to say, ‘I when I grow up I want to be just like my mother’. I could see the joy that she was bringing to the people I would look to my left and to my right and everybody was just happy and I thought that’s what I would like to bring… that’s what I would like to do, she brought happiness to people… it’s a wonderful gift my mother gave me. You have to share your gift, you can’t hide it and put it under the table or closet. This music inspires everything is despite all the tragedy in the country especially in South Africa even at a funeral we sing… when babies are born, we sing…even when we get a divorce we sing. So with all of the things life brings to us, in our country, we celebrate with song regardless of what the situation is, so at the end of the day it is sort of a remarkable God given gift that I think black people in general have.

G.B.: I agree. It reminds me of the movie Sarafina, the scene in the movie where they are burying the children who were murdered by the police at the school during the time of Apartheid. Miriam Makeba was in the movie and she played the role of the mother of Sarafina. During the scene of the funeral for over twenty children, their schoolmates broke out in a beautiful, gut-wrenching song of victory and I just lost it. It was so moving.

L.K.: Oh, yes! The remarkable thing about singing in South Africa is that people will hear a song they have never heard before, but by the second verse we all start singing that song, that’s one of the unexplainable things…everyone else will just catch on like wildfire; at the end of the day everyone will sing the song that was started. African songs belong to African people. We never fight about who wrote or composed a song, it is a very spiritual music and when you come to my country when I perform, it’s never just about me and I always make sure that the audience participates, they always sing along in my shows. They are not there just to watch me perform, they know there’s a spirit and closeness of all of us being together…that’s what I share. I think that’s why I’m successful and I think that’s why people keep coming back to my concerts; and that’s why my shows are always sold out, because they’re participating and not just watching you know…that’s the joy that I like to leave them with at the end of the day.

G.B.: There is a true joy and fascination with Africa, because it is the motherland and it is such a beautiful place with such beautiful people and so we’re just fascinated with the music over there and the purity of the music. When I listen to what you done with this album, A Tribute to Miriam Makeba, I’m speechless. I’ve listened to it over and over again.

L.K.: I wanted to leave it clean. I didn’t want any electronics in the music.

Gigi: The songs you chose such as the “Click Song,” is a signature song Miriam Makeba sang and all of these other songs of love and joy are so uplifting. Let’s talk about the album and the selection of the musicians that you have chosen. Are they people you work with all of the time?

L.K.: Well, I selected the bass player, Andre, who has been with me for about 30 years. Andre is from Grenada and he knows Miriam Makeba’s music quite well. The guitarist, Assane Seck, is from Senegal, he’s a talented young man. I saw him perform once, he’s very, very clean and he’s kind of like a little Jimi Hendrix you know, very clean, he’s not all over the place…he listens to the music and I want the music to be very clean it’s not about we’re fighting to be heard. I wanted their playing to compliment my voice and he understood what I wanted and I was checking out two or three other people and the other artists they were great but they were just too busy, they were like fighting in the music while I’m singing. So I chose him because his of personality, he’s just great.

Moise Yawo Matey, is a wonderful percussionist. There’s nothing he can’t play he has soul and you can’t be a good musician if you don’t have soul and kindness you know? What good is a musician if they don’t have the kindness? Your personality affects your music you know, I wanted them to be a part of this journey that I’m going through and they understood that. All of them are wonderful musicians, they bring energy and talent.

Gigi: When you have that combination, then you can be the best you can be.

L.K.: Yes, because all of us together are on the same wavelength; nobody’s disturbing each other we all complement one another so it makes for beautiful melodies. When you watch us play, the audience smiles and I am happy to have worked with these guys and I’ve worked with them for a long time.

Gigi: I’m so happy that this album has been done and I cannot wait for the rest of the world to hear it, especially the young people. It will actually keep Miriam Makeba in the hearts and minds of the people and it’ll make us all pull out all of the old music from many years ago and it’s a beautiful work and I’m so excited about what it will do for music and also for jazz. It’s a blessing for you to have been so close to her.

L.K. : Yes, she was wonderful. When I was performing at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in front of 100,000 people and it was a sea of people and so many people came up to see us, because they know me locally here. There were so many of the younger people there, especially those who know about apartheid. Young people are funny, they don’t like old things, but I always try to make sure that this music is palatable and you know the young people these days. I want them to continue to listen; we have to introduce our culture to the younger generation, because there’s no one else. We want people to be able to enjoy our concerts and have a cultural impact where you can take your family to listen and enjoy. I’m very pleased about it and I’m very happy you feel the same way.

Originally Published