It’s a sweltering Sunday afternoon in the late 1980s, in an ANC house somewhere in Lusaka, Zambia. Every comrade who’s not on duty is catching up on the week’s chores: washing, ironing, reading, watching football on a beat-up TV. There’s meat on the braai, and a couple of people are trudging back from a shebeen, complaining about the heat, carrying as many cold ones as the house can collectively afford. The mood turns more festive, and somebody puts on a cassette of music from home. But not everybody’s in the mood for dancing – yet. Then the tape reaches the one track nobody can resist: a song that gets everybody up; moving, remembering (and possibly somebody’s crying) – Matswale, from Caiphus Semenya’s 1984 album Streams Today; Rivers Tomorrow. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqPXhdDP-Y8 )
On August 19, Caiphus Katse Semenya turned 80. (On the 23rd, his partner on stage and off, vocalist Letta Mbulu, turned 77. That’s an anniversary equally worth marking, but it needs a story to itself). There have been many tributes, and a grand birthday concert at the Market Theatre. And while the totality of Semenya’s life should be celebrated, one aspect needs to be in the foreground: his composing. In the field of popular song, he has written a significant portion of the great South African Songbook – possibly more than any other single composer. Where America has Jerome Kern, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, we have Caiphus Semenya.
Semenya was born in Alexandra Township in 1939, but later moved to live with his grandmother in Benoni. By 15, he had joined up with three other teenagers to form a close-harmony singing group, the Katzenjammer Kids (the punning title referenced both his name and some popular comic-book heroes). The Kids, still real beginners, entered a talent contest where their performance was so impressive that they were invited to form part of the ensemble for the upcoming jazz opera, King Kong, composed by Todd Matshikiza. There, he met a rising singing star, Letta Mbulu: the start of a lifetime personal and working partnership .
When King Kong went to England in 1961, many of the cast members took their ticket out, seeking opportunities to work and study free from the repression of apartheid. But Semenya and Mbulu, both very young, stayed in South Africa, working with a range of bands and growing their performance skills. It wasn’t until 1964 that their chance to leave came, with the Alan Paton musical play, Sponono.
Sponono arrived on Broadway to a rough reception: it ran for only two weeks after anti-apartheid protests outside the theatre. Although it was not a pro-regime play, American consciousness about racial segregation at home and abroad was growing; in the same year, civil rights demonstrators picketed the opening of the New York World Fair too. But the couple soon met up with old friends from the King Kong cast, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa among them. Makeba, in particular, helped smooth the way for them to settle in New York.
Semenya didn’t go the college route of his instrumentalist peers, but instead immediately began working with Masekela, Harry Belafonte and others on live and recording projects. In 1966, he composed one of the biggest hits on the trumpeter’s The Emancipation of… album, Ha Lese le di Khanna https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JeFE3ZrI_A . By 1971, the couple had moved to Los Angeles, where the supergroup The Union of South Africa was formed: Semenya, Gwangwa and Masekela. Semenya wrote four of the album’s nine tracks, including Caution (which gave him another nickname) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31XgMgWNpZg. By now, he was also occasionally playing saxophone, though he never saw the instrument as his vocation.
Songwriting and arranging opportunities grew, as did his reputation. As well as working with fellow South Africans, Semenya also collaborated with Belafonte, Nina Simone, Lou Rawls, Herb Albert and more. In 1977, he co-scored the soundtrack of the original Roots television series, based on Alex Haley’s best selling book about his family history under slavery and beyond.
“I really consider myself blessed [to have done that],” Semenya recalled later. “it’s not everybody who particiates at that level, on both sides of the Atlantic, in a story that is a truly African story…If you are spiritual, then you know that certain things in life are not accidents…To write the score I had to read the book, and so I came to really understand what Africans as a people went through…When today we are still being accused of being underdeveloped, when we were actually depopulated, and not by our own doing…People actually systematically underdeveloped us and now they have the audacity sit here and judge us…We dug gold and silver to enrich another people that today sit there and tell us we are underdeveloped.”
In 1985, at Quincy Jones’ request, Semenya co-wrote the score for the film, The Color Purple, for which he shared the 1986 Oscar for Best Original Score; in 1987, he arranged the Swahili chant for Michael Jackson’s Liberian Girl on the Bad album, again masterminded by Jones.
Alongside this solid and respected American career, the popular South African hit songs kept coming: Angelina https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9MCYJ9Oj0Y, Ziph’Inkomo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrWQhnn0Y1o, Nomalangahttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xY6Oz1QnWuE, Music in the Airhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luOeTylAwJ4, Woman Got A Right To Be https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqObcnhaDqo, Ndiphendulehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXXPrFUB43k and counting.
Matswale is typical, using a framework of African tradition to tell a personal story that many listeners can identify with, over a lilting, languorous beat that compels dancing and an earworm of a hook. A man approaches his mother-in-law for advice because his relationship with his wife is disintegrating. It was written, Semenya said, after a visit to the exiled South African community in Botswana, when he saw how the pressures of that life were causing relationships to fall apart. Oh, and there’s a little chorus in the middle “Bue li Naledi/ Ake le bue li Naledi” – that you just have to join in on.
In 2004, the album A Taste of Caiphus Semenya https://music.apple.com/za/album/a-taste-of-caiphus-semenya/1286794602 saw various artists from Sibongile Khumalo and Yvonne Chaka Chaka to Ringo and Nana Coyote covering Semenya’s classic hits. None of those covers is ‘better’ than Semenya’s original, but the album is the perfect illustration of why his compositions merit attention and praise. Each of them is capable of multiple re-visionings without ever losing its power – the true test of a standard.
And just a final note. When writing this blog I discovered that, disgracefully, and despite his multiple national and international honours, there is no complete online account of Semenya’s life and work; what exists is incomplete and in some cases inaccurate. Like the song says, Not Yet Uhuru. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Js95topeKI Happy Birthday Bra’ Katse – and we can’t possibly thank you enough for all the music. Respect.