Johannesburg - Blondie Makhene is in the parking lot outside GalleryMOMO. He’s wearing a Lenin-style cap and a dusting of beard, and has a tasty crust of impudence. That would be the same flavour which helped turn him into a superstar.
Makhene is at the centre of Thursday night’s gathering of the Brenda clan. They’re smoking and laughing. They’ve got a creamy, in-crowd ambience as they make lovely mischief around a suave white Mercedes Benz outside the Parktown North art space.
He’s huddling with Melvyn Matthews, who wrote Brenda’s biggest hit. Matthews is shining in dreads and good jeans. Like his revolutionary old friend, he’s breathing deep in the moment.
They’ve been singing inside the gallery, where it’s journalist and writer Bongani Madondo’s night.
Wearing a fuschia shirt and modish black spectacles, the editor of I’m Not Your Weekend Special is moving through a tight crowd of Brenda lovers, Brenda devotees, Brenda fiends. It’s a fan club for the biggest music star South Africa’s ever known and Madondo, who writes like a magical feast, is its No 1 zealot.
The book – which includes contributions from himself, Hugh Masekela, Njabulo Ndebele, journalists Vukile Pokwana and Charl Blignaut and others – has been his haunting. It’s been his big love for years. He said he had to launch it before Friday’s 10-year anniversary of Brenda’s horrible death, and the party at MOMO was designed to put together the broken hearts.
“She gave us life,” he said, “…you had to listen to her.”
Then, with great affection, he describes her as “the most disruptive artist I’ve ever met”.
Shado Twala MC-ed, swishing a gentle mic through her own memories of life with Brenda before handing it to Yvonne Chaka Chaka. She and Brenda had a catalogue of fall-outs and reunions, none of which seem to matter now. She waves a warm, buttery grace over the past as if the Joburg noir was never quite as dark.
Then, like Makhene and Matthews, she sings. The crowd whistles between its teeth and whoops for the woman adored by African presidents – and Madondo’s party for Brenda is made.
But if you look past its razzle, away from the free wine and beautiful people, if feels like a cautionary memorial with a striking centrepiece. If Brenda had survived her cocaine overdose in the winter of 2004, would she still be around? Or would she, like the brilliant Matthews and Blondie, and others, be on the periphery of our culture?
Would she still dish up the treats, to show us she was alive?
Matthews was, unbelievably, just a teenager himself when he wrote Weekend Special – the fastest-selling record of the time and a global success. Brenda and the Big Dudes made it huge. Then Matthews created Life Is Going On “to make sure she had another hit to go with it”.
It was 1983. Apartheid was at its most conspicuously vicious. Artists were the mentors, the teachers, the punks, and they needed someone brazen to give them direction. It was Matthews’ and Makhene’s artistic connection that helped make that happen.
Matthews was emotional in the wake of her death when he told a Sunday newspaper a few years ago that “she would turn any song into a Brenda song. She had feeling, timing, melody, heart and rhythm. She lifted my lyrics to a chaotic beauty I had never imagined”.
South Africa had already experienced Brenda’s rawer excitements when she’d performed with girl trio Joy after arriving in Joburg fresh from Langa, Cape Town.
Singer Anneline Malebo had gifted the audacious young starlet an opportunity when she went on maternity leave. Of course, it was Brenda’s own wild-chick charisma and her blazing talent that shot her out of that rocket. She was an impish, ribald little genius, but she needed others to light her flare.
Although Matthews was later alienated from the process that turned Weekend Special into a smash, while Makhene would remain a star in his own right for a while, they helped give her, and South African music, a hell of a chance. Without them, who knows?
“It wasn’t easy,” Makhene confided in an interview. “We had a tough time convincing EMI executives that this was the future South African pop star because, quite frankly, she was lacking in the looks department.
“We managed to convince the executives to pay for her dentures and my wife took care of her image and wardrobe.”
Yet as they stood in front of the perfumed crowd inside MOMO, praising Brenda, Matthews had all the atmosphere of a man who feels underrated and left in the cold. He told good stories, but they felt sore.
There are so many musicians like him.
Makhene lovingly remembered Brenda’s ruly entertainments too, but also let out his anger at the media. Maybe that was because a newspaper last year published the story of how he’s been living with his mother in Soweto, having lost all his money. A musicians’ charity told the reporter it would build him a house.
There are so many like Makhene, too. Meanwhile, the Big Dudes are all dead. South African music is full of graves.
And so, standing in the gallery, listening to Madondo at the end, it was difficult not to wonder if Brenda, with all her struggles with her celestial and temporal selves, would ever have survived. It feels now like she was gone in a flash.
Madondo has compiled a pungent, radical book full of great writing about Brenda. Powerless to change her destiny, it’s testament to how important she was. She shook our world, and the launch party elevated that. But its sadness on Thursday night was not only about her.
Smith contributed an essay entitled Little Red Corvette to Bongani Madondo’s book, I’m Not Your Weekend Special.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Independent.