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Caiphus Semenya, one of the elder statesmen of South African music, believes in speaking his mind.
He was one of the first musicians I interviewed, when he and his equally famous wife, the singer Letta Mbulu, returned to SA from exile in the US in the early 1990s.
He had a lot to say in those far-off days and today he has not swayed from the path.
He maintains that many SA musicians tried to emulate their US counterparts by sounding like them and not forging their own path, with their own voice.
But there is plenty of hope for SA music.
“I had a meeting with a major South African record company recently,” Semenya tells me, “and they said they were going to have bigger budgets to spend on the development of local talent. It was a good sign.”
Semenya will be making a welcome return to the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz stage between August 23 and 25.
Other musical luminaries include Grammy Award-winning master guitarist Earl Klugh, Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
His show on Friday, August 24, he says, will offer variety, featuring his material as well as the work of some of the members of his band.
Semenya, one of the country’s most celebrated artists and culture ambassadors, shows no sign of slowing down in a career that spans several decades.
He has been touring consistently with a finely honed band and is looking forward to performing in Joburg.
“I do shows and festivals that are meaningful, otherwise there is no point in doing it,” he says.
“I love playing my music to a live audience.”
His message to fans is that they must come to the concert prepared for to be surprised. And they must be ready to dance.
Semenya still has a passion for his craft and enjoys working with younger musicians. “I believe in reflecting aspects of his country through our music.”
Though Semenya has a big following both here and overseas, he hasn’t made a record for more than two years.
“I’m one of those people who doesn’t like rushing into things.
“I like to take it slowly. I’ve been gathering material, some old material from other people and some new. I just want to see what will be valid for me. I’ve rushed into it before and it was a disaster,” he laughs.
He says he likes challenges, and the question he must ask himself at the end is whether he can make a better record than his last.
After having grown up in Alexandra township, and being exposed to many musical influences from an early age, he formed his first group, The Katzenjammer Kids, with three friends – and within three years they became one of SA’s top teenage groups.
Their success led to a part in the 1959 production of the hit musical King Kong.
In 1964, after a brief tour with the musical Sponono, he decided to stay in the US.
He worked closely with other exiled artists such as Miriam Makeba and formed a group with fellow exiles, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwanga, called the Union of South Africa.
Over the years he produced albums for Mbulu, Makeba and Masekela.
On the international front, he has composed and arranged songs for such diverse artists as Cannonball Adderley, Lou Rawls, Stanley Turrentine, Herb Alpert, Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte and Quincy Jones and Mbulu.
Career highlights include writing and arranging the African music for the mini-series Roots, which earned him an Emmy Award.
In association with Jones, he also wrote and arranged all the African music for Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, which led to an Oscar nomination and a Grammy win.
l Semenya will be performing at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz on the Conga stage on August 24.