It’s only when the manager of the traditional cuisine restaurant we’re hanging out at meekly approaches Don Laka that I notice it. A large rectangular tribute above the bar.
There’s a huge picture of Lucky Dube. Next to it is Angelique Kidjo, Sibongile Khumalo and even Yvonne Chaka Chaka. There is also a huge picture of the kwaijazz architect himself, Don Laka. The stars are aligned in more ways than one.
I am meeting with the piano maestro to discuss his latest album, Reflections.
He tells me a little bit about how he became one of the founders of Kalawa Jazmee and that makes for interesting parallels with what he projects on Reflections: a veteran who always has time for the young guns.
This album comes hot on the heels of Laka receiving the South African Music Award Lifetime Achievement Award. “It makes sense for me to release an album now,” Laka tells me over some braaivleis and dumpling. “I was fortunate that it came after I received the Lifetime Achievement Award.”
“It has been 45 years of me being in this industry so I thought: ‘I need to celebrate this.’ And then I decided to make a list of artists I wanted to work with. I wrote it and threw it out. I made another one and threw that one out. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
“Then last year, I was performing at a show in Namibia and I met Kelly Khumalo. In front of the media she said: ‘Bra Don, you have never worked with me. When are you going to work with me?’”
“So I said: ‘There’s no project yet but when there is, you will be the first person I call.’ And she was. I thought: ‘As Kelly wants to work with me, let me draw up a list of the youth that I think would make a serious contribution to the album.’”
Reflections also features the likes of Mafikizolo, Thebe - who cleverly changes his popular bula boot phrase to bula booka - as well as DJ Maphorisa, Dr Malinga and unsurprisingly, Emtee.
Laka first worked with the African trap music artist on a track called Ghetto Hero. On Laka’s album, Emtee appears on the uplifting Dreams.
“I was listening to some of the new artists - they call it rap or something,” Laka says sarcastically. “My son played me an Emtee song and I could hear some singing in there. I said: ‘I’m going to do something he never thought any producer would do. I’m going to take out the auto-tune from his voice.’”
“People don’t believe it, but he reminds me of Marvin Gaye.”
Laka notices my gobsmacked face and continues: “The way he sees music and the way he does his vocals is like Marvin Gaye. I’m talking as a producer, here as someone who hears what you may not.”
Reflections sees Laka mixing his kwaijazz with a more contemporary sound but he is not worried that this may alienate his core listeners.
“I must say I’m glad that the album worked out the way it did because it’s almost difficult to have such a theme work out without you losing who you are,” he confesses.
“I call it a multi-genre album as a celebration of the album. It is targeted at the music lover and the people who want to celebrate this 45 years with me.”
* Don Laka’s new album, Reflections, is in stores and online now.