Syd Kitchen performed at every Splashy Fen Festival since the first one in 1990. Here he plays one of his pipes at Splashy.
Syd Kitchen performed at every Splashy Fen Festival since the first one in 1990. Here he plays one of his pipes at Splashy.

Syd Kitchen remembered in intimate biography

By Marchelle Abrahams Time of article published Feb 20, 2017

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Syd Kitchen – Scars That Shine is the story of an iconic South African musician. Marchelle Abrahams chatted to author Donvé Lee about telling all sides of the story.

DONVÉ Lee is no stranger to telling other people’s stories.

She has written the biography of artist Dan Rakgoathe and the books The Unfolding Man and An Intimate War.

After more than three years of research, many e-mails and trips, she has written a book about her friend, Syd Kitchen.

The guitarist, singer-songwriter and poet died of lung cancer in 2011. His career spanned 45 years and he was possibly the only artist to perform at every Splashy Fen Festival until his death.

Lee, who studied fine arts, worked as a textile designer, a TV news assistant, a graphic designer, a feature writer, an art teacher and a traveller, works hard to paint portraits in text.

“Syd was a friend of mine and he asked me many, many years ago to write a biography. He was a brilliant music artist and he didn’t get the recognition that he should have during his life.”

Lee spent three years writing the book. “I spent between six months and a year just doing the research. I interviewed more than 120 people. I flew to Durban several times to speak to friends and family and fans, then I spoke to people on Skype. I sent a lot of e-mails.I wanted to get it right.

“I also had other material to work with, which was very useful. I had audio recordings of Syd; conversations and video taken of Syd talking. Then I had recordings of his live shows, and then, of course, his lyrics and music. So I had all this stuff to work with.”

The book is written in the first-person narrative, giving readers an intimate look into Kitchen’s larger-than-life memoirs.

Lee describes in her foreword her first introduction to the colourful character and that sets the tone for the rest of the biography.

“A wizard Gandalf appears before me, grinning, eyes large and luminous and almost turquoise, face furrowed beyond his years beneath a fake leopard skin hat, ragged sheet of hair spilling down his diminutive frame.”

Descriptive and expressive, it holds nothing back – documenting his many false starts but also his highs (and there were many). He was the voice of a generation, with some comparing him to Bob Dylan – a working-class hero that many could relate to. Kitchen’s funny anecdotes have the ability to mesmerise readers by answering the question: who was Syd Kitchen?

In one chapter, his daughter Sev quotes her father when asked why he isn’t as famous as his friend David Kramer. His answer gives an insight to the type of humour that got him through life: “I’m like a special braai marinade. I’m a tangy mango orange chutney with a bit of chocolate in it. Very few people might like it, but the ones that do will only eat that.”

But it also documents his dark moments and his ongoing battle with drug abuse and depression. One incident describes how Kitchen tried to ride a bicycle while drunk. Slurring and off balance, he flies over a wall, into rubbish bags in a churchyard with his heavily-pregnant daughter running after him. After that he checked into rehab for a three-week intensive programme.

The ultimate litmus test was the late musician’s family. Did they read the book and what did they think of it?

“Right from the start when I decided to do it, I contacted Pete (Syd’s brother) and said ‘This is what I want to do. I don’t want to write anything that you don’t approve of.’

“Eventually I sent it to Pete and he really liked it, and I was very pleased because I haven’t whitewashed it in any way because he (Syd) was a very difficult person. Like many great artists, he wasn’t easy. So I’ve shown all the good and the bad and all the ugly of Syd, and it’s all out there.”

Lee lives in Noordhoek, Cape Town, “where I feast on silence and the sea and try to write big stories for big people, and dream about painting again”.

* Syd Kitchen – Scars That Shine is available on

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