Legendary pennywhistler Robert Sithole has died, penniless, in a Cape Town hospital.

Sithole's death on Wednesday is just one more on a long list of local musicians who have died in poverty.

They include Paul Abrahams (bass player for Pacific Express), Basil "Manenberg" Coetzee, Anneline Malebo and Margaret Singana, all of whom died penniless.

This may just be the wake-up call to do something about the plight of talented musicians who can't make a living from their music.

Before his death, friends were organising a benefit concert for Sithole, who lived in Delft with his sister.

Benefit concerts, it seems, happen all too often for ailing and penniless musicians, who are helped by their friends.

The question is why our talented musicians can't afford to live properly and look after themselves.

Musicians don't get strong support while still living, says friend and musician Joe Schaffers (of Rendezvous), who is organising the benefit concert for Sithole this month.

"It's a very sad thing. A lot of musicians are penniless. Our big problem is that the employment of musicians is at a very low level. If you're not a well-known name, your chances of being employed are very slim."

After his stroke two years ago, Sithole no longer played the pennywhistle.

"I tried to encourage him, and get him to stop smoking," said Schaffers, "but circulation problems led him to have his leg amputated, and complications set in."

Sithole was born in District Six in 1945, and played the pennywhistle with his brother Josh in the Kwela Kids band. They, with Duke Ngoma, are the three pennywhistlers featured in a painting by Vladimir Tretchikoff.

Sithole went to London in the 1990s to further his career, and was in the District Six Band. In his last years, he worked for a few hours a day at the District Six Museum.

"I have yet to find a rich musician," said Schaffers. "And while it's a fair enough idea to get a musician's union going, if you don't have employment, you can't contribute."

Musician Ian Smith, of the Virtual Jazz Reality band, is a member of an interim committee of musicians who, in partnership with the Cultural Affairs Department, is addressing the problems of penniless musicians.

The biggest challenge, says Smith, is to get musicians to join the association.

"It's like pulling teeth. Musicians are notoriously unable to handle their affairs. And we don't have good music management here, as they do overseas."

The idea is that the association will be a strong body, with teeth, of all the Cape's musicians, which will network, lobby, form co-operatives, stage events and thus create work. There would also be a benevolent society to help people like Robert Sithole.

"We're a scrappy bunch, we don't market our unique sound, we don't export it and we don't celebrate our stars."

Unlike Johannesburg, which is territorial, Smith says, and exports its musicians to the Cape.

Rashid Lombard, CEO of espAfrica which organises the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, said it was time promoters looked at what they were doing, and what they were doing wrong.

"A lot of responsibility lies with the promoters, to get the music out there, to see what audiences want and provide it.

"People need to be investing in the music industry, which is not yet seen as an industry," he said.

He said Sithole was one of the founding fathers of indigenous jazz.

"From an early age, he used his talent to redefine jazz," said Lombard. Sadly, he was unable to look after his own welfare.

Sithole taught many people to play the pennywhistle, including artist Tyrone Appollis, who will donate a painting to be auctioned, as well as play at the benefit concert at West End on June 29.

Sithole leaves behind a daughter, Melody.

He will be buried from his family's Gugulethu home next week.

  • [email protected]