Johannesburg - Don Laka is celebrating 50 years of a game-changing legacy as an author, history scholar, composer, musician and producer.
The composer-pianist-producer expressed sentiments of nostalgia and pride at an illustrious career that has helped to preserve the memories of South African music.
Laka’s journey can be heard through a vast discography which includes various styles, collaborators and genres.
However, he believes that not even his music can tell you all there is to know and what makes his brain tick.
“There are many faces of Don.
“There have been so many phases of my life, that even my whole discography could not fully cover who I am because there are songs that I didn’t include in many albums,” he said.
To do any appropriate justice to Laka’s legacy, one would have to pick out a few of the golden moments which have come to trace the continuum of his career.
One such moment is the fateful day he recorded his first single, in 1972.
Not too far away from future collaborators Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
“When it was almost impossible to walk into a studio and make a record.
“Somebody had to come and scout for you, but I didn’t wait for that.
“I raised my head, entered places to make people notice me,” Laka said.
“It was a defining moment for me because it showed that I could open the door for myself.
“What could I then do at the forefront?”
Young as he was then, Laka wouldn’t have realised how much of a revolutionary he would become in the South African musical milieu.
He could not foretell that he would have that Midas je ne sais quoi touch when it came to music composition and production.
So destined was he that the album he aptly titled “Destiny” (1997), would propel him to stardom, help revitalise the local jazz scene, and give him his first gold plaque (10 000 copies sold)
The growth of his artistry turned him into a vigorous pioneer and a much-revered figure in the music field, and served to widen his national fan base within the country.
He is one-third of the brains that created Kalawa Jazmee record label in 1994, alongside DJ Christos (Katsaitis) and DJ Oskido (Oscar Mdlongwa).
It grew to become the country’s most successful black-owned label and reflects the contribution of Don Laka — blending sounds, and voices from our music history and artists marking their name in our history.
It gave us Brothers of Peace, Boom Shaka and Mafikizolo, who helped exemplify Kwaito and house music during the early 2000s.
The record label’s legacy reaches into the careers of younger artists DJs Maphorisa and Zinhle, vocalist Busiswa Gqulu and now-disbanded house duo Black Motion.
“Some of the biggest names in the country went through our hands,” said Laka, noting this moment that pushed him further down the production rabbit hole of the seldom-seen production desk.
The producer-bug can be viewed as one of the defining themes of Laka’s time honoured music career - and of course, his lifetime across and beyond seminal moments of time under the sun.
His well-trained ear for music gave us the songs celebrated today that were viewed as risky- to-record during his rise as a producer in the 1980s.
This quality is evident in how Laka blended African jazz and classical music in his 2015 “Afro Chopin” album.
His 2020 offering “Uno Mundo” is a masterful creation that united different remnants of the world’s sounds, and shared stories of patience, celebration and unity.
“It portrays the journey that I’ve travelled with music.
“From the US, to Brazil, to Europe and around Africa.
“It’s an important, proud album of mine.
“I used it as a reflection of my work, of where I’ve been.
“It shares my love for the world and my love for people, the best way I know how to,” he said.
To Laka, creating songs with sounds he knew fundamentally and instruments inspired by his travels, is what he reckoned to be a blessing in disguise.
It reflects his expansive artistry and the hunger to experiment with the unique sound of South African music in a blend with the musical heritage of other countries whose varying cultures have shaped his idea of the world, and therefore, of music.
For Laka, song-writing is not often the difficult part of creation, the intricacy of the subject.
“People will always write a legacy about your career. What matters is what you do with your career that’s worth writing about.”