23 May 2004

RIP Brenda Fassie

Boy, there sure is a lot of bad news about. Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop ... nah.

Here's a strange little story about me and a woman I never met, and until today I had never even seen a picture of -- yet I celebrate her life and music almost as though I lost a friend.

Sometime in the very late 80s, I started hearing (through my regular visits to Atlanta and the best radio station on Earth, WRAS 88.5) some African pop songs I really, really enjoyed. There was a kind of appreciation of reggae and the beginnings of what we now call the "world music" movement -- a conscious effort by the station to expose its listeners to new sounds from unheard countries, and this African pop was at the core of it. It's hard to explain exactly, but one artist in particular had a kind of Bob Marley groove to her, catchy but sometimes quite political, and sung by an incredible voice -- so young, so powerful, kind of like what Loretta Lynn had going for her in her youth. I guess maybe I have an ear (and a weakness) for genuine talent, and Brenda Fassie had it in spades. The album I was in love with (I found out later) was Too Late For Mama, and the performer ... well, until today I didn't even know the whole story. I spent years looking for a white or possibly Jamaican woman named Brenda Fosse, so the scraps I heard on WRAS, though much-loved, were all I could find of her.

Nonetheless, her influence directed me to explore more deeply the styles of music of Africa and the Caribbean, and so I was soon enjoying the sounds of other such artists (from Selif Keita to Bunny Wailer to Los Zafiros to The Skatalites and King Sunny Ade), an appreciation that has stayed with me all these years (doing some time in Miami didn't hurt, either). My only previous exposure to real African/Island rhythms was Brian Eno and David Byrne's groundbreaking 1982 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and later some of those same ideas explored by Malcolm McLaren and Paul Simon. In other words, always with a white filter. Brenda Fassie, even as Western-style as she was in the late 80s/early 90s (singing in English, borrowing from popular songs and styles) could still communicate the purity of her roots. Some of it sounds awfully dated these days, but it was fresh and different at the time.

It turns out that Brenda Fassie's story is one of equal parts tragedy and triumph -- she was massively popular in South Africa (her home), enjoyed quite a bit of European success and had many hit records. In between those things, she fell into the traps of drugs and indulgence, and these failings ultimately helped kill her at the shockingly young age of 39.

It was quite by chance that I learned of her death today -- I was Googling something else and noticed a news story about "diva Fassie" and wondered if that could be the same woman who's music had opened so many doors for me so long ago. Sure enough, finally I knew who it was I had to thank, and re-appreciate: too late.

So today I'm sad for the loss of a woman I barely knew and was (as I've discovered) only lightly familiar with her work -- she has many albums out, much of it more African and less "Western" than the stuff I knew but most of it, from what I can tell by the samples, wonderfully accessible and crossover while still fun and proudly African. Maybe like an African Carmel? I'm still struggling to explain her allure to strangers who probably don't know her music, as you can see. I barely knew it myself, but I think I'll just have to point people to samples of her recent work and hope for the best.

I'm glad that, in the days long before the popular internet, a woman from South Africa found a way to touch my life and expand my horizons through her incredible talent. I will miss her, but I am consoled at least by the fact that there is still plenty of Fassie territory I haven't covered.

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