Syd Kitchen died three weeks ago. One of South Africa’s great musicians, Syd was a folk artist whose musical history is inextricably embedded in that of our country. At Splashy Fen, South Africa’s longest running music festival, he was the one artist who had played every single year since the beginning. 1990 to 2010. Sadly, he’ll be missing 2011’s festival, happening later this month over the Easter weekend. He will undoubtedly be missed.
There’s a beneficiary gig for Syd tonight at the Barleycorn Music Club. One of many, actually, including the recent Durban World Musical Festival and the Friends of Syd Kitchen Celebration Concert in Scarborough on 21 May. Which brings me to how I came to be writing this piece. On Saturday I got an SMS from Barleycorn. Syd Kitchen beneficiary gig… Oh great, I thought, Syd’s in Cape Town. Oh wait, beneficiary? Is he sick? Or organising a benefit concert? I asked my boyfriend about it. Oh… didn’t you hear? Oh… shit, was my response, and I was surprised that I was moved instantly to tears. I mean, I knew Syd, but not that well. But this was the most raw, real emotion I’d felt in ages. The sadness of losing someone that you know the world will be a worse place without.
So I suppose, it wasn’t that surprising. I always had a real soft spot for the old guy. I knew him from my Durban days. Like hundreds, maybe thousands of others, I’d watched him jam lovingly on his guitar at many a Splashy Fen. At Thunder Road Rock Diner’s open mic nights I’d got to know him more personally. Those open mics were legendary for starring some of Durban’s best musos. Syd was always there, happy to woo an audience with his maestro guitar skills and quirky tunes. ‘Africa is not for sissies…’ I can picture him laughing, guitar in hand, drink at foot. A few years on, in early 2010, I bumped into Syd at Barleycorn. I don’t think he remembered my name but he called me blue eyes and went on to dedicate the gig to ‘the beautiful girl from Durban’. Such a charmer, that one, even at his ripe old age.
Anyway, so we interviewed Syd last year in our September issue of one small seed, in a feature we ran on the Durban International Film Festival. Syd had recently finished Fool in a Bubble, his autobiographical film that he starred in and also wrote and performed the musical score for. I was proud to have him in the magazine. As a Durbanite and devout Splashy Fenner myself, Syd feels like part of my own history, in an odd way. In retrospect I’m even more glad we did the feature. It’s so easy to put things off, and in light of what’s happened now, this piece is really special. It’s one of the last interviews the old guy ever did. So I thought it would be appropriate to post the interview online now, for all of his fans and old friends to enjoy.
Syd was a true South African legend. May he rest in peace… but never become silent.
Here’s the interview:
Syd Kitchen: Fool in a Bubble
Words: Yusuf Laher
Photography: Josh Sternlicht
Fool in a Bubble is the story of South African folk singer and poet Syd Kitchen, “as seen through the eyes of [filmmaker] Joshua Sternlicht”. Filmed mostly in New York, the documentary premiered at the 2010 Durban International Film Festival.
Sitting down with Syd in his peaceful Umbilo flat before the premiere, he says: “Let me get my cigarettes – in case I need one.” Then chain-smokes his way through the entire interview. “If I make a shoe, I sell it,” says Syd, of the business side of things. “It’s real hand-to-mouth stuff. The Stones started off playing for a meal. We’ve all played for a meal.”
From the trailer, it looks like Apartheid plays a big role in the film?
It played a big role in my musical life too. Because Joshua’s American and leftwing, he’s obviously got a political angle. But I’m more political than him. I’ve got strong views about how it’s all turned out since 1994. But he steered clear of that. He wants to sell the film around the world, so he didn’t want me trashing Jacob Zuma too much!
Did you write new music specifically for the film?
I recorded a soundtrack in New York. All new music, but we redid ‘Africa’s Not for Sissies’. Initially, that was also the film title. But once the producer in America heard ‘Fool in a Bubble’ he said:
Fuck, even if you’re deaf you know that’s a hit.
The film credits say “starring Paul Simon’s Graceland band”?
Morris Goldberg on horns, he’s been there since 1961. Bakithi Khumalo on bass. Tony Cedras on accordion and keyboards. And I was very privileged to record and perform with drummer Anton Fig. He’s the resident drummer on David Letterman’s show. They call themselves the South African All-Stars. Oh, and Steve Holley, Paul McCartney’s percussionist. What a great bunch of guys. No egos. You should hear the stories. When you’re just having a spliff…
Like, Steve Holley gets a call from Bob Dylan’s management. “We need you to fly out to Europe. Our drummer’s not happening. Bob can’t play with him.” Steve rehearsed with Dylan’s band for three days and did 80 songs. Because Dylan doesn’t write out a list, he just calls a song. He might not even call it, he might just start playing and you’ve got to be ready. And it was odd because the keyboardist had been with the band three years and never spoken to Dylan. Dylan doesn’t speak to anyone. He just arrives.
Is Bob Dylan your hero?
It’d be nice to spend the afternoon with Dylan, if he was into it. But I understand he’s not into much. Very cynical guy, Dylan. But he’s the most important poet America’s produced in the past 200 years, maybe excluding Walt Whitman. I love his gypsy energy.
How did you connect with filmmaker Joshua Sternlicht?
I was part of Poetry Africa 2007. He was with a production team that came out for a documentary about hip-hop culture and poets around the world. He was staying at The Royal. He had to stay an extra night so I said, “Why don’t you spend the night at my place, if you don’t mind the floor?” He came here, we smoked some spliff and I started playing guitar. He pulled out his camera and I started speaking about my life.
How involved were you in the making of the film?
Very involved. Some stuff I wasn’t happy with. But you can’t be with everything. That’s Josh’s take on my life. He’s Jewish, he’s white and he’s a trust-fund boy. He has a different reality to me. He wasn’t raped at five.
I don’t mind being honest. When I went into rehab earlier this year, I went on Facebook and said, “Hey, I’m going to rehab.” And the love I got was incredible.
Does the film cover issues like being raped and your drinking?
Well, that’s where Josh got his dramatic ending. They intervened on me in Cape Town. It’s Josh’s first feature documentary. So it’s virgin stuff for him. Quite a lot of the time I’m drunk. You can see I’m drunk. But he’s crafted it… It’s not a boring documentary. Some people have said it makes them sad, makes them laugh. Being raped comes out as well. We talk about that.
Do you ever feel under-appreciated as a South African musician?
That’s a difficult question. I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’ve managed to carry on doing what I’m doing and grow with it for 46 years.
That’s my success, that I can live my life and communicate through music and words. A lot of people appreciate me. Shit, I’d love to be able to say, “Did you hear my song on the radio?” Or walk into any record store in the country and see my music on the shelf. That’d be neat.
What’s the secret to your longevity?
Not being successful. Have you heard of a singer called Jim Croce?
He died in a plane crash in 1973 (aged 30). He had a huge hit called ‘Time in a Bottle’. He was a folk singer on the New York scene for years. Hustling and struggling. Playing on the street. Sleeping in caravans. A hobo. Dylan was a hobo for a long time. Bassist Paul Nowinski told me a story about his first jazz-fusion band, rehearsing in New York in the ’70s. He said a chick used to come by the studio every night before closing and beg to sleep on their couch. Do you know who that chick was? Madonna…