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Fassie, Brenda (South Africa)  
Brenda performing at the People's Celebration, Opening of Parliment. © Eugene Arries

WHEN globally renowned Time magazine chose to showcase Brenda Fassie in a three page spread in its December 17th edition 2001, it was confirmation once and for all of the singer’s status as an authentic and lasting icon for the globe.

Featuring a stunning picture of Brenda against a purple background and the headline “The Madonna of the Townships" Time magazine profiled the singer, focusing on a recent trip to America, and making no bones about Brenda’s proclivity for attention grabbing antics. But at the centre of the piece was a focus on her extraordinary talent and the tale of a woman who has overcome adversity and triumphed in her chosen career, that of music.

And triumph Brenda certainly has. At this year’s 8th South African Music Awards, Brenda once more scooped for an incredible and record-breaking fourth year in a row the SAMA for Best Selling Release, for the album Mina Nawe. The album’s success in outstripping sales of any other domestic release in the year 2001 follows on the heels of her previous three albums - Memeza, Amadlozi and Nomakanjani - all of which earned the title of the country’s most popular album in the year of their release.

The fact is that no matter what the state of her personal life, Brenda is the most popular performer in the land. Whether it’s sophisticated, upwardly mobile young people or religiously inclined workers, Brenda is beloved of all who come into her musical orbit.

Genre: mbaqanga, kwaito
Ask any of her hundreds of thousands of fans just what it is about Brenda that is so magical, so alluring and the answer is always “why it’s her voice, of course" Power-packed, versatile, gutsy, laden with texture and instantly identifiable, Brenda Fassie has always been in possession of one of the best voices in South Africa indeed, in Africa and beyond!

“The girl with the golden voice" “South Africa’s queen of pop" “undisputed queen of the vocals" are just some of the ways commentators have described South Africa’s most enduring star; a singer whose career has spanned close to 20 years and remains flourishing.

Indeed, it was the buzz around Brenda’s voice that first prompted legendary producer, Koloi Lebona, to make the trip (in Christmas 1979) from Johannesburg to the Cape Town township of Langa to hear her sing.

Then just 16, Brenda’s voice (which had been the star of the Tiny Tots group) was something of a legend amongst the mother city’s musicians. Recalls Koloi: “I had five or six musicians raving to me about her voice and so I decided to hear it for myself. I had no trouble finding her mother Sarah’s house in Langa everyone was talking about Brenda. And when I got there Brenda sang several standards for me while her (now late) mother played the piano. There was something special about her voice. It was different to anything I had heard until then and was very mature for a 16-year-old. I knew it was the voice of the future.

And that “voice of the future" came with a self-belief well beyond Brenda’s teenage years. “When she’d finished singing for me, she quickly sussed how impressed I was,?Koloi says. “She turned to me and said ‘so when are we going to Joburg"

Reluctant to interfere with her schooling, Kaloi (with Sarah Fassie’s permission) took the young singer to live with his family in the sprawling Johannesburg township of Soweto with the idea that Brenda would complete her studies and then pursue a singing career. But events overtook Kaloi’s plans when Joy singer Anneline Malebo left to go maternity leave and Brenda temporarily joined the highly successful singing trio. As Kaloi puts it: “The bug was too strong to resist after that and Brenda’s professional singing career was launched."

When her Joy contract expired, Brenda took up an offer from Blondie and Papa to appear as a solo artist on their road show. It was through this that the Big Dudes were formed and Brenda’s career soared to a new level as part of the group, Brenda and the Big Dudes. As yet, ‘though, the singer had yet to record' a situation which changed, pretty dramatically, when “Weekend Special" (already a wildly popular live song) was released in 1983 as a 12 inch maxi through CCP Record Company (the SA record company started by Clive Calder). A funky, disco-grooved track that provided the perfect vehicle for Brenda’s crystalline and potent voice, “Weekend Special" became the fastest selling record of the time. The song, which today remains a high influential track in the history of South African music (and in fact is enjoying new life through several covers and remixes), entered the Billboard Hot Black singles chart in March 1986, enabling Brenda and the Big Dudes to appear in the United States United Kingdom, Europe, Australia and Brazil. The single was remixed in New York by Van Gibbs and released by Capitol Records. It remained in the US charts for a full eight weeks and enjoyed significant radio play, including throughout southern Africa. “Weekend Special’s" success ignited a dwindling homegrown music scene. “I think it sold around 200 000 units," remembers then CCP MD, Ken Haycock. “The rest of the 80s saw an unbelievable run of local hits, and there’s no doubt Brenda played a huge part in that."

With a provocative stage show, and a well publicised rivalry with the likes of fellow township pop superstar, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, the 1980s saw Brenda vaulting rapidly into solo superstar status, releasing records (with Malcolm Watson in the producer’s seat) like Cool Spot (which included “It’s Nice To Be With People" and scoring hits with songs like “No No No Senor")

Now firmly established as a solo artist (Brenda originally signed her record deal as part of the Big Dudes and initially had an equal royalty split with the rest of the group), the late 1980s saw Brenda team up with producer, Sello “Chicco" Twala a creative coupling that has proved the most spectacular in South Africa’s music history. Brenda and Chicco’s explosive musical interaction culminated in the monster album, Too Late For Mama which became a multi-platinum seller in 1989 and rose to the top of most South African charts.

For the next several years, Brenda’s career continued apace and, in 1996, she revealed her abilities as a producer with the album, Now Is The Time. Defining a new level of maturity for Brenda, the album features two duets with Zairian music legend, Papa Wemba and astonished even her most loyal fans.

1997 too proved to be an important year for Brenda with the release of Paparazzi, in spite of talk of Brenda’s “demise" The album, produced by talented newcomer, Godfrey Pilane, featured a duet with Bayete’s Jabu Khanyile, and was a diverse offering with everything from kwaito to slow groove tracks.

But little could prepare South Africa for Brenda’s spectacular comeback the 1998 release, Memeza. The album, which saw the singer again team up with producer Chicco, became South Africa’s best selling release of the year, shifting 500 000 units and earning Brenda several South African Music Awards as well as young and old fans all over again through hit tracks like “Vul’indela. The latter hugely popular throughout Africa as Brenda’s 1999 Kora award for best female artist revealed - has its origins deep in African gospel, with much of its appeal in the rhythm of Zion church music.

"Tell everyone Brenda's back," she said at the time and that statement has proved to be true.

This landmark album - which dug deep into this country’s musical roots - was produced by Chicco, who says he knew early on during the 1998 recording sessions that Memeza would rapidly propel Brenda back into the musical stratosphere at supersonic speed.

“I thought people might have forgotten about Brenda because her previous albums were pretty low-key.But a great deal of Memeza’s success is down to Brenda’s excellent voice, which we kept dominant throughout the album.

When it came to Brenda’s 1999 follow-up, Nomakanjani, Chicco was once again at the helm as producer, engineer and chief songwriter and again Brenda’s voice, in fine form, was the musical pivot of the album. Her 2000 release, Amadlozi (featuring hits like “Thola Amadlozi" and “Nakupende" (I Love You) again proved what a dazzling match the Brenda-Chicco one is and the second half of 2001saw the release of Mina Nawe, with Chicco in the producer’s seat for the fourth time in recent years.

Reclaiming her status as South Africa’s queen of pop has not been without its difficulties and the late 1990s and early years of the 21st century have seen the at times mercurial and capricious singer earn many tabloid inches about her personal life. Yet none of this has detracted from Brenda’s astonishing popularity. Sales of Memeza have now reached 560 000 and both Nomakanjani and Amadlozi are moving well beyond 350 000 units with Mina Nawe close on their heels. Her Greatest Hits album, also released in 2001, has easily reached platinum status (50 000 units) and 2002 sees the release of Myekeleni, Brenda’s most accomplished and impressively diverse album so far. Brenda’s live appeal continues to gather momentum and she regularly performs throughout Africa (where she is immensely popular) and recently undertook a multidate American tour.

The latter lends some insight into Brenda’s fast-gathering global appeal which was confirmed when the must-have international music publication, The Tip Sheet, raved about “Vul’indlela" saying: “Vul’indlela is extraordinary. Instantly jaw-dropping and impossible to switch off, like Eva Cassidy. Effortlessly credible, like an African Unfinished Sympathy. This could be huge.

It’s high praise indeed and points to a new direction her career could take: that of international pop star. But for all the critical acclaim, the fact remains that nearly two decades after her first professional recording, many years after “Weekend Special" turned the young girl from Langa into a truly exceptional singer, Brenda Fassie brings immeasurable joy and happiness into the lives of millions of South Africans the country over.

This biography courtesy E.M.I. Music

Brenda Fassi passed away 9 May 2004 (see linked news pieces)
  Recordings : Fassie, Brenda
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