Tsonga disco king

2013-04-07 10:00

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This week, it was announced that Thomas Chauke will receive a Lifetime Achievement award from the SA Music Awards. Lesley Mofokeng travels to northern Limpopo to meet the king of Tsonga disco

The mystical rolling green hills covered by thick layers of dark clouds pregnant with rain tell me I’m in the Lowveld.

I wonder what secrets these mountains hold.

The air is uncharacteristically cool, rarefied even.

I could bottle and sell it in Joburg.

The road meanders uphill and downhill as we head towards Giyani – 111km, the road sign says.

The only annoyance are the intermittent stoppages due to road works and the burly trucks chugging uphill.

But nothing can dull my excitement at going to see Thomas Chauke (62), the legend of Tsonga disco.

Confession time: I can’t sing along to any of Chauke’s songs, but what I know for sure is that 32 albums later, he is something of a demigod in these parts of the world.

His longtime collaborators, the Shinyori Sisters, whom I’ve nicknamed Shinyori Grandmothers (largely due to age), side by side with him, prove that there can be peace and progress in polygamous households.

There are spontaneous eruptions of jubilation whenever Chauke releases an album.

Motorists form a convoy and hoot down the streets while blaring his latest hit single.

It’s like Christmas, and last week was no different.

Such is the legend of this man, who was announced as one of the guests of honour at next month’s SA Music Awards (Samas).

He will join the late Afrikaans musician Johannes Kerkorrel (posthumous) and gospel hit maker Sizwe Zako as recipients of Lifetime Achievement awards.

Chauke has 14 Samas to his credit, three SA Traditional Music Achievements and 11 Munghana Lonene FM awards.

There are also honours from the Vhembe and Mopani district municipalities as well as the KwaZulu-Natal premier’s office.

The University of Venda conferred an honorary doctorate on him.

This has caught fire as everyone now calls him “doctor”.

His music has been pulsating out of the hostels of Alexandra in Joburg and on the streets of Marabastad in Pretoria, and rumour has it that every house north of Polokwane and Bushbuckridge to the east has at least 10 CDs or cassettes of this great exponent of Tsonga music.

A man of simple means (no vices, no glove, wields no traditional weapon or a mascot), he is Limpopo’s living treasure and a hero for Tsonga speakers.

This unassuming music giant has shunned city life despite all his success, and has chosen to live with his people in Saselamani, the village of his birth.

We head further northeast to Giyani.

The clouds thin out as the mountains flatten to little hills, and the glorious blazing sun this province is known for comes out.

Sweat begins to drip.

Past Giyani – the small, you-blink-you-miss-it town with one set of robots that are not working – we shoot deeper north to Malamulele as the mercury keeps rising.

The forest is dense and the greenery persists as different types of trees compete for space.

We finally reach Saselamani.

The main road leading to Chauke’s house is tarred, but the offshoot leading directly to it is gravel. The imposing double storey is unmissable.

Parked to the side of the house are a Cadillac and a Dodge Calibre.

The GPS indicates that we are 20km away from the the Mozambican border at Punda Maria.

Chauke emerges from behind the house, a little heavier than I expected with perfectly combed hair.

Even when he scratches his head, he pats it all back into place.

I ask him about lofty palaces in leafy suburbia and he shoots down the idea.

“I love my village. I was born here, my umbilical cord was buried here. I found a lot of support from my people around here in the villages. For me, building this house here was a ‘thank you’ to the people. They need to see what their support has done for me.”

The purpose of my trip is also to toast the release of his latest album, Shimatsatsa Volume No 32, which went old in two days – standard practice for him.

“My albums have a message to build the nation and to inspire and motivate. I don’t compose a song for an individual. It’s about issues that affect the community. I’d like people not to regret buying my music.

“They should even feel that the album is cheaper compared to the joy, comfort and entertainment the music brings them. I’ve studied what people want and I stick to that.”

Since 1981, this formula has earned him millions in sales and loyalty no money can buy.

But the man who will be feted at the Samas believes that the music industry is dead.

“The music industry has changed, actually I call it a dead industry. They can say what they like, it’s dead. I used to sell a lot of copies and make good money, and take care of my family. Now, don’t be surprised when you hear that Dr Chauke is in Joburg looking for a job. The industry is dead.”

But he acknowledges some good.

“I’m still a lucky man to sell a gold disc in two days. Government has to do something about this piracy. It’s not only us who lose money as musicians but the government is cheated out of tax.

“I’m the only guy whom people are proud to possess an original album of. Last week, they almost killed a person selling fake CDs here in Giyani. What’s that? It’s love.”

This shift almost forced him into early retirement.

For the first time since 1981, he didn’t release an album in December.

But due to public pressure, he had to rethink.

“People came here demanding an album. Pastors came to pray for me to continue my God-given talent. To show there is magic from God, the album is flying.”

The album is being propelled by the single Virus Computer Ya Ntloko, which sticks to the Chauke formula while addressing the issue of bad advisers and gossip that break families.

“If you listen to people, your head will be infected by the virus of lies,” he says.

I ask him how many children he has.

He dismisses me.

“You don’t want to know. I’m a musician, not a child maker. I don’t have a wife. The Shinyori Sisters are my band, we just work together.”

Later, he opens up about the success of his children – all 32 of them.

Conny has carved a name for herself now with 10 albums out, while Themba has seven albums.

Griffiths, popularly known as Shibobo, composes, programs, plays the keyboard and guitar and does mixing – all this at 15.

Some of his children have gone into fields like land surveying, IT, marketing, law and business.

Looking back at his journey, Chauke says he has realised that this is a gift from God.

“I thought it was my way but I have learnt that this is a real gift from God. It was never easy when I started.”

He left Saselamani to work at a flower firm in Heidelberg, Gauteng, in 1969.

He then moved to Alexandra in 1971, where he fixed swimming pools and tennis courts in neighbouring Sandton.

While there he met his uncle, who was into mbaqanga music and played the Tsonga guitar, which he taught Chauke how to play.

Chauke travelled back home in 1978 and fixed radio sets.

He was already married with a child.

“I couldn’t buy soap, mealie meal and napkins with the little I made from radios.

“But I loved instruments and

I loved the sound of music when people sang at shebeens, but I didn’t drink.

So I bought a radio with a cassette player to record the music.

“Women sang and I used to tune them in for my recording. When I got home, I realised I could do something with the material. I matched the voices with the electric guitar I bought and connected it to the cassette recording.”

He started his band with 13 singers from a shebeen.

After a few months, only five remained. They performed at school halls to raise money to go to Joburg and realise the recording dream.

After a few months, they raised R140 and hired a car to go to Joburg, where they – five women and him – stayed in a single roomin Meadowlands Zone 5, Soweto.

He recalls: “The women slept in the kitchen and I slept in the passage leading to the toilet.”

The band performed at Dube station on Saturdays and the money they made bought them food.

Chauke signed a contract to record with GRC and received R2 in royalties, although he believes the album sold well.

When he returned to Saselamani, he got back on to the circuit, performing in halls. “Sometimes we had no transport and had to walk, even 50km.”

He moved to Wea Records, where he got a better deal and changed his brand of music from Nyoresh to Shimatsatsa (“a beautiful girl”). In 1981, he recorded his first album, and so his 32-year journey began.

It wasn’t until the second volume that the Shimatsatsa revolution was felt.

“When I went to collect royalties, a white man came to welcome me at the door. For the first time I was hugged by a white man.

“I bought myself a brand new Toyota Hilux with a canopy with that money. Now we could travel to shows in it.”

Selling gold and platinum became standard for him.

“There is no magic behind this, it’s God’s work,” he says.

And he has managed not to attract negative publicity.

“I’m not one for scandals, even when there are problems, I hold back and wait for the issue to be resolved. I’m a nice father to my children. I’m a humble guy, as you can see. I’m a good father.”

Chauke remains a strong community leader and is always keen to help where he can.

But he shies away from politics. His main concern is the state of hospitals in his province and how patients get treated.

In his downtime, Chauke enjoys watching movies on TV and is a big fan of Jean-Claude van Damme and Bruce Lee.

He also enjoys watching gospel and reggae concert DVDs.

“I don’t play soccer but I do watch it. My team is Bafana Bafana,” he says.

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