“Let’s do it for Madiba!” shouts Yvonne Chaka Chaka as she walks on stage at the first 46664 concert in Cape Town. She’s decked out in South African flags, looking like a soccer fan crossed with a diva. There are two on her dress and eight on her hat; her left side is supported by a crutch draped in a 46664 t-shirt.
In spite of the crutch, she dances with real energy, shaking her hips as she sings ‘Umqombothi’. It’s a song about beer – more specifically, making it, as women all over South Africa do. Chaka Chaka doesn’t drink, but she sings this song as though she does. This concert captures Chaka Chaka in her element: performing to an enchanted South African audience, for a good cause: she’s a singer with a heart, deeply involved with the African people.
She’s sophisticated, she’s intelligent, and she carries herself lightly, moving with the poise of a born performer. She speaks with sureness and refined grace, her musicality bubbling under the surface.
This does not mean that she is at ease with the world. No black South African who grew up during the 1970s and ‘80s could be. But one of her gifts is the ability to take negativity and turn it into something positive: past challenges are used as motivation to improve the present.
Chaka Chaka learnt the importance of discipline and integrity from her mother, who raised three daughters as a single parent on a domestic worker’s salary. She’d help her mother with chores around the house – but also found time to express herself. While sweeping the floor, Chaka Chaka, barefoot and swaying in time to the swishes of the broom’s scratch on concrete, would sing into its handle. It became a microphone, and the concrete floor a stage.
Children are ambitious. Usually their dreams and desires fall away over time, replaced by the concerns of the moment and cut down by the realities of life. Not everyone can be extraordinary. Chaka Chaka is the exception. At the age of 13 she was introduced to the world of show business when she went to an audition held by Bernard Joffe, who was looking for talented children in Soweto.
“He came from nowhere. I guess he was sent by God,” she says. Out of the audition came a show called ‘Sugar Shack’, and Chaka Chaka became the first black child to appear on South African television. Rising to fame at a young age can mean that turbulence, controversy and a meltdown into ignominy follow. Not so for Yvonne Chaka Chaka. Her calm and grace have sustained her throughout her career, kept her touching the heights without plummeting down.
“I love life. I live life to the fullest and I want to help where I can. I know I can never change the world, but I’m a believer that if you have, always share with others,” she says.
Staying grounded, and sharing her gifts, has worked out well for Chaka Chaka. She’s released more than 20 albums, with multiple gold and platinum records to her name. By the time she was 19 she was recording her first album, “I’m in Love with a DJ”, for Dephon Records. The first single, which shares its name with the album, was an instant hit, and both sold well.
As an example of how Chaka Chaka is able to take misfortune and use it to make something beautiful, a trip to the doctor turned into a lifelong romance. Chaka Chaka’s sister recommended that she visit Doctor Mandlalele Mhinga when the singer fell sick, and while nothing of note happened immediately after that first visit, they stayed in contact. Occasional calls and meetings turned into love and, ultimately, marriage.
The death of Phumzile Ntuli, a musician in Chaka Chaka’s band, turned her world on its head. After playing a concert in Gabon, Phumzile came down with a fever. Doctors misdiagnosed her, only realising too late that she had malaria, a disease that affects more than two thirds of the world’s population. More than that, it’s the most vulnerable who are the worst affected by malaria: its highest rates of occurrence are in the world’s poorest countries. Chaka Chaka threw herself into the fight. She is now a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for malaria.
“I was totally ignorant about malaria. I knew it was there, but I didn’t know how many people it kills, and when I discovered that I thought, ‘I want to be the voice of the voiceless.’” When she says that she’s talking about who malaria affects: in addition to the poorest people being the most susceptible, those who are particularly vulnerable are children under the age of five – who lack natural immunity – and pregnant women – whose immunity is decreased.
Now when she makes music, Chaka Chaka has an external motive. She’s still doing what she loves, but she’s singing to keep her profile high enough that she is able to make a difference in the fight against malaria. For Chaka Chaka, singing has become useful as well as enjoyable: it has the power to mobilise people, and to raise funds for medicine and mosquito nets.
Chaka Chaka is a performer with a conscience. She stands out from the celebrities who pretend to care, whose involvement in humanitarian causes is done more to appease their own guilty consciences than out of genuine concern for others.
She’s got an extraordinary presence. She’ll win you over without even trying – without needing to do more than smile, or give a gentle touch on the arm. There’s a restrained energy behind those gestures that, when it’s unleashed, knocks you off your feet.
People who have such allure often fall in love with themselves, forgetting about the concerns of others. Chaka Chaka never did that. She has maintained the connections she established growing up, and knows who she is: The Princess of Africa.
The second part of that title is important – Yvonne is ofAfrica. She doesn’t set herself above it. She gives freely of herself, with her music and her humanitarian work: more than anything she works for the African people, for their health and wellbeing. Africa is lucky to have her.