I only saw Syd Kitchen perform live twice, both times in Cape Town, in late 2009. When he started singing, I immediately felt that his songwriting was of the highest order. And every time this happens for me with a local artist, I immediately try to place that artist in an international context.
Kitchen certainly deserves such a context – a position he shares with perhaps only a handful of local songwriters - and yet what struck me listening to him play his songs live was his South Africanness, and this sense has stayed with me as I have listened to the albums by him I have managed to find, the majority of which I had to buy from him personally because no major local shop seems to stock his albums.
Of course, many of his songs are explicitly topical in their subject-matter. Africa’s Not for Sissies, for instance, is a deceptively lighthearted song about living in a crime-ridden society like our own. But there is something else about Kitchen’s music that strikes me as particularly South African: his accent is unusual.
Other local singers have used accents to create characters – one thinks of David Kramer’s Tjoepstil, in which a white policeman with an Afrikaans accent is presented to us, someone Kramer knows would be ridiculous to his intended audience. The song then skilfully goes on to challenge such assumptions, but the important thing is that, to begin with, we know who this character is.
Kitchen’s accent works differently: it isn’t a parody of any particular accent, either black or white, but seems to have traces of many accents a South African person would have heard, settling in between them. And so when he sings in the title track of the wonderful Fool in a Bubble EP: “Here I sit like a fool in a bubble / My heart in trouble / My head in a mess …”, the song could be about dislocation and loss of innocence anywhere, but this accent suggests a South African slant.
This accent is also present in the music itself. So, for instance, listening the title track of Africa’s Not for Sissies, some listeners might conveniently assume that this is a confession by Kitchen himself, speaking as someone who has seen enough of this continent and knows that he can no longer stay here: “Can’t stay, I finally see / That Africa is not for sissies …” But the music itself complicates this impression: it contains guitar lines that powerfully echo Zulu maskanda music, and the PVC pipe (or hosepipe flute, as he called it) suggest a more hybrid identity for this speaker. The song’s disturbing content is undercut by the playful lyric: “I’m a ordinary man / I’ve got a life and a wife to keep / I’m a ordinary man / I take sixteen guard dogs with me when I sleep …” Throughout, Kitchen inserts statements at the end of verses (“yebo, yes”, “please don’t go”, said in an exaggeratedly refined English accent) until his audience feels – consciously or not – that their paranoia is shared across different social and ethnic divides, while still insisting that those divides are present.
Kitchen, who died in Durban about two weeks ago, famously described himself as an Afrosaxon by inclination. Listening to his multi-accented music, one of its greatest pleasures is its curiosity about different voices and positions – a curiosity that reverberates through the songs and leaves us with new ways of asking what it means to come from here.