March 28, 2011

SYD KITCHEN Quintessentially

Filed under: 2011 - G-String Blues,richard haslop — ABRAXAS @ 9:23 am

syd kitchen in aryan kaganof’s “g-string blues”

By Richard Haslop

It hasn’t been a good week. I had just written the intro to this latest
column, about a criminally overlooked South African musician who had
recently died, when another followed him. This time, though, it was
personal. I had met Shiyani Ngcobo a few times but largely admired his
artistry from a distance. Syd Kitchen, on the other hand, was my friend
for almost forty years and, despite car crashes, collapsed lungs and a
general approach to living that might have been dangerous if it hadn’t
been quite so full of life, seemed destined to be so for another forty,
as long as I could last the distance. But the cancer that he had
announced with typically Kitchenesque sardonicism such a brutally short
while previously got him almost before we’d had the chance to catch our

In Durban, where Kitchen lived all his life, he’s often called a local
legend, but in fact not enough people took his music seriously enough so
that you can walk into a Durban record store and buy his albums, or so
that the local commercial radio station would play his songs, or even so
that most of those who loved him for the title of Africa’s Not For
Sissies ever heard him sing it live.

It’s fashionable and convenient to blame the mainstream music business
for this and, heaven knows, it can usually justifiably be blamed for
most things. But today a friend, reacting to news of Kitchen’s death,
called him one of a kind, and the stark truth is that the mainstream
music business is simply not set up to deal with one of a kind. Anyway,
it was the determinedly maverick musical road that Kitchen chose that
made him the songwriter, and the musician, that he was.

The best way in for neophytes is probably via the 2004 compilation,
Quintessentially, which draws from his first four studio albums,
released at sporadic intervals between 1987 and 2001. Here the
stylistic breadth and emotional depth of his writing, where irreverent
and often zany lyrical and musical humour is a constant companion, are
plain to hear, along with a casual virtuosity on the guitar that held
its own, and then some, in the company of several of South Africa’s
leading players. It adds a track from his early ’70s folk incarnation
as one half of the Kitchen Brothers and a live recording from the
Splashy Fen Music Festival, where his annual performances – he played
his evenhanded mix of rock, jazz, folk, blues, country and African music
at every single one – are the stuff of cultdom.

After that, Across, from 2007, consisting entirely of four long solo
instrumentals, is an intensely personal and beautifully realised album,
while the title song from his last record, Fool In A Bubble, recorded in
New York with an all star cast of mainly expat South Africans playing
their socks off, has “standard” written all over it.

About the last musical adventure of Kitchen’s life was travelling to the
UK to record a version of the John Martyn song, Fine Lines, for a Martyn
tribute album that seems destined to include a string of far better
known artists. Martyn himself was apparently well aware of, and taken
with, Kitchen’s output, and this was an important opportunity for Syd,
but, as Jim Dickinson, a truly mighty music man, once pointed out, life
ain’t fair; fare’s what you pay to ride the bus; fair’s where you go to
see the pigs dance.

So the internet is still likely to provide the most reliable access to
the Kitchen catalogue for some time. People, according to one of his
songs, get so lonesome when the boogie dies. Fortunately, despite the
combined efforts of the grim reaper and that mainstream music business,
it never does.

first published in business day

8 Responses to “SYD KITCHEN Quintessentially”

  1. helge Says:

    with all due respect to you richard I would like to ask the following question regarding:

    “It’s fashionable and convenient to blame the mainstream music business for this and, heaven knows, it can usually justifiably be blamed for most things………..the stark truth is that the mainstream music business is simply not set up to deal with one of a kind.”

    do you not think it is strange that in a ‘mainstream music business’ that can treat titles like ‘fokofpolisiekar’ as a common reality and not even bat an eyelid to ‘van coke cartel’ is unable to deal with Syd Kitchen? Not to mention the antics of ‘die antwoord’? There is definitely something a lot more behind this somewhat relentless sidelining of talent and the fact that Syd was able to avoid a music business that GLOBALLY seems to think that that being ‘one of a kind’ is the quintessential trade mark of success in the music industry.

    i find the incongruence staggering….

  2. richard haslop Says:

    this is a much wider debate, of course, helge, but i think that what the mainstream music industry considers one of a kind (and nobody is really ever musically totally unique) is quite different from the way i see it, which may, taking the whole musical spectrum into account, rather than just what’s relatively easily consumable and available, be closer to reality. personally, i don’t think that the other artists you mention are that musically challenging, except, perhaps, in relation to the mainstream of that mainstream. without wishing, in any way, to devalue the importance of having artists like them in a local music scene, because they are pushing boundaries, if perhaps not musical ones, you can market fokofpolisiekar, van coke cartel and die antwoord in the same way as it was easy, in the early ’60s, to market the rebelliousness of the rolling stones, and not that easy to market that of the fugs, for example. whoever’s fault it may ultimately be, i’m not sure how you market syd kitchen to an audience the very limit of whose musical vision is fokofpolisiekar, much of whose appeal may well lie in the fact that people think it rebellious to own their albums or say their name out loud in company.

  3. helge Says:

    Thank you for this perspective richard….at this level yes, what you say makes absolute sense….and it is for this reason that i had a bit of a love hate relationship with the stones at the time. More hate than love actually….Now of course I am far less hastled. But I do think that given South African history, there is a much wider debate (as you mention) with regard to artists that did not buy into the apartheid regime agenda that needs to be explored. I say this in light of the fact that this area has been shoved under the carpet (kitchen himself was baffled by it) and for some strange reason seems to be a taboo subject.

  4. Katie Dean Says:

    This is good stuff, cheers

  5. aidan jameson Says:


    thanks for this, the first of many look backs at Syd to come, but so close to the raw end of his passing not one likely to be surpassed. perhaps if Syd had been a lesser soul, less principled, he might have attained global recognition and all the “rewards” that would have offered him. but then we would be the poorer for it – not just musically but in the memory of the man we once knew

  6. Andrea Says:

    Great guy..iconic of the end of an era… The somewhat conflicted protest bard-cum hippie cadre…cum-bum ..cum rolling stonist-neo-colonialist-all-boy -country-crossover bluegrass durban-outback-band spawned from dylan, strawbs, peter paul n mary meet syd vicious..the stones and other 70’s ilk..which personified music in sa for an era..may he rest in peace, job well done!!

  7. david robert lewis Says:

    Syd played at one of the Kagenna gigs back in the early 90s, alongside Artvark, Azazi Mkweru and Winston’s jive mixup. A victim of the apartheid system which relegated any form of cross-cultural mix to the fringe of society. Such a shame he never got wider exposure when he was cooking up a storm at the Base. Rest in Peace brother.

  8. Catherine Morrow Says:

    A very sensitive article written here. Thank you, Richard. In my studies and research done in partial fulfillment of my masters thesis, I interviewed Syd, and you, Richard (hopefully you’ll remember that), and many other SADF conscripts during the border war. It was interesting to hear his point of view, most especially since we studied together under the same supervisor, Professor Christopher Ballantine, but had experienced such vastly different music histories. I valued Syd’s opinions on the matter of the music industry’s use (or lack of use) of his music. Naturally, being the rebel that he was, his music would never have been accepted or distributed by the SABC before the end of apartheid. Because it was too dangerous. His music, along with that of Marks, Andrew, Lucey (to name but a VERY few), would never have found the platform it deserved. For numerous reasons.

    For the purpose of this debate, perhaps the notion that music has a flummoxing ability to bore into the consciousness and subconsciousness of people, to challenge their conceptions of who they are, where they exist, why they hold certain perspectives, how they perceive their environments, and so on. We know that music such as Syd’s posed too much of a challenge to a regime that so tightly controlled countless discourses that shaped our environments and identities at the time. I think Syd would have had to compromise too much in order to enjoy a public platform and the support of the apartheid government in the form of distribution. And if he had made that compromise, perhaps we wouldn’t all be commenting on this blog and remembering Syd in the way that we do.