It’s hardly a unique phenomenon. Every country, and probably every region, has similar tales to tell about its unsung local heroes. But the fact that South African songwriter Syd Kitchen is not better known, not least among his own countrymen, seems particularly unfortunate, not only for Kitchen and his prospects of a comfortable retirement one day, but for the general musical well-being of those under whose radar he constantly flies as well.
The South Africa of the ‘60s and ‘70s was a strange place to grow up, musically or otherwise. Quite how strange was perhaps only really revealed to those who grew up there once the country had taken those first steps towards political normality in 1994. At a musical level, its long years of semi-isolation from the rest of the cultural world meant that, while a young musician like Kitchen would have had vicarious access, via records and the radio, to what was going on elsewhere, he would have had almost no direct contact with it, nor any realistic aspirations of his own music being heard beyond the confines of his immediate audience. Anyone choosing a musical life outside of the mainstream automatically restricts the size of that audience. In South Africa that kind of election marginalized the musician more than most.
The early ‘70s explosion of acoustic singer-songwriting didn’t go unnoticed down here, though, and the Kitchen Brothers – Syd, his garage band dreams of pop stardom forgotten, and brother Pete, a finger style guitarist of considerable skill and taste – were leading lights in a small but vibrant folk club scene where paying gigs were few and recording opportunities virtually non-existent, but whose gifts were plain to all who could be bothered to check and whose memories are treasured among those who encountered it.
In those days Syd, who grew up and still lives in Durban, an East Coast holiday destination of sun, surf and the best winter weather anywhere – but where artistic recognition has always seemed harder won than in other leading South African cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town – strummed more enthusiastically than expertly behind his already striking songwriting, while Pete provided the colour and texture. Bob Dylan and the Incredible String Band, with Pentangling guitar accompaniment, and the sardonic songwriting of Ray Davies in the Kinks were touchstones.
By the late ‘70s, Pete had moved on to a life outside of music, while Syd was working in a guitar shop and assiduously honing his chops across a bewildering array of musical styles. He had, in the meantime, also published Scars That Shine, a volume of his poetry that was a staple of hip local bookshelves.
The radical overhaul of his guitar skills that would eventually find him a place in the Aquarian Quartet, an occasional instrumental four piece comprising some of South Africa’s finest acoustic musicians, was reflected in the steady stylistic growth of his writing, as he began to feed rock, country, jazz, blues and African music into his now trademark lyrical quirks and musical detours. His technical prowess can be measured by the ease with which he has fitted in with a wide variety of collaborators, right up to his recent duo, Bafo Bafo. The other member of Bafo Bafo is Zulu musician Madala Kunene, whose haunting, trance-like take on the neo-traditional maskanda form has resulted in a number of internationally released albums of his own.
Kitchen, who had meanwhile closed his own guitar shop, spent the second half of the ‘80s leading a band named, in typical fashion, Syd Kitchen & the Utensils, with (male) backing singers known as the Kitchenettes. Their self released 1987 album, Waiting For The Heave, Kitchen’s first commercial recording aside from tracks on a few hopelessly rare ‘70s folk festival compilations, echoed his increasingly politicized writing under an ever more repressive regime.
An association with South African psychedelic guitar hero Kenny Henson, whose previous bands had included the now highly collectible Freedom’s Children and Abstract Truth, produced a single, but unreleased, album recording. So, live performance, low key and relatively infrequent though it was, was still the only reliable way to hear Kitchen, and David Marks, a local music veteran who had, more than 25 years earlier, written Master Jack, the first South African recorded song to reach the US Top 20, released the live cassette, Warts ‘n All, on his Third Ear label in 1992. Despite the album’s production values well and truly matching its title, it was a thoroughly engaging demonstration of the attraction of a Syd Kitchen gig, and probably would still be if anyone could find a copy. But, in South Africa at least, peddling your highly original but hardly massively commercial music from one low key gig to the next is not the most reliable way to earn a living, so Kitchen, who has taught guitar privately for years, went back to school. Well, to university, actually, from which he emerged with BA (Music) and BA Honours degrees, both of which were awarded cum laude.
He found the time, too, to release a second studio album, City Child, in 1995 and to form, in 1999, arguably his most musically interesting band to date, Amakool, whose embrace of indigenous South African music was striking even though all of the old Kitchen influences still filtered through. Regrettably, that band made only one EP, the excellent Amakoologik. Fortunately, though, tracks from that and the other earlier records can be found on the Quintessentially Syd Kitchen compilation, released in 2004.
Kitchen’s first album of the current decade is probably the one that has earned him most plaudits. Africa’s Not For Sissies, from 2001, is a trenchant, if inimitably humorous and often moving reflection on his own status as a white South African committed to living in a country that so many of his compatriots were leaving. It was followed by Bafo Bafo’s What Kind? in 2005. It’s ironic, though, that perhaps his finest album so far, 2007’s Across, consists of four long, solo acoustic guitar instrumentals named after the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water, each of which references, if sometimes obliquely, the musical elements that have got him to this point.
It may be due to the fact that he simply keeps working against all odds – odds that have included a couple of quite serious health scares – without ever losing his enthusiasm for performing or allowing his belief in the worth of what he does to be shaken, but recent years have seen a noticeable increase in Kitchen’s profile, both inside and outside of South Africa, even if that remains determinedly cultish. Despite the fact that they are not exactly flocking to his gigs, and despite the usual difficulty in persuading record stores to stock his albums, many more people seem to know who he is than before. Some of this can be attributed to South Africa’s own increased profile, and, no doubt, to the ever increasing numbers of South African émigrés who attend gigs in their new, foreign domiciles desperately hoping to hear the sounds of home. Some can obviously be attributed to the fact that he is accessible via his website, www.sydkitchen.com, and a few others specializing in South African music, and that physical attendance at gigs or space on record store shelves are no longer critical to musical survival, even for a cultish South African. But this kind of thing mainly spreads through word of mouth, so the more mouths spreading the word, the better.
Kitchen has now played several gigs in the USA and Europe, including one at the legendary McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, and there will surely be more. But all musicians need a stroke of good fortune at some point, even one who celebrated his 58th birthday this Valentine’s Day by getting married. Kitchen’s may have come when he met independent New York film maker Josh Sternlicht, who is currently making a documentary about him that ought to be released during the course of this year, along with Kitchen’s next album. That’s being recorded and produced in New York by former South African rock guitarist Keith Lentin and a coterie of Lentin’s buddies, who include, from his short lived expatriate South African rock band Skollie, session ace and Letterman drummer Anton Fig, along with a couple of Paul Simon’s fellow travelers via the Graceland connection.
Now, there’s no suggestion that this album will revive the Graceland effect, even if, quite coincidentally, it’s slated to include a song entitled Fool In A Bubble, and even though the rough mixes sound terrific, but it would be a shame if, despite his stroke of good fortune, Syd Kitchen remained a hardly known cult figure from an exotic location. Yet, if this was to be his lot, Kitchen would probably accept it in good heart and humour, and write a couple of worthwhile songs about it, too