Taliep Petersen – April 5, 1950 – December 16, 2006.

Great South African artist – director, composer, musician, song man, musical theatre legend; humanist extraordinaire

Taliep Petersen was inducted into showbiz on New Year’s Day 1956, when at the age of six, he sang on the streets with a troupe, The Dark Town Strutters. Throughout his glittering career as co-creator, with David Kramer, of internationally acclaimed musicals such as District Six and Ghoema, music remained the leitmotif of his life.

New Year’s day 1956, District Six, 3am

It is 3am, New Year’s day 1956 in 43 Van de Leur Street, District Six. Taliep Petersen is four months short of his 6th birthday when his father, Mogamat Ladien Petersen wakes him up and asks: “Can you sing?” 

A youngster in The Dark Town Strutters – a troupe coached and operated by his father -has dropped out. Another voice is needed at short notice. “Put on your gown and slippers and go upstairs,” urges Taliep Petersen’s father. “Leave the boy alone, let him sleep,” says his mother Jawaahier. Paternal grandmother Fatiema deals the deciding vote: “Let him sing.”

Upstairs in the Klops Kamer [practice room] the young Taliep sings Charlie Chaplin’s Around the world. Moosa – father’s friend and leading musician in the troupe – mutters: “Die laatie kan sing [the youngster can really sing].”

Balle – as he is affectionately known [literally ‘small balls’] has passed the test. Up to this induction the child has not been allowed to sing in public. Dad sets the goal posts high. “He was tough. For this I am glad, the discipline, the rigour he instilled,” recalls Taliep.

Almost five decades later, sitting at the District Six Museum in Buitenkant Street, in 2003 where this interview takes place, this memory is still vivid – getting out of that bed in the middle of the night: “So exciting! How can a child go back to sleep? Man, I’ve lived a life and a half; a life and half.”

No-one sleeps in District Six on New Year’s Eve

Why was the family up at 3am? “No-one sleeps in District Six on New Year’s Eve,” laughs Taliep. The house was buzzing as everyone got ready for the Carnival.

New Year festivities aside, the Petersen house was always full of music and music makers.  “Not to be biased but my mother had a unique voice. My father was very comfortable playing banjo and guitar.” Every week, his dad bought his mom a 78’’ [vinyl record]. In addition to his involvement with the Dark Town Strutters, his father played banjo for the Proteas, a Malay choir.

Music was everywhere in The Distrik

Young Taliep learnt a great deal from the arrangements of the Malay choirs and troupes which were layered with a multitude of musical genres. The latter reverberated with Negro spirituals and music of the Deep South. Music was everywhere. The District was close to the port. American sailors visited, armed with LPs which they gave to their hosts. These popular melodies of the 50s and 60s were the kind of records you wouldn’t hear on Springbok radio “with its Pat Boons” but “included Fats Domino and The Platters and other greats.”

His biggest learning curve as a singer and storyteller was in the District itself – listening, interacting; observing: “I learnt my craft from the local people.”

“Man, what don’t I remember of the District? Harmony, caring, sharing, love – man – you know how I would put it – District Six was the New South Africa ahead of its time. Tolerance – the District was all those things.” Within the melting pot of cultures – Afrikaans, Malay, Jewish, Xhosa – there was respect: “Old people and children didn’t get raped.”

And man, he could sing. He became famous, a household name as the musical director of hit musicals. But, it was the singing that was the leitmotif of his life.

Memories of performing in City Hall

In 1959, three years after his 3am debut, he sang in the City Hall with The Boarding Boys [a Malay Choir] – with a permit as was required to do in Apartheid days when such things were required for performers of colour. Over a 12 year period during his adolescence (1967-79), he received much acclaim. He won first prize as a soloist with a choir with the fabulously evocative name of The Rio Oranje Sing Koor.

As an adult, major successes followed. In the 80s, Taliep wrote a musical, Carnival a la District Six which was a hit nationally and in Swaziland, Namibia, Zimbabwe and was followed by a rock opera sequel Carnival a la District Six 2.

After Carnival 2, he formed a band, Sapphyre which played on the hotel circuit and in the Commores. In 1984, the band won an award for its album, Rosa: “Wetook Cape Malay songs and modernized them and gave them a today feel.”

In the 90s, the late Gerry Bosman arranged The District Six Suite. Taliep was moved to tears when he heard it first played by the Cape Town Philharmonic [at the time The Symphony Orchestra] in the City Hall: “Man, the City Hall used to be for whites. You had to get a permit for the Malay choirs, and there I was performing – not Chopin or Bach – but Petersen/Kramer compositions.” He appeared regularly with the orchestra as a vocalist.

A devoted Muslim, seven and a half years ago he released Tribute, a best-selling Islamic traditional musical album [Qasida]. Sharing is the 4th principle of Islam. He took this very seriously. Away from the glitz and razzle dazzle of show biz, he coached community troupes and in prisons: “Hundreds in a yard”). He wrote music for soloists and choirs and was involved with fundraising concerts.

Taliep Petersen and David Kramer – beyond brotherhood

In almost two decades of collaboration with David Kramer, there were six hit musicals and a band project called Cape Town. Kat and die Kings won critical, commercial acclaim and international awards.

Their first collaboration- District Six The Musical broke box office records, with 350 000 people seeing the show. Fifteen years after it was first staged in the show was re-run at the Baxter – with 133,331 people seeing the musical.

Repeatedly through this interview and other interviews, over the years, Taliep has reaffirmed his and David’s synergy, their mutual respect, joy in working together: “We each bring our own strengths. It’s gone beyond brotherhood. It’s deep and I treasure that.”

Man, I’ve lived a life and a half; a life and half

In tandem with the hit musicals, he ran his solo recording career. He made TV shows, toured in Malaysia, won awards. When asked to list his achievements, he repeats almost like a mantra: “Man, I’ve lived a life and a half; a life and half”. Then he adds: “No, no, I can’t talk about what I am like. Ask them here, if you want to know”, he gestures to Menisha Collins who brings in coffee during our interview at the District Six Museum. Taliep asks for his coffee in District Six style – with condensed milk rather than milk. “You didn’t have a fridge in the Distrik,” he chuckles.

An amazing man, I prompt. ”Yes amazing”, Menisha concurs: “But girlfriend, it was an amazing place – whatever we do is our culture.”

Noor Ebrahim, a guide at the museum is equally effusive in his praise. The three engage in talking Distrik Taal, discussing a list they are compiling of the linga franca of the place. 

Taliep knew the streets well. Standing on the huge map on the floor at the District Six Museum, he shakes his head:  “No, no, that’s wrong. That should continue there, not there.”

His father was initially in the building trade but when that went bust he became a hawker and a taxi driver. As a hawker he sold goods on tick [“oppie boekie”]. Young Taliep had to play debt collector on weekends and seek out the customers – the sailors, the prostitutes, whoever. You had to just go and find the street, no one gave you a map, he grins, marking out the territory of his childhood by planting his boot-clad feet firmly on the plastic sheeting protecting the map.

A man of style

The stylish boots were an acquisition from Barcelona. The boots are set off against tan Levis and a pale yellow Polo shirt. Known for his love of clothes – and good taste, Taliep says that Renaye Kramer – David’s wife – ragged him when they were touring- that he was always running off to shop: “I like nice things.”

His sense of style he says is from his beloved granny Fatiema who was a renowned seamstress. She was the one who hurriedly made that 1956 New Year’s day outfit for the laatie singer who joined in the parade at the 11th hour. He still remembers that costume: “White and black, pink and black satin”. The Dark Town Strutters were renowned for its gear. Every year the ensemble won the award for best-dressed troupe. “Polka dots and satins” was the troupe’s signature style.

Fatiema was a seminal influence in Taliep’s life. The family moved from Upper Darling Street, where he was born to van De Leur Street when he was two or three. When he was seven, his parents divorced. Taliep and his sister Tagmieda stayed with his father and grandmother. Although the family was split and perhaps what we’d call today a broken home, the streets in the District were so close, that the boundaries blurred: “Between where you slept, played and lived- everyone was everywhere.” Even years later (he was 14), when the family relocated to Salt River, Taliep went to the District after school: “I just didn’t sleep there.”

The last time a minstrel parade went down the streets of the District as we know it, was in 1972. The process of dismantling took a long time with pockets of activity (especially music) still lingering after the homes had been razed to the ground.

A prize of R50 as Mr Entertainment

After matriculating, Taliep applied to study at UCT [University of Cape Town] but was rejected and told to go to “Bush College” as UWC [University of the Western Cape] was referred to then. He didn’t. In 1968 and 1969 he was awarded the title of Mr. Entertainment an award given by the Golden City Post, a newspaper “for non-whites”. His prize was R50 and a recording contract.

If you were lucky your song was played on the Protea Club 12 minutes of radio time “for coloured people”, every 2nd week on the English Service. “What can you call it – a little dummy to keep babies from crying”, he offers with the words sticking in his throat: “Just play the heppy cleppy coloured.”

He worked with American superstars such as Percy Sledge, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie “and some of the African-American international stars brought out by the Quibell brothers.”

Classical guitar studies in London

His only formal music training was a two-year stint in classical guitar, at the Fitznell School of Music in the UK.  He had to sell everything he owned to bankroll his studies.

Returning to South Africa in 1980, age 31, Taliep Petersen was angry and questioning. After being able to go where he wanted and do what he wanted, he had to obtain permission to perform. He got into his share of trouble: Busted for the immorality act, talking out against injustice on stage while for example singing Nina Simone’s To be Young, Gifted and Black.

Back in SA in 1974; nothing had changed

He notes that his “consciousness” was not new and went way back to 1974 when he performed in Hair in Maseru. After interacting with great performers and experiencing freedom on all levels, he came home and discovered “nothing had changed”. This was his “militant period”.         

Countering criticism that the District Six entertainers had no musical genre of their own, aping the American Hollywood stars, he laughs bitterly. “Hell man, in order to get the work, you had to prove to be better than the white person. You had to be the best Platters, best Elvis; the best Sinatra. That’s what people wanted to hear.”

They were not sentimental sequined crooners who had no musical idiom of their own: “People wanted entertainment. The big stars were not coming out here and we were taking people closer to the international greats.”

In the 1960s, prospects for the young talented Talieps of the time were not exactly numerous: “There were no black drama or music schools. What could you have become – a gebou man [delivery boy]?” They created themselves. It was a matter of survival. Songs with any semblance of protest or political awakening were sung at home, in the areas you lived, “where you felt safe”.

Regarding his decision to work in showbiz, within the macabre permit system with its resonances of Nazi Germany, he quotes Fatiema: “My rock of Gibraltar, my pillar of strength.” She advised him that “it was better to walk into the door when one was opened.” You had to go in and grab your chance and “prove your worth”.

Positvism – always

His outlook is one of positivism: “There’s a higher being, man. Whatever is put out for you is put out for you by God [Takdier].” You may not have control over the cards you are dealt but ultimately, you take responsibility for your own choices and how you behave.”

Taliep Petersen: “We are scratching the surface, here, believe me”.

Almost in tears, he reiterates the pivotal moments in his life with a sense of disbelief that all this happened: “My life in the Coon Carnival, Malay Choir, gangsters in my youth, my life in London. If I made it into chapters phew: Life with a step-mother, father’s house, mother house, having to adjust; life as a performer on a road show,; travelling when there are no hotels; bus is sleeping space, 1st pilgrimage to Mecca, entering theatre world without seeing the front door of a drama school”. Then there was his brief office career as a wage clerk…Ja, that was my ambition once. I’ve walked that walk as well”.

The music kept calling him.

Throughout, the zeitgeist of District Six shaped and defined much of his work – thematically and spiritually. He continued to embrace and cherish the legacy he received in The District. His email address is tagged distrik6. The people, places, culture, language will always be part of him, he says, even if he was dressed in a tux and sitting in a VIP box at City Hall: “You must never forget who you are.”

Life is an eternal show

“We’ve been perfecting everyone else’s music – jazz, pop etc. The time now is to perfect our own music. To sing to us. To celebrate us,” reflects Taliep [53 at the time of the interview].  “It is important to tell the stories of the people, influenced by the music of the people. We have our own cultural traditions to preserve – the klopse, boere liedjies, slave songs, kwela, traditional songs … Man there’s much more to us than – Daar kom die Alibama.

[Daar kom die Alibam – a popular staple sung by minstrel troupes on New Year’s was published in the FAK song collection – Afrikaans folk music published in 1937 by the FAK – the Federation of African Cultural Societies.]

Taliep Petersen: “And don’t discount the music of the street.” Every year on Eeerste Nuwe Jaarsdag [1st January, New Year celebrations], thousands of people hit the streets in the Cape: “So what’s wrong with that music; with thousands loving it?”

During this “Next Stage” of his career, as he terms it, he wants to contribute as much as he can to the arts – as a South African drawing from everything that has fed into his “life and a half”. 

He prays that the children of today and tomorrow don’t have to be faced with the hurdles put in his way. Excellence is always something to strive for: “You never stop auditioning. You’re only as good as your next show. Life is an eternal show.”

With the planned redevelopment, of District Six, I ask whether he would he consider moving from his Athlone home and returning there?  His children (five daughters and a son) would have to make their own decisions, he answers but then adds with his face lighting up: “If my dad goes, I would be happy to. I still go to Mosque there regularly”. He pauses, smiling.  “You know – I never really left the District. I just don’t live there”.

At the interview, sitting in the District Six Museum, I remind Taliep what he had told me in another interview, regarding his initial meeting with David Kramer in 1985, when the two got together to start work on District Six – the musical. David asked his new partner in music where his books and source material were. Taliep replied -no, he hadn’t brought anything. “I am the book”, he told David.

Image credit: TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen, 2004 at the Baxter Theatre, at the opening of Kat and the Kings .

The genesis of this article – tribute to a Living Legend – and now it is a tribute to a Legend who is No Longer Living

❇ This article is an edited version of my article which was first published in The Argus, December 2006, shortly after Taliep Petersen’s murder on December 16.

❇ The article has a story. I was commissioned by the HSRC’s Living Treasures series to interview Taliep Petersen. The interview was conducted in April 2003 at The District Six Museum in Cape Town. Quotes are from a transcript of the interview and from other interviews with Taliep Petersen and David Kramer.

❇ Taliep read the article and made corrections. It was never published as funding for the series ran out.

❇ Payment was made but that wasn’t the point. The article was pitched to several editors who said that they did not have budget “for that kind of thing”. 

❇ Over the years, I apologised to Taliep that the interview still had not been published, he smiled: “It will be published at the right time.”

❇ It took his death to get the article published. That article is a yellowing clip in my file and I reckoned that it was time to put the article up on TheCapeRobyn magazine website. It is a piece which loops over itself.

❇ At the time of the interview [2003], it was a piece about a Living Legend. When the article was published in 2006, after his murder, it became eulogy. He was a legend who was no longer with us.

❇ When it was published in 2006, I added this as a postscript- I quote what I added in 2006: ‘When I wrote up this interview in April 2003, I noted that as a singer, writer and storyteller, Taliep Petersen was like a book – a rich repository of experience of memory which stretches back to District Six and generations of Malaysian slavery. I wrote that he is a book in which language and culture collide. I wrote that “many more pages will be added”. As we know, no more pages can be added to this talented man who lived a “life and a half”.’

❇ Now, in 2020, re-visiting the piece for TheCapeRobyn magazine website, I read his words and I want to ask more but he is not here.

❇ I can still hear Taliep talking – at the interview – and during many of our subsequent interviews and interactions at the theatre. So, yes, in my article, here on TheCapeRobyn, I veer between past and present tense.  I am with him in the District Six Museum, hanging onto every word as Living Legend/Treasure and when he speaks, it is “he says”; not “he said”.

❇ I usually use second names when writing articles but I cannot simply tag him as “Petersen”. At times I refer to him as Taliep and other times as Taliep Petersen. I am aware of trying to grasp at him and honour his name; his identity.

❇ As I compile this piece and I am cognizant that Taliep Petersen is no longer a Living Legend/Treasure. He is treasured but he is no longer living. I must step back and reflect on who he was; his work; the tremendous legacy that he leaves us: Great South African artist – director, composer, musician, song man, musical theatre legend and humanist extraordinaire.