Liso The Musician talks to TheCapeRobyn about life during the pandemic and her multiple roles which includes being a mother (to her own kids and to the community), wife, musician, cultural activist and overseeing the KASI RC Shack Theatre Soup Kitchen in Covid-19

Liso The Musician (aka Liso Sindo) is the artistic director of KASI RC Shack Theatre and Art School in in Khayelitsha.  The 26 year old dynamo is the mother of two young children and wife of Mandisi Sindo (30) who is a theatre maker and renowned cultural activist. On July 18, 2012, Mandisi Sindo innovated the award winning, The Makukhanye Art Room (Let be the light) in Khayelitsha. Before his innovations, the space was used a community hall. He turned it into a theatre. It is often referred to as Shack Theatre – as it is in a shack [made from corrugated iron sheets]. Makukhanye has garnered several awards, including the Fleur du Cape Theatre Award for innovation in theatre. July 18 is Mandela Day and Mandisi Sindo started his first shack theatre with three lights, donated by Russell Shapiro, who had closed down his theatre, On Broadway in the city. Liso The Musician was working with Mandisi, from the start, as you can see from the interview below. In between, this ebullient couple are parents of two children. They love theatre and the arts and are passionate about “innovating” and making things happen.

Encouraged by the success of the first shack theatre, Liso and Mandisi Sindo launched KASI RC in June 2019. KASI RC is also in Khayelitsha. KASI RC is situated near Monwabisi Beach and can accommodate around 200 people. It is equipped with balconies, wheelchair access and an auditorium. With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown in South Africa, arts activities were halted at KASI RC. A soup kitchen was established on the site. The Sindos have partnered with others to feed as many people as possible

For readers out of South Africa, Khayelitsha is in Cape Town and referred to as a township (Kasi in isiXhosa). Most people live in shacks [in the main, made up of corrugated iron sheets]. Poverty is widespread. The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the community. Most residents have been employed in the so-called informal sector. Jobs are gone. Many residents work as day labourers and as domestic workers. Unemployment benefits? Not likely. People are starving. The pop-up shack theatre soup kitchen is saving lives.

How does Liso The Musician do it? She enthuses: Dedication and time management is key. Read on about this extraordinary individual, who is making a huge contribution to her community, in the utterly difficult time of the pandemic- with a smile and utter positivity.

TheCapeRobyn: Please tell us what KASI RC stands for?

Liso The Musician: KASI RC stands for Khayelitsha Art School and Rehabilitation Centre. It is not just any Art School but a leadership school. Its priority is to enforce independency, self-reliance and hard work for independent artists and to assist them in their dream to innovate and strive for success.

TheCapeRobyn: Let’s talk about your journey with KASI RC Shack Theatre and your role as its artistic director?

Liso The Musician: I have been working very close with Mandisi Sindo ever since we met in 2012. That was the same year he started implementing his dream of innovating and transforming spaces and when the shack theatre came into a reality in Khayelitsha. He successfully ran the first award winning first shack theatre with me being a resident performer and his assistant in running programs and mentoring kids.

Working close with him and being mentored by him in the arts helped me to gain a lot of experience and skills. 

I have always been helping him in taking the right decisions hence we decided to open another theatre branch in the community of Zwelitsha where we reside. We decided to make KASI RC into a Shack Theatre School – more than just being a theatre space to only rehearse and showcase works. That was the most great idea because we both passionate about kids.

We started operating officially a year ago in June 2019. By that time I had already absorbed a lot of skills from all the experience we had while working together in his previous innovated theatre. That was when he decided to give me the opportunity of being an artistic director of the space and for him to look at producing and other aspects like maintaining the business and the fact that he is a traveling person.

After Mandisi saw the bond I have with our 80 students and the great leadership qualities that I have, he trusted me with the position. As a female artistic director I make sure that I host shows and plays that are educational to the youth and young girls of our community. Having grown up in the same community I have learned that women need more platforms to showcase their own stories. Stories of domestic violence and abuse, rape and orphans which most of our students have experienced.  My whole drive is to rehabilitate these kids by making sure they tell their own stories and share their stories with our audience in order for them to get healed and to heal our audience too.

TheCapeRobyn: The two of you are married and have two children. What are their names and ages?

Liso The Musician: Yes we are happily married and God has blessed us with two beautiful kids. Our son, Owam Kwatshube is nine years old and our daughter Sukoluhle ZamaKhuma is turning four years next month [May] on the 20th. They are cute and energetic just like their parents.

TheCapeRobyn: Do you live near the theatre?

Liso The Musician: The theatre is three minutes away from our house. That is a beautiful thing about it, because it is not costing us money like traveling costs. It is just in walking distance.

TheCapeRobyn: How did you and Mandisi meet?

Liso The Musician: We met at a very devastating time for my husband, after he lost his best friend in a car accident. His late friend [Abongile Kroza] was a great theatre maker. He was a UCT graduate and he directed me in other theatre productions that I were part of. Mandisi and I met during the funeral prayer that was held at his home every day before the actual funeral in 2012. That was before I enrolled my tertiary studies at UCT. Mandisi had already graduated from UCT in 2011.

TheCapeRobyn: You studied studying drama and social science at UCT and that you were studying there in 2015, when Fees Must Fall was on the burn?

Liso The Musician: When I applied at UCT in 2012, I wanted to be a theatre and performance student at Hiddingh but I did not make it. I decided to do bachelor of social sciences and majored in social development and drama. When the Fees Must Fall protest was initiated I was still a student at UCT. Most of the initiators of it were my friends. I did not really participate vocally in it because I am an introvert but I was there marching, going up and down when needed; because the struggle was for and affected all of us. The only thing I did was to write a play and a song titled Zaf’ingane which can be translated into ‘The youth is dying’. That is the song that many people know me of and it’s available on all digital platforms and has provoking YouTube visuals shot by Motion Billy who is one of the best cinematographers we have currently in the country. It is directed by Mandisi Sindo and Motion Billy.

TheCapeRobyn: Please tell us about your journey as a musician- how it started?

Liso The Musician:  In 2015 – that’s when I started to take my musical career seriously. That was when I started to construct and write more songs about my personal experiences. The content was getting together well and I thought of recording. The first song I  recorded was a song dedicated to the late Abongile Kroza. It’s on Sound Cloud titled, Sikhathazekile. Then in 2018 on my birthday November 8, I launched my EP which was inspired by the Fees Must Fall protest and other authentic real stories of the townships. The response and feedback that I receive for my music even today is overwhelming.

I am an independent artist so I had to work the extra mile in making my name- of course with the help of my husband who works tirelessly in managing me. I managed to sell more than 3000 copies of my CD on the streets in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Eastern Cape. After my live performances.  everyone wants to own a CD.

I have been surviving by performing to my full ability, whenever I get the opportunity to sing/ That opened many doors for me and I had many bookings before the distraction of lockdown. They all got cancelled. I have performed on bigger stages for large numbers of audiences in festivals such as Cape Town Fringe Festival where I got nominated for best performance in music. At the National Arts Festival Standard Bank Awards, I did a tribute song for the late Owen Manamela who was my lecturer at UCT. For the first time this year in February [2020], I performed in Up The Creek Music Festival, one of the best musical festivals in South Africa.

My journey in music has been just amazing and I think it’s because I create music that connects with the heart and the soul. My music is authentic and original: I tell a story in every song.

TheCapeRobyn: Your journey as a musician?

Liso The Musician:  I am music. Music is Me. That’s what I always say when people ask about my love for singing. I was raised by my late grandmother in the Eastern Cape. She is the one who planted the seed of music in me. I would feature her in all the songs she composed that time. I was very young- at the age of three years I had a strong connection with music. I started composing my songs when I was five years old. And this is now spreading to my daughter. At an age of three, she sings most of my songs and in good tune.

So, through the influence of my grandmother who sang traditional songs, today I have innovated my own style/genre of music which I call it Ancestral Jazz. This is because when I sing, I connect with the most high power of God and my Ancestors. Music controls me and it communicates in/with me. It tells me what to do. We moved to Cape Town at the age of seven. My mom and dad are musical people. They listened to music that spoke with me; jazz and soul music. My mother has a great voice. She would have made a great vocalist but she never had all the opportunities – that I have-  to follow her dream. When I was 12 if I recall, my father bought himself a keyboard and I would sing for him when he was still learning how to play it. He inspired me to want to one day play a musical instrument. I am currently in the process of learning how to play guitar, uhadi, mbira and iKulele. I thought it was gonna be easy because I also did music as a subject in high school but yhooo it’s not a child’s play. I will take it one step at a time. I can’t wait for that day when I can play perfectly at least one of these instruments. I believe my life will be easy as I won’t have to wait for someone to play an instrument for me before I sing.

TheCapeRobyn: The pandemic has put everything on pause?

Liso The Musician: The coronavirus pandemic has impacted both my music career and my role as an artistic director of the KASI RC shack theatre very badly. The lockdown started just before a performance on March 29 and it led to that performance being cancelled as well as my other four bookings that I had for April. We decided to close down the theatre just after my directing work Ezothando – an isiXhosa adaptation of Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet which was performed at the Fugard Theatre. On the March 13,  we paused all the programs and events that were scheduled. We cancelled immediately when we heard about how dangerous this virus is because there is too many of us at the theatre. We have more than 80 students and three teachers. We had to adhere to the rules and the President’s speech in order for us not to get affected.

Our students are still struggling to come to terms with the idea of having the theatre not operating. They miss us and we miss them every day. The theatre itself is like home to many of them.  We lost hope when the lockdown got extended.

It seems like all my bookings for this year will be cancelled. I have been crossing fingers because I got some amazing opportunities and collaborations in Joburg, Eastern Cape and in Pretoria for June, August and September and I haven’t heard anything as yet.

It’s difficult for me to work on my music at the moment. But I am in demand because my fans have been sending me messages reminding me that they are always expecting something from me especially during this time. They know that I write about social issues. The soup kitchen kept me busy. I hope to do few live streaming before the lockdown ends.

I will never stop creating music. I am also planning to release an album hopefully this year-  if things go according to plan.

TheCapeRobyn:  It appears that you are the first female Black artistic director of a theatre in Cape Town?

Liso The Musician: I can’t really tell. There are so many Black driven individuals out there who are doing great work in the industry. But for the shack theatre in the township,  yes I am the first one. But would still love to see many theatre institutions led by women particularly black women.

TheCapeRobyn: You are a musician with your own solo career, wife, mother AND artistic director of the theatre. How do you do it all?

Liso The Musician: I wear so many hats and I like it because I am becoming the woman of my own dreams. What I love about all the things I do is that they are all in the arts. When you are an artist you can’t really box yourself in one thing; when you start to enjoy one thing that you thought you were good at many doors open and I love challenging myself and learning new things. I spend most of my week days at the theatre then late I am home taking care of my family and doing house chores. I like working at night. That is my best time to create music -for me. Just like when I study, I prefer doing it at night so that I concentrate thoroughly. Dedication and time management is key.

TheCapeRobyn: Let’s talk about your role as artistic director of the theatre. Everything has halted. What is planned for post lock down? Or are you focussing on the work at hand and not thinking about what happens in the future?

Liso The Musician: As an artistic director of the shack theatre I am responsible of programming, planning and selection of works to be staged at the theatre. I also do consultations with independent artists where I advise and direct them to great opportunities. I look after artistic operations and all.

One of the programs we are proud of that we run at the theatre is the Unemployed Youth Programme which happens every day during the week in the mornings from 9am – 1pm, followed by the after-school programme,  which starts at 3pm. The Unemployed Youth Programme aims at opening and creating job opportunities for our youth that is not working and doing anything especially matriculants and graduates and those who dropped out.

There are so many bad things that young people can find themselves experiencing and being part of in the township. Some of our students are ex-convicts. Some were part of gang groups and some fell into a trap of teenage pregnancy. All we do is to get them back into the right direction in order to help them shape their future. Through this Programme many young people have managed to get jobs, we have four of our students who are currently working for a world class Gear-House technical company -one of the best technical companies in the world. We want them [young people] to know that there’s always a second chance in life. We are truly grateful to Lisa Smit of Gear- House, for trusting us with the work we do. She has managed to help us instil hope to these young people.

The After-school Programme aims at grooming and teaching children from the age of 10- 22. Most of them are still in school so we also assist them with their school work from 3pm – 4.30pm and then we start teaching them all art disciplines until 6.30pm. We help them practice speaking English and writing it. In our local schools we are mostly taught in our home language isiXhosa and that becomes a challenge when you go to the university. I am talking from experience. We want them to be fully confident in themselves when they move out of the townships and when they go to university. Most of them have improved in their school work and have passed really well at school last year. They also get a great exposure because we have had two successful television interviews with them on Hectic Nine9 and on Afternoon Express. They also get great opportunities to perform in bigger stages in large theatres like Artscape, Baxter Theatre and Fugard Theatre.

We also run annual events. On July 18, we celebrate Tata Nelson Mandela’s birthday. We celebrate his birthday by showcasing plays about him – whether it’s stories that reflects his life and based on his true life story – or plays that praises him and the work that he did in setting the country free. Local drama groups are welcome to take part on this event. It is always successful. It has been happening since 2012. This initiative is called Vuka Mandela Theatrical Magic Event and has introduced many directors and performers ever since its inception.

The other event that I am personally proud of and that speaks to me is AWAE [Amazing Women Art Event] which has been going on since 2013. This flagship event takes place every year on August 9, Women’s Day. It is by women and for women. It is ran by myself and Yolanda Qaziyana who is also a facilitator, English teacher and the emerging director at the theatre. We make sure that women tell their own stories for other women to inspire and give hope to others. Prior the actual event we hold workshops whereby we select productions and directors for the plays that are going to be performed on the day. We also assist our directors with writing and choosing cast members for their productions on our students. Through this event we have mentored about eight students. Some were inspired to go study directing at UCT. Some of them went to Magnet Theatre and Rainbow Arts academy to study further.

TheCapeRobyn: Currently in the national lockdown, the KASI RC is not operating. However, you and Mandisi are running a soup kitchen from the premises. Please tell us about that and how that came about and the name of the project? I am getting bits and pieces on social media but I need the details please.

Liso The Musician: The lockdown brought a lot of challenges to many of us especially for the people in the townships. It made many people to struggle from Hunger because many of our student’s parents at the theatre have not been going to work and most were unemployed. This causes them to suffer with their families. The starvation is real and it’s difficult for us to watch our people being hopeless and helpless. We are very transparent to our kids about many things and we are always willing to help where we can. We felt a need to help when some of our kids visited our house frequently to ask for something to eat. We knew it was not only them who are going through this as this affects everyone. We then decided to open the Soup Kitchen twice a week because we started doing it out of our own pocket until we got assistance from other people after posting about what we are doing on social media. And we are really grateful for all the help we have been receiving. Now we manage to feed as many people as we can and we also give out some food parcels, masks and sanitizers to the most needy people of our community. When we cook we make sure that not only our students benefits from the soup kitchen but other people from our community too. We also help people who take medication eat before taking their medication. I also received assistance with cooking from some of the parents  who voluntary offered to help me, I am really grateful for that. And it simple shows that it only takes willingness to make change. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who donated and contributed to this initiative. We don’t really have a name as it was something that we did not plan so well, the main aim was to only help people access food. So it’s just KASI RC Soup Kitchen during the lockdown.

TheCapeRobyn: In the photos of the soup kitchen, we see kids sitting neatly with arms outstretched – keeping up social distancing. I can see that there are creatives involved. You look like you are almost choreographing their placing. It is like creating theatre out of the experience. Can you talk about that?

Liso The Musician: We are creatives and we always use our creativity in everything that we do. Keeping up the social distancing was not so easy at first because we mostly work with kids and kids sometimes can be difficult to work with as they are always playful, loving and hugging. All these rules to avoid the virus from spreading and to prevent them from getting affected were something new which was challenging to practice but we had to adhere to the rules if we want our soup kitchen to continue. We even introduced a song to maintain the one meter distancing when they arrive on the day. We are also getting a lot of masks donations which are helpful and we hope to get more for everyone who is getting the food.

TheCapeRobyn: Are you in action at the soup kitchen, as Liso The Musician? Are you making music to entertain the kids?

Liso The Musician: Yes I sing for them a lot and they enjoy it. I actually create new songs with them every day of the soup kitchen depending on the mood on the day. Some of the songs we sing are the ones we normally sing at the theatre when we teach them.

TheCapeRobyn: KASI RC has been a vital bridge – in bringing people from outside the community – to make the soup kitchen a reality?

Liso The Musician: We have been receiving a lot of help from strangers -people we don’t personally know – that we met on social media.

This pandemic has taught me the importance of helping people who are needy regardless of race and colour.

People in the townships are the ones who are suffering the most. It is even difficult to practice staying home because I don’t understand how they are expected to stay home when there’s nobody working to provide for the families. We live in corrugated iron sheets which are better called as shacks and they are congested and are hot when it’s hot outside and are leaking when it’s raining outside.

In the informal settlements hundreds of people share one public toilet and one tap and other things such as washing lines and mostly in one shack you’d find that there’s about more than 10 people who stays in it. 

I expected that we would receive free hand sanitizers, free masks and free gloves at least for everyone in each household but that is not happening as we are still fighting over small grocery parcels that comes from the government because they don’t reach everyone.  All I am trying to say is that it might sound nice that we are supposed to stay home but it’s not as nice when you know you don’t have food for your family and all the essential needs they need during this difficult time.

Most of the help that we are receiving comes from a White community which has seen our incredible work through Community Action Network structure assisting communities in need. This has given me hope about this beloved country that we can conquer racism.

TheCapeRobyn: How many are you feeding a day? Is it kids that you feeding AND adults?

Liso The Musician: We cooking for the needy people but this would not be happening if it was not for us having our own kids at the theatre. We cook for more than 300 people. And it works best for the benefit of this community because most of our kids come from the same community.  Amongst people that we are cooking for there’s people who are taking medication and it helps them not to take their medication on empty stomachs.

TheCapeRobyn: How are you and Mandisi managing during the lockdown?

Liso The Musician: We are both freelancers and our theatre is self-funded. But through the gigs that we were getting we managed to take care of ourselves and the theatre. However the pandemic robbed us our paying jobs and everything. We are now also depending on the donations we are receiving. We were taught that sharing is caring hence we are able to divide everything we get equally to everyone including us.

I would like to thank all the people who have been kind to us by contributing to the initiative. Special thanks to James Fernie and Xolani Maseko of Uthando Social Development Projects for the continuous support; George Kirkins and Sikelela Dikela of The Ghetto Sessions; Ayanda Cuba and Buntu Mathole of ABCD concept; Cornelia Bullen Smith, Ladles of Love, Loren Loubser and Gabe Gabriel of Giant films; Nikki Froneman, Thembinkosi Nqose, Tamboskloef CAN; Safe Hands company, Claire Lynam of Support.a.saffa and others for the great support.

To donate to KASI RC Shack Theatre and Art School/Soup Kitchen. Khayelitsha

✔ Bank details : Khayelitsha Art School and Rehabilitation Centre – KASIRC
✔ Bank: FNB
✔ Acc: Business Account
✔Acc No: 62813812195
✔Branch: Khayelitsha

Image credit: Mandisi Sindo, Liso The Musician, Sukoluhle ZamaKhuma Sindo and Owam Kwatshube. This photo was taken on April 20, 2019. Pic supplied.