Kommadagga essay: Music and my father

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Zubayr Charles recently attended LitNet and the Jakes Gerwel Foundation’s Kommadagga writing workshop in Somerset East. He wrote this piece during the residency.


I will never understand my father, but I understand his love for music.

When I was a child, every Friday before completing our weekly grocery shopping at Pick n Pay, my father and I would first visit Musica Megastore at the V&A Waterfront; this space has now been converted into the V&A Food Market.

Musica Megastore once consisted of two storeys: the bottom level was filled with thousands of CDs (no hyperbole intended) of every music genre that existed at that time, past and present, and the top section of the store was designated as the section for DVDs. While my fingers walked through the latest DVDs, my father, downstairs, would intricately scout the ‘R30 CD’ section, and, by the end, we would both leave the store satisfied with new content for our film and music collections.

My father was, and still is, obsessed with José Feliciano, but he wasn’t obsessed enough to pronounce the Puerto Rican name correctly. If I close my eyes now, I can still see myself opening the cubbyhole of our car to get the albums of “Ho zay” Feliciano, and it is not pronounced “Joe zay”, Daddy. I can also still picture José with his medium long hair, dark sunglasses and guitar between his hands.

José’s music would always blast through the speakers of our Nissan Sentra 1400, and, at first, I was embarrassed by my father’s taste in music. My cool factor at school sunk more and more each morning as I stepped out of the car that screamed “Come on, baby, light my fire” – this was not a good look for a boy who had begun puberty. But, eventually, I learned to love Jose’s music – I wish I could say the same for my father.

He and I have an unhealthy love-hate relationship. Most days, I can’t stand looking at him or talking to him, as there is just too much pain in waiting for someone to change. Why does a man with so much talent allow his own demons to ruin everything in his life? This is a question I don’t, and most probably will never, have the answer to.

My father is known for his quick fingers on a guitar – and his poisonous mouth. He always embarrassed our family with his lack of decorum, but did his gevaarlike music skills make up for his abrasive and crude nature? Although my father can’t read music, he can listen to a song and instantaneously imitate the melody. This surely means that he is highly intelligent and gifted, even as he has mastered the art of playing the guitar, bass, banjo and mandolin; yet, he is emotionally unintelligent. As a child, I wished that my verbally abusive father was a mute musician, that he and his idol could have had more common ground – José being blind from birth – but that wish never came true.

Aside from José, we also listened to the Main Ingredient, Bob Marley, Dionne Warwick, Barry White, Nana Mouskouri (a Greek singer whose surname I never could pronounce) and Shirley Bassey – my father’s other musical obsession.

He was also actively involved in the annual Cape Town Minstrels, as well as the Cape Malay Choirs. Aside from playing the guitar and banjo for the different coloured cultural and music scenes, he also coached various klopse (minstrels).

One year, particularly, my father assisted the klops called the Carnival Dolphins – a team that originated in the community of Rocklands in Mitchells Plain. That year, he persuaded the Carnival Dolphins to sing the popular ’90s ballad “The wind beneath my wings” for one of the categories of the annual Kaapse Klopse Carnival. And which two artists coincidentally covered that song? Nana Mouskouri and Shirley Bassey. However, the Carnival Dolphins managed to attain second prize, and even my father’s favourite singers couldn’t help them win.

To this day, my father and I debate which version is better: he likes Nana’s version because, as he often explains, the beginning background music goes, “Da ra ta ta ta … da ra ta ta ta … The wind beneath my wings,” before Nana starts singing, “It must’ve been colder in my shadow,” whereas I, automatically biased, prefer Shirley’s. Later in my teenage years, I would learn that the song was originally sung by Bette Midler, but after garnering that information, I couldn’t take Bette Midler seriously as a singer, because in my mind she was the cynical woman from The First Wives Club.

My father and I go for months without speaking to each other. This ongoing cycle usually starts after he says something crude and vulgar, mixed with colourful language, and I’m left thinking about why I forgave him for his prior transgression. The Holy Quran states, “Say not to them a word of disrespect … but address them in term of honour” (chapter 17:23–25), but what do we as children do when our parents disrespect and verbally abuse us?

I suppose our personalities are similar, so, instead of us being close friends, we end up clashing. Before writing this piece, I decided to swallow my pride and phone him in order to get my facts checked. Up until that point, he and I had spoken only three months before. Because my number is listed as private, he didn’t answer immediately.

Hoeko’ antwoord jy nie jou phone nie? Dink jy ek is ’n debt collector?” I sent a WhatsApp message, and he instantly replied with, “No, my boy, ek skuld vir niemand geld’ie.”  

After getting his attention, I phoned my father again, and he answered the phone by saying, “Salaam, it’s nice to hear from you.” He and I reminisced about the music of Nana Mouskouri and Shirley Bassey, and this time he agreed that Shirley’s version of “The wind beneath my wings” is indeed better.

As I pressed the red button that ended our call, I realised that perhaps the clichéd saying is true: “Music brings people together.”

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    Fatima Froude Botha

    Wow. Really insightful. A look at how we relate to our parent/s, with religious influence, dictating how we deal with him/them. How even at their worst, they still have something to contribute to our personalities. Good or bad, parents shape us into who we become. I really enjoyed the honesty.

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    Yazeed Samodien

    Music sure does bring people together. The relationship between a father and son is a complicated one, a good read!

  • “My father is known for his quick fingers on a guitar – and his poisonous mouth.” Stunning!

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    Tayhibah De Lilley

    I love how you are able to write in such a way which makes me feel as if I'm actually there with you. I love this piece!

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    Wow, this article is absolutely amazing. I love how well it is structured and the words are just so touching 💚
    Honestly the best that I've ever read.

  • Die sterkte van jou skrywe, Zubayr, berus onder meer in die afwesigheid, die stilte, van al die issues wat 'n mindere skrywer met lemme, sirens and tissues in the wings aan die leser sou opdis.

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    Faldila Abrahams

    My beloved nephew, I am just so pleased that you connected with your dad. Real amazing piece of work. Super proud of all your achievements.

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    Yasaar Jaffer

    Definitely can relate to your love-hate relationship on so many levels. Your writing connects people, Zubayr. Stay true to your writing 😘

  • Enjoyed the honesty and the insight. Writing allows you some introspection as well. Great written piece.

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    Mogamat Sedick Gamieldien

    A very insightful and honest essay. I am also a big fan of Jose Felicaino, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Engelbert etc. They are the greats when music was still played with instruments. You seem to have exceptional talent for writing. Keep up the good work. I may be reading the works of a famous writer.

  • Hi Zubayr, I have no words to say how great is your essay. I'm so proud of you and to have you as a lovely friend.
    I remember how your father loved music, he introduced me to Engelbert Humperdinck, I loved his songs also.
    And you, wow! You could manage you feelings about this complicated relationship and got courage to face it and got peace. Congratulations!!! I love you all.

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    Geraldine Parker

    Lovely piece, Zubayr. Very well written. Love the detail of your memories. Your Dad is from my era and I can picture and 'hear' him. A good portrait.

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    Karen Nuttall

    Thank you for this direct and honest read. Yes music seems to speak when words cannot find a way.

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    Miriam Khatib

    Truths about relationships are important. The best one is always the one who refuse to burn bridges.
    Well done Zubair. With your honesty only great stuff lies ahead for all your endeavours to be successful by God's Grace Aameen.

  • Well done Zubair, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece. I specially enjoyed your vivid description of the pronunciation of Jose's name and the drama of mispronunciation, quite hilarious. A well timeline-structured piece. Your piece has been excellently executed. *BRAVO*

  • Now that was a good read... It is so well written that one feel that I'm missing out on a lot more.
    I didn't want it to end, patiently waiting for part two!
    Well done Zubayr. Took me on my special journey with my father.

  • Wow! You have outdone yourself with this piece. Honestly a lovely relatable essay. Just very wonderful to read. Well done 😊.

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    Gamida Matthews

    Well written Z♡I can relate to it and loves the honesty and the fact that you phoned your Dad up and the way he responded♡means their is definitely room for change♡♡♡I wish you all the best in your writing and you do us proud♡

  • Zubayr - I salute you for the courage it must have taken to write this poignant piece on your intricate relationship with your dad. Good memories and painful memories skillfully weaved together by a master craftsman.

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    Ingrid van der Heijden

    Very personal but so real and true. The relationship of father and son is complicated and touching. Well done Zu. Love it. Keep on with the good work. Nothing as fulfilling as being creative.

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    Amina Soeker Bardien

    Forgiveness is powerful, it opens the window of opportunity. Contentment opens the door to one's soul. Walking through it takes courage. Well done, Zubair! Bravo! Celebrate, love and light. Amina ♥️🕺🏽🕯️

  • I enjoyed reading this. Love your insights and honesty about your relationship with your dad. Well done x

  • I know I am very late to read this, but it brought tears to my eyes and made me laugh. I am so proud of you baby brother. Keep up the good work 🥰

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    Tasneem Daniels

    Slamat, Zubayr. Beautiful piece mashallah. So brave and truthful. Love the way you highlight how talented people can also have a dark, unruly side to them. Also, your dad and I have something in common- I'm also a Jose Feliciano fan!

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    Rachmat Agherdien

    Dear Zubayr
    What a lovely written piece... full of emotion, portraying a touching story of a complicated relationship and a heart big but also soft enough to forgive. Yes we are all human, we all make mistakes but our role is not to judge but to extend forgiveness and pardon as we would want for ourselves. The story also makes one realise that even though we are all different, something as simple as music or sport do not need a language to unite people. May you continue to touch people's hearts with your writing as you have done so with this peace. May the Almighty Creator grant us the opportunity to meet in person one day. In Shaa Allah Ameen.

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