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.”