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Wed Apr 16 12:21:09 SAST 2014

Syd Kitchen: Afro-Saxon singer and songwriter

Chris Barron | 26 March, 2011 23:420 Comments
NOT FOR SISSIES: Syd Kitchen

Syd Kitchen, who has died in Durban at the age of 60, was an iconic South African singer, songwriter and guitarist who was scarcely known in his own country and whose music was seldom if ever heard on radio.

The title of his 2001 album, Africa's Not for Sissies, became one of the most popular one-liners in the country. A clothing retailer cashed in on its popularity by running off a batch of T-shirts carrying the phrase, but never spoke to him about it, let alone offered him any royalties.

When he politely raised the matter they pulled their remaining stock and paid him not a cent.

Kitchen, who started off as a duo called The Kitchen Brothers with his brother Pete in their home town of Umbilo in the late 1960s, was more widely appreciated in New York, where a documentary about his life, Fool in a Bubble, premiered a couple of years ago.

Many of Kitchen's muso friends from South African emigrated to New York and encouraged him to do so as well. He would have sold more music there, played more gigs and made a lot more money, but although he performed widely in Europe, the UK and the US, the man who described himself as "Afro-Saxon" was never going to leave the country, or the town, of his birth.

Africa's Not for Sissies was his humorous riposte to white South Africans who did take the gap.

In spite of his marvellous guitar playing and witty, thought-provoking lyrics, Kitchen was ignored by the local music industry. Radio stations didn't play his music and the big retail outlets didn't sell it.

In part this was due to his refusal to schmooze station managers and disc jockeys or accept any of the compromises that come with joining a label, and in part it was because his music couldn't easily be pigeonholed.

He was not a blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll or country singer, although he played blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll and country brilliantly.

His music embraced a whole range of genres and store owners never knew where to put him.

Waiting for the Heave in 1987 was a landmark album, but none of the labels were interested. He released it independently as he did all his music at great cost to himself, and it was sold at 12 stores around the country to which he sent 10 copies at a time. He couldn't afford to make more until those 10 copies had been sold.

If a small radio station in Canada requested some of his music, he'd be at the post office the next day, sending off a CD.

You'd visit his flat and notice an item of furniture was missing; he'd had to sell it to pay for his latest record or CD.

He arranged all of his own gigs - staying at friends' houses and sometimes not even being paid - and sold his music from the back of his car before and afterwards.

With his floppy hats and eccentric, usually second-hand, clothes, Kitchen's image was that of a hippy, but his approach to his music couldn't have been more serious. That's why he went to the University of KwaZulu-Natal at the age of 50 to study it. He obtained a BA (Hons) in music, cum laude.

Another source of income for him was teaching guitar but, here too, he refused to compromise his standards and was very picky about who he accepted.

He produced 10 albums, starting with S'No Good and Reason Why soon after he began his solo career in 1979, and one volume of poetry, Scars That Shine.

His bands included Equinox, Harry Was A Snake, Syd Kitchen and the Utensils, The Flying Sombreros and Aquarian Quartet.

Kitchen, who died of lung cancer, is survived by his second wife, Germaine, and two daughters.

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