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An interview with Sylvestre “samba” Kabassidi: the singing storyteller
From his musical journal to his connection with Cape Town and Zula Bar
Sylvestre Kabassidi isn’t just a musician who wants to score a number one hit on one of the local South African radio stations. He’s a singing storyteller with a message. Whether he’s singing in French, English, Spanish or Lari and Lingala (local languages from his homeland of the Congo Republic), Sylvestre is raising issues and making people more conscious of the world around them.
His music is world music, and his musical journey is one of inspiration. Armed only with his voice, his guitar and a cigarette stand on Long Street, his music came alive as people on the street taught him how to play.
And here he is now, Sylvestre Kabassidi, or ‘The Bottle’; A man who is representing the new generation of African artists. Every Monday at Asoka, he passionately plays his guitar, and his rich vocals guide his audience through his fragile melodies and poetic lyrics.
Find out what he had to say about being a musician in Cape Town, but first get a great taste of Sylvestre Kabassidi’s music with this video:
CapeTownMag: What are the stories you’re singing about?
SK: Anything, the stories I tell are about what is relevant in society. I am singing about peace, love, about anything, which is good.
CapeTownMag: Why do you sing in different languages?
SK: It is more expressive. I usually tell stories and I raise relevant issues that affect people. I’d rather sing the songs in their original language than translate them into English. Translating lyrics is a difficult task, and when you do so you often lose the identity of the song and the value and meaning of the words.
CapeTownMag: You say your music break stereotypes, how so?
SK: My music is very authentic, it is not a copy of something but it’s just me, the bottle. People like Hugh Masekela and me; we raise issues, because we tell a story. It is music you can listen to and get something out of. It’s not music which will make you fly, get lost for a night and the next morning you can’t remember what it was. My music makes people conscious of what is happening around, and I try my best to inform the people in media that they must change. I think it is my duty to inform people.
CapeTownMag: What song of yours are you most connected to?
SK: The song ‘Guitar’. This song tells the real story about a change which manifests in my life. From where I was when I grew up to understanding the reality and realising that life is not about ‘hi-hi ha-ha’. It is not always easy. Since my child was born, my whole life has changed.
CapeTownMag: What artists/bands do you admire?
SK: Youssou N'Dour, he is from Senegal and he is one of my favourite artists. Otherwise, Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, Hugh Masekela, Zolani Mahola from Freshlyground and Zahara, she just won 8 MTN awards and is just 21 years old.
CapeTownMag: Why did you come to Cape Town?
SK: My best friend and I got lost. First we moved from Congo to Namibia for work, and then we came here to Cape Town. From here we wanted to go to Europe to visit England. We were just travelling around with the prospect of making music in mind. But then everything turned, as we didn’t want to go anymore - we fell in love in Cape Town. Cape Town still is a really nice place to live, and if you know where to go and what to do, it’s perfect.
CapeTownMag: Why did you start playing the guitar in Cape Town?
SK: Because I couldn’t play an instrument. It is quite frustrating telling someone to play the guitar for you when you’re singing. These are two different things, and I thought it would be easier if I’d learn to play the guitar myself. Before that I was a French teacher at one of the international schools in Cape Town. That is where I got my guitar. After that job I started my stand on the street. I sold cigarettes next to Marvel in Long Street, and I brought my guitar every day. I learned from the city, and from the moment I started to learn to play the guitar everything went very quickly. It was probably meant to be this way.
CapeTownMag: Is there an area of Cape Town that has influenced your music?
SK: I would say everything has started on Long Street: from learning how to play the guitar to my first gig. Talking about gigs, main places of influence would be Central Cape Town and the Winelands, like Stellenbosch.
These areas really fuel my music.
Another place that has influenced my music is Zula Sound Bar in Long Street.
CapeTownMag: What have you been up to recently?
SK: I am busy with a project, recording my own new stuff and I do corporate gigs. I make noise at Asoka every Monday and every Sunday and Friday in the 1800° restaurant in the Cape Royal Hotel in Green Point. In between, I am cooperating with colleagues. This summer I am going to tour with Stef Bos in The Netherlands.
CapeTownMag: Have you rehearsed with any other artists from Cape Town?
SK: Quite a few, yes I collaborated with Zolani Mahola and Kyla-Rose from Freshlyground and Stef Bos.
CapTownMag: The best place to grab a beer with friends in Cape Town on a Friday night is….
SK: Outside at Asoka, because I like the fresh air and you can also listen to the music. The Power and the Glory on Kloofnek and Zula Sound Bar are also good places for a Friday night.
CapTownMag: If anything were possible, the best place to have a concert in CT would be….
SK: Zula Sound Bar is my favourite venue in Cape Town. It is very vibrant, very cosmopolitan and the people who are coming to Zula Bar know what they’re coming for.
CapeTownMag: For a perfect braai I go to….
SK: I used to go to the Carnival Court backpackers above Long Street café, but they don’t braai anymore. There is another backpackers called Cape Town Backpackers on New Church Street. They have a braai once a week, especially now in winter. They’re braai is always accompanied by a wine tasting. The ambience is very good there.
CapeTownMag: Who are your heroes in life and why?
SK: Oprah Winfrey. I like strong people, especially strong women. I believe in her and I believe in what she does.
CapeTownMag: If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
SK: I would be myself again and try to rewrite the story; rewrite the mistakes I‘ve made when I was young. I think if I had the opportunity to do it again, I would go back to when I was seventeen and do the same, but I would correct the things I did wrong.
CapeTownMag: You always say…
SK: We are all the same, no matter what.
CapeTownMag: Tell us something we don’t know about you.
SK: I am not a Rasta man, I have dreadlocks but I am not a Rasta man. (He giggles)
CapeTownMag: Why are you called The Bottle?
SK: The bottle is my nickname and my stage name and is linked to the South African wine. The Western Cape produces some of the best wines in the world, and I love wine. And To honour the wine, to say ‘well done’, I associate myself with the bottle. All the time it will be Sylvestre in the bottle, I am always in the bottle.
CapeTownMag: What kind of wine are you?
SK: I am a good red wine. A Pinot Noir.
By Karin Willemsen for the CapeTownMagazine.com Cape Town Music Series. The Cape Town music Series is a project of CapeTownMagazine.com highlighting muscians, bands and DJs based in Cape Town and the Western Cape.