Her backup band has yet to arrive at the Frontenac St. Studio Base Bin Chambers for the rehearsal, so Lorraine Klaasen decides to limber up her vocal cords in advance with an a-cappella rendering of the George Gershwin classic Summertime.
And, whaddya know, an otherwise bleak winter day becomes bearable.
KIaasen can cast that kind of spell, with a voice that lights up every room she plays. She is in rehearsal mode for her first major Montreal concert in five years, Saturday at Théâtre Fairmount.
Klaasen is one of five singers in Les Productions Nuits d’Afrique’s Women of the World Raise Their Voices series for Black History Month. Cameroonian slam poet Lydol performed Feb. 1 at Club Balattou. Following Klaasen’s performance, the Berlin-based collective Roots Daughters appears Feb. 17 at Le Ministère. Then it’s Brazilian Bia Feb. 22 at Club Balattou and, the closing concert in the series, Gambian kora player and singer Sona Jobarteh, March 8 at Le National.
Klaasen, without doubt, is one of the premier belters in the land. She can do it all: blues, jazz, R&B, Broadway, pop. But the genre closest to her heart is township music. Understandable, since Klaasen was born and raised in South Africa’s Soweto township. Her greatest influence was her mother, the renowned Thandi Klaasen, Nelson Mandela’s favourite singer. No surprise that Saturday’s concert, in addition to marking Lorraine Klaasen’s 40th year in the music biz, will be a tribute to Thandi, who died in 2017.
Though her formative years were spent in South Africa, Lorraine Klaasen moved to Montreal in 1978. Marriage brought her to London, Ont., seven years ago.
“When I come to Montreal, it’s like a big resurrection,” a beaming Klaasen says during a brief rehearsal break.
“Many pronounce my name as ‘La Reine,’ and they really do treat me like a queen. I’ll take it. Not to take away from London — which I knew nothing about before — but Montreal is where I come alive. With the Montreal International Jazz Festival, Nuits d’Afrique and so many other events here, it’s where a singer wants to be. There is just so much talent here.”
Klaasen speaks and can sing in 18 languages, but will limit herself to just five on Théâtre Fairmount’s stage: Xhosa, Zulu and Swahili in addition to English and French.
“Maybe audiences here don’t understand a word that I’m saying when I’m singing in Xhosa or Zulu, but they are still so gracious,” she says.
“Can you imagine that I’m going to be 67?” Klaasen segues like only she can. “When I grew up in Soweto, I would tell everybody that I wanted to be just like my mother. I wanted to sing and dance and travel all over the world like my mother. I would see how she made people so happy and how she was so happy. I am so privileged to have chosen this profession that has given me this wonderful life all over the world.
“So I’m actually living the promise that I made to myself as a little girl,” adds Klaasen, a 2013 Juno Award winner for her album A Tribute to Miriam Makeba.
One of the most memorable Klaasen concerts took place here 10 years ago. Mother and daughter, calling themselves the Classic Klaasen Ladies, hooked up on stage at Concordia’s D.B. Clarke Theatre for a night few in attendance will ever forget. At 83, Thandi still hit every note.
“My mother would be telling me now, as she always did, to continue my art, although she always used to tell me not to sing jazz because there are a lot of good jazz singers. And don’t do blues, either, for the same reasons. Instead, sing and speak with your African truths, because it’s unique and it’s original.
“But that umbilical cord to my mom had to be cut for me to have to do my own thing,” says Klaasen, who, like her mom, sang at Mandela’s funeral. “I guess what I am now is a mixed masala — a spicy mix of everything.”
And that has worked out well.
Klaasen expounds upon her views of Black History Month.
“It is not a uniform I put on for a month every year. It’s a way of life year-round. It’s Black history every day. People make a big deal of it for a month, which is fine. But it’s part of who I am all the time and that’s the way it has to be,” says Klaasen, who just learned she was selected to the 2024 100ABCWomen Honourees list of 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women.
Klaasen has a message for up-and-coming musical talent: “Despite what some may think, to be in this business, it’s not about how you look. It’s truly about having immense respect for your art and showing gratitude. Never assume anything will be handed over. Everything must be earned. There are no shortcuts.”
AT A GLANCE
Lorraine Klaasen performs Saturday, Feb. 10 at 8:30 p.m. at Théâtre Fairmount, 5240 Parc Ave. For more information on her concert, and those of Roots Daughters, Bia and Sona Jobarteh, visit festivalnuitsdafrique.com.
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