Dr Caiphus Semenya is one of South Africa’s foremost musical directors and composers, with his career including a lifetime of work as a performer and arranger of African music. He now adds the ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for Music, sponsored by SAMRO (Southern African Music Rights Organisation) to his long list of accolades.
With a hoarse laugh, Dr Caiphus Semenya speaks of the history of his achievements as though it were simply a matter of course. He tracks his journey toward becoming the man who would become nominated for an Oscar, for his work on the score of the Steven Spielberg film The Colour Purple, with the ease of an historian narrating someone else’s biography. The now-ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for Music winner says that he ‘started when I was around 15 years old at school.’ He performed music with three other young boys when he was still living with his grandmother in Benoni and they did it without the seriousness of working on a career but with all the earnestness of love. He says, ‘it was not a career as such. It was something we did because we loved to do it.’
In a radio interview he also recalls the timeline of his work as it led up to his collaborative relationship with Quincy Jones and the historical moment of composing music for the African sections of the epic series Roots. From having entered and won a competition in 1958 with his high school group, they were ‘then drafted,’ he says, ‘I call it drafted, into King Kong: The Musical.’ In 1959, when working on King Kong, along with some other notable musicians including Letta Mbulu, he had the chance to spend time with the woman who would become his wife and his partner in music as well. In 1961 he worked in London and from 1964 – when he left for the United States of America – he would be exiled until the year of Nelson Mandela’s release: 1990.
In America with fellow exiles Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, amongst other South African music legends, he would quietly make his name beginning with singing background for Miriam Makeba for a year. During this year he also wrote music for Mama Africa and then started working with Harry Belafonte to arrange music for Letta Mbulu until he was arranging for Belafonte himself also. He laid such strong foundations – just doing his work – that Quincy Jones heard of him. He says, ‘I met him and he gave me a job to do: he wanted to see if I could, I did. He was very happy, and we’ve worked together since.’ Since that initial meeting Semenya has composed for the Lion King and writes for as well as works as the executive producer for Quincy Jones’ Q Radio. Semenya has also released a number of hit albums in his own capacity; and they have become part of the soundtrack to South Africa’s memory.
“It was not a career as such. It was something we did because we loved to do it”
‘I have worked with very good musicians and I’ve learned a lot from them,’ he says. During the years of exile, and afterward, he created music that has been significant; and just great. Some were love songs like ‘Angelina’ which has become an infamous courtship story although he casually says that, ‘It’s really nobody but it’s somebody.’ And all those who would dream of having the lasting relationship that Semenya has shared with Mbulu, play ‘Angelina’ and dream of meeting their angel.
Having turned 76 in August this year, Semenya is looking forward to recreating his musical genius in a new South Africa. He is excited to finally ‘have a reason to go into the studio’ with fresh material to explore. He says that the work that he has been busy composing finally makes sense. Due for release later this year or early next year, it is Semenya’s take on where the world is today. He says, ‘Since then, things have been happening so the music that I’ve been working on is going to reflect some of the things that are happening socially.’ It is a long way since he first entered the music industry as a boy of 15 who did it for the love above all, but even as a mature man at 76 he is still doing it for the love above anything else. It has taken him a while to release something new of late because he did not want to merely repeat himself and stick to the studied formula. He is reaching into the new world with a new sound and a new outlook on life. The album will be available digitally. Semenya was awarded the ACT Lifetime Achievememt Award for Music at the ACT Awards, hosted by Sun International.
The acts of the ACT Lifetime Achievement Award winners are honoured for having been excellent and also having had a great impact. The winners of this award this year should also be recognised for continuing to be inspirations.