SPICE PEOPLE: For those who knew South African Indian vocalist Roja Naidoo – January 29 – remains a solemn day of remembrance.
The kavady season of Thaipoosam would have had Roja Naidoo busy working playlists for each temple, making sure her songbook flip-file was in order just in case she needed to glance at lyrics. She preferred the music rather loud at home once the kids left for school busying herself with the days list of chores as her music filled the house. Roja would be singing along to tracks that she’d be performing at temples during Thaipoosam.
Her last performance was at Melrose Temple to Lord Muruga and a day later she passed away.
It was for a few months – being fresh off the boat from Durban – I was now living in Johannesburg with Roja’s family. During lazy afternoon weekends, I would be working lyrics, music arrangements and transcribing the latest songs from Indian movies for Roja. As the weekends would pass by, she took me the on the journey of an artist before they even get on a stage to perform and it was magical to experience.
A love-story in Phoenix
As I reflect on Roja Naidoo’s colorful stage life, those were just some of the priceless moments I was privileged to have had. You see, I share a very intense bond with the Naidoo’s. My relationship with them began with my grandparents with whom they lived with.
Once these songbirds found each other, it pretty much was a Bollywood love story as their respective families deny them a chance at love.
Roja and – my uncle – Allen Naidoo, shared a deep passionate love for music. She was an upcoming popular temple singer in Durban who devoted her time to rendering devotional praise at religious events. Her husband Allen – think Rajinikanth just a few shades lighter – on the other hand was the typical bad boy of the hood in Camelstown, Phoenix. Be it jazz, rock or Bollywood or South Indian, he had a palate for a range music genres. Allen had a love for music but his heart still had space for the greatest love of all – Roja.
Defying their families the couple took refuge in the arms of Allen’s maternal uncle, my grandfather. Some of the Verulam people reading this would know him as Oceanair Bala A loud, towering giant of a frame, you would find my thatha (grandfather) grinning like an idiot beside a bottle of Mainstay. So, while Roja and Allen’s warring families went to battle for their honor, my grandmother decided it’s time to make this match official.
Soon after settling in with my grandparents they were married in a traditional South Indian ceremony. As the days passed by grandmother saw the musical potential in the newest addition to the Naidoo family. Roja’s talent needed some sharpening and my grandmother, Muniamma Naidoo was ready to take on this task. My Amma (grandmother) was another amazing songbird, that’s a story for another time.
I sometimes think my Amma would be reminded of her journey as an South African Indian singer and what could have been for her musical career when she looked at the young Roja Naidoo.
Many of our South African Indian artists would agree, that the journey for an Indian artist was stunted during the apartheid-ridden era The iconic singer Hassan Saib, who is popularly know as Ramesh Hassan, had his show business career bloom in 1958 during the apartheid era. It was Hassan’s debut performance at the Alhambra Theatre but being a POC (person of color), he was forced to ask permission to use the bathroom facilities. In order to have his shows he had to employ the services of White stage technicians and artists for his show. The stories of my grandmother and that of artists like Hassan pains me to think of the feelings they had to endure under segregational law of South Africa’s apartheid era.
Hassan and my grandmother’s journey – like many others – could have been a totally different story if they had the privileges we as South African Indians enjoy today. But even beyond the limitations enforced on them, they thrived, the voices of our Indian artists filled large halls, they praised deities in our temples and they found their calling and found joy in their craft. The same was for the late Roja Naidoo, she sang her heart out – be it belting out a Bollywood track or praising a deity at temple – she brought her A-game when it was showtime.
On the days I am in Johannesburg I make it a-must-visit trip to Melrose Temple, I still glance to the left front spot where Roja would be seated. I shut my eyes and instantly I hear the G-scale Panchamam string drone that still gives me goosebumps. That carnatic drone would be yearning for Roja Naidoo’s voice to fill the main sanctum where Melrose Muruga is seated smiling for an adoring audience.
The temple hall would be be dumbed-down in silence, I’d be glancing at Roja watching her fixate her eyes on Melrose Muruga. She would bring her palms together, a silent prayer released and then she would make everyone present get drunk on love for the divine, while she lost herself in the music.
This 27 January marked seven years of horrible silence, seven years that I have not heard her voice praise the divine. Seven years where, the only time I hear Roja’s voice would be on Lotus FM.
Gone but never forgotten.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Naufal Khan is the publisher at ADISHAKTI MEDIA and editor of Indian Spice.