The singer on alcoholism, being Thandeka and singing in Soweto in the ’80s
PENELOPE Jane Dunlop has sung for kings, queens, presidents and premiers, rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous. But her heart’s firmly with her fans, to whom she’s known as Thandeka, the loved one . . .
If you know what you really want, even as a child, you must go for it — despite what anyone says.
There I was at 10 years old going around the house with my tape cassette and mic, singing to everyone and anyone who would listen. I knew I was going to be a singer. The only one who wasn’t convinced was my father, who sat me down when I was in matric to ask what I was going to study at varsity. It was still another 15 years and several gold records later before he stopped asking when I was going to get a proper job.
It’s not the road you take to get there but the final destination that counts. I was 17 when myself and the four other girls in Pantha crammed into a red Ford Escort and left Durban for the bright lights of Johannesburg. We were fired after a month at the Hyde Park Hotel, and then fired again from Bella Napoli in Hillbrow, plus a few other hotspots.
The turning point, although I didn’t realise it then, was being helped by impresario Mike Fuller. He was managing Margaret Singana and Rabbitt, big names in those days. He hadn’t signed us up yet but showed a great interest.
Listen to the voices of experience. Eventually the band broke up and I remember saying to Mike, well, that’s it, my parents will make me go back to Durban now. I desperately tried to keep the band together. He said, let it go — the best advice I’ve ever had.
I went solo and found myself one day singing in Bapsfontein and the next on a train to Ermelo. A great learning curve playing to such different audiences. Then Mike took me to see a heavy metal band and told them, and me, that I was their new lead singer — the fact they already had a singer d i d n’t seem important to him. We became Hotline and the heavy metal became rock.
One day I got a call from Mike to say we’d been asked to perform in Soweto.Remember, this was in the 1980s. I was puzzled as our songs were all in English. He said it was because Yo u’re So Good to Me had gone right up the Radio Zulu charts. We arrived to find Jabulani Stadium, which seats 30 000, filled with 40 000 e xc i te d fans, who went completely quiet before we took to the stage. DJ Collins Mashego jumped up on stage, said something I didn’t understand and they all cheered. He then said in English: “Now we’re going to marry her and what are we going to call her?” Almost as one the audience cried out “Thandeka”, and that’s how I’ve been known ever since.
Of all the great people I’ve ever met or performed for, none means more to me than Madiba. In 1988, I played in a charity concert for war orphans in Zimbabwe. Someone took a photo of me with Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte and the next thing I was banned from radio and TV for a year by the government. Soon afterwards I received a letter from Madiba from prison saying: “I follow you as much as I can and your name is on the walls in this prison as a beacon of hope.” That’s my Grammy!
The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I’ve had many opportunities to play overseas and I’m not sure why I didn’t, except that this is my home. Even when I was young, I could never understand why people thought something from “overseas ” was better.
Don’t be afraid to share experiences if you can help others.Slowly, without really understanding it at first, I became an alcoholic. It wasn’t what people would imagine — the rock’n’roll lifestyle. I’ve always kept my private life just that — private, and would go home at night rather than party, but I couldn’t sleep. So at the age of 26, rather than take drugs, which I hated, I thought I’d have a few drinks, until I fell asleep. This led to a pattern that I couldn’t break.
I always sobered up for performances, but I’d go home to drink. I was in five rehabs in four years and when I realised I c o u l d n’t kick this on my own, I joined Alcoholics Anonymous. I wish I’d done it years before, because those 12 steps gave me back my life. I have a 10-year-old stepdaughter now and I just wish that these 12 steps to living your life could be incorporated into every child’s education.
There were many times when I found myself, in between major hits, singing at furniture stores to promote sales. It’s a myth about us being so busy. My idea of relaxing is to lose myself in a good courtroom drama movie — maybe with Denzel Washington.
I’ve learnt to believe everything happens for a reason and is as it should be.I want to spread these words through my presentations on “Power of Appreciation” — that if you can simply brush your teeth in the morning or walk to the toilet, you can walk!
Things are changing. We can make it. Who would have thought a few years ago that Patricia de Lille would go from PAC to DA? Anything’s possible.