South African star rises over Monaco (4)
The South African flag is flying all over Monaco at present, to greet their new Princess. As the country prepares to welcome one daughter of the Rainbow Nation, we went to visit another, Monaco resident and accomplished jazz and blues singer, Stella Starr.
Stella was born in Sophiatown, South Africa, at a time when apartheid was still in force. Understandably the memories are painful, but we wondered if she could give us an insight into her life and how the regime affected her development as a singer
"Sophiatown was a kaleidoscope of music - especially on Sundays - with church music in Latin, Zulu and other tribal languages. I would walk home following a Salvation Army band, then join some children playing penny whistles. Our next door neighbour's speakers would be blaring out jazz music, especially Duke Ellington, while another neighbour would be listening to classical music. By the afternoon the various womens clubs would be parading their uniforms with jazz band in tow; and the non-stop drums of the Shangaan tribe who had started on Friday night now reached a frenzy pitch, fusing with the Shebeens music of Dolly Rathebe, Dorothe Masuka and other artists."
What an incredible picture - and a very vivid memory from a long time ago. But then, at a young age, you left all that behind?
"Sure, when I escaped from SA in 1961 I thought I would never see my mother again. So it was all the more of a surprise to find myself back in Cape Town in 1970 as part of the Percy Sledge show, especially since the apartheid government had refused Louis Armsrong entry only two years before. We were booked to play at the Luxurama, a coloured cinema... and amazingly, whites were blacking up and wearing saris to see the show!"
Following your move to London, you started playing in clubs across the world. To date, you have sung on pretty much every continent. Which has been your favourite venue of all?
"Without a doubt it has to be the Albert Hall in London: you are totally enveloped by the audience all around you."
You've been called the ultimate cabaret star, and compared to Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand and Eartha Kitt. But how would you describe your own style? What is it that makes Stella Starr unique?
"It's not for me to say what makes me unique. Singing is just a joy for me, and a gift from God to share with others."
Like your mother, you've been involved in a great deal of charitable work for humanitarian and artistic causes. Can you tell us something about what that work means to you and why you feel it's so important?
"The spirit of charitable works was ingrained in me by my grandmother, mother and now my dear husband Bernard. As a child I carried food parcels to the homes of TB sufferers under the care of SANTA in Jo'burg - the charity which my mother fundraised for. In London my favourite charity is the London Taxidrivers' charity for underprivileged children, in Monaco Les Enfants de Frankie
, and in Johannesburg St Theresa's School, whose motto is "Help those less fortunate than you"
Nowadays you live in Monaco, and enjoy the benefits of a region renowned for jazz and blues, as well as a vibrant music scene in general. Why would you advise anyone to come and live here?
"That's simple," laughs Stella. "Because it's always a peaceful and joyful place, and more than that, a village with all the facilities of a city."
Photos by Naneen Rossi