Despite the possibility that Deborah Fraser’s legacy will be confined to her work in the gospel genre, it bears noting that her solo recording days came late in her long career spanning almost four decades. The consummate session vocalist since 1985, Fraser recorded her first solo album only in 2000.
She died on May 15 after a short illness and though she became vocal about her battle with diabetes over the years, it hasn’t been confirmed as the cause of her death.
Born in KwaMashu, Durban, in 1966, Fraser took to the arts as a child. At 12 years old, she joined multitalented musician Tu Nokwe’s Amajika Youth and Children Performing Arts programme, whose alumni includes the likes of actress Leleti Khumalo.
Under Nokwe’s tutelage, Fraser immersed herself in music, going on to study works by Chick Corea and Natalie Cole, among others. “I used to pick standards for her to study. She was very ambitious and would gravitate towards exacting songs by the likes of Chick,” says Nokwe, who went on to become a mentor and friend.
Arriving in Johannesburg in 1986, Fraser forged bonds with vocalists Faith Kekana and Stella Khumalo. As a trio they became the go-to vocal team for major gigs, including backing vocals for the likes of Jon Secada.
Abroad, Fraser worked with Cyndi Lauper, Jennifer Rush and BeBe Winans, among others. In South Africa she worked with artists such as Hugh Masekela, Chicco Twala, Brenda Fassie, Caiphus Semenya, Jonas Gwangwa, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Letta Mbulu. Her debut, Abanye Bayombona, sold over a million copies and she received multiple major awards.
Away from showbiz, Fraser supported charity organisations in Soweto and other parts of the country. A firm believer in mentorship, she also coached young singers and showed her commitment to arts by endeavouring to find work for less experienced singers. “More than just the skill and employment, she was interested in the whole person,” says singer Nomcebo Zikode. “So it was more than just mentorship – she became a mother to a whole slew of us.”
Fraser’s passing has elicited many tributes from colleagues, speaking to her varied legacy in the music industry. Most importantly, they speak to her legacy of love.
Humility and heart
Meeting Fraser in the 1990s, the controversial Twala, who was producing Fassie at the time, was quickly sold on her vocal prowess. After working with her, he made a case for Universal Music to consider Fraser for a solo career.
“I realised there was something special about her, hence I recommended that Universal Music sign her up. Starting out as a backing vocalist featuring in a lot of Brenda Fassie’s songs as well as with Maria Le Maria, I recommended her to Dharam Sewraj at the time. And you know, that’s how she built herself to where she is now. Unfortunately she died, but obviously her legacy and music will stay on for life.”
Like many industry insiders, Twala swears by Fraser’s work ethic, adding that he was also touched by her humility. “I’m going to remember her as one musician who has never been big-headed. When you’d give her a song, she’d actually crack the song and deliver, making sure that she sings from the heart,” he says.
“Consider a song like Sum’ Bulala, where she’s featured by Brenda Fassie. She came into the studio and I never thought that she’d actually get the song and execute it to the letter. After that recording session I said to her, ‘You know what, you’re one of the greatest.’ I never thought that she’d pull that one because so many artists tried to sing it but they couldn’t. But she came into the studio and did the song in one take.”
Veteran singer-songwriter Nokwe, who gets kudos for her work in arts mentorship, is generally recognised as the person who discovered Fraser. “I met her in the 1970s when she was only 12. I was 20 years old … Music was in her blood. She was a real music fanatic, someone who could sit for hours listening to music. She and I were pretty close and kept in touch all our lives. Her house in Joburg was full of music of all kinds,” Nokwe says.
Fraser had a profound respect for the stage, Nokwe adds, and she was also intentional about her spirituality. “Deborah is a communicator when she sings. The fact that she was this successful and was consistent set an example that this [showbiz] is a job. Most importantly, she was resolved to being an inspiration to both the youth and those who’ve lost hope that, actually, it’s possible. Because she went through a lot just like everyone, just like all the artists.
“She’d call me to say she went to a show and performed while in a wheelchair. She had so much drive. And she actually had faith in God … her relationship with God was so intimate.”
Zikode, who shot to international prominence on the back of her collaboration with Master KG on Jerusalema, met Fraser as a girl. “I was very young and had a great hunger to make positive strides in the music industry, so she took me in as one of her session recording artists and on-stage backing vocalist,” Zikode says.
“She was a mother figure to me, a person who, in times of need and distress, would leave whatever she was doing to lend a helping hand towards me. She always had some advice to offer with the aim of making me a better person.”
In addition to the opportunity to work with Fraser, Zikode is grateful for the life lessons she received from her. She’s indebted to Fraser for teaching her about spirituality, she adds. “I learnt what I think is everything a mother could teach to her daughter. This includes a life of prayer and the dynamics of being a woman, a mother, a musician, an entrepreneur and a leader.”
Zikode is left with fond memories of time spent together performing, travelling and facing challenges, “and most importantly, the mother she was to both myself and my husband – the role she played in our unity”.
Venerated singer and producer Ringo Madlingozi was working on his second album when he was formally introduced to Fraser. “We always talk about having to work with someone with a unique, distinct voice. She had the voice,” he says.
“She showed up in the studio with Sipho Mbele, who went on to be her producer. At the time I was working on Sondelani. This was back in 1997. Sipho kept on impressing on me [Fraser’s] vocal abilities.”
The pair went on to work together on Madlingozi’s seminal hit, Sondela. “If you listen to that song, her voice is clear. After that session, I reached out to Sipho and we spoke at length about Deborah. You couldn’t miss the warmth and the subtle vibrato in her voice. The next time I worked with her she had already released Abanye Bayombona … I heard the title track and I was literally speechless.”
Fraser was buried in Kwa-Zulu Natal on Tuesday 24 May.
She is survived by her children Nkosana and Aaliyah.