Africa Outlook meets South African-born singer Aletia Upstairs.
By Susan Miller
For South African-born singer Aletia Upstairs life couldn’t be more of a cabaret…
Based in London since late 2007, she’s created two successful cabaret shows Miss Demeanour and In These Shoes that have played at a number of West End venues, and has released a couple of new albums of original material.
Her shows have been critically acclaimed and while she’s still busking away at becoming a world superstar, she’s breaking into the highly competitive London scene with aplomb.
Born in Stellenbosch, with the ‘non-stage’ surname Badenhorst, the drama graduate from UCT is on a creative roll – and never forgets that it all started as a child performer in The Sound of Music at the Nico Malan Theatre.
And it’s not just venues and videos, with two days before enrolment was due this year she applied for and was accepted into an MA in Performance Design and Practice at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.
“I managed to find a way to do an MA in cabaret, and they were open to the idea that I continue doing cabaret,” she says. Auditioning as a performer is always going to be different – the bulk of her work was sent in as Youtube clips, which were accepted by the administrators.
And as a part of the MA she’s on her way to Kerala, India with her class. Aletia intends to create a cabaret that is inspired by kathakali (a famous Kerala dance/drama form) on her return, which she admits will be a challenge.
Famous for its use of fixed facial expressions and hand gestures to communicate a story, kathakali is far removed from cabaret but she wants to use it as an inspiration. “Something of the kathakali spirit will be in there,” she says.
The class are going for two and a half months and all 14 members will concentrate on different aspects of the dance form and take from it what is important to them.
“I will be the only one trying to make this into my actual MA project – to bring it into cabaret. That’s my big project for the next few months. Our leader wants it to be a story created around the story of Pinocchio (he’s Italian) and I like the idea of working around a fairytale,” she says.
Indeed In These Shoes included aspects of Cinderella, Red Shoes and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and mixed up the shoe-related stories – melding fairytales with contemporary stories.
“A few friends suggested I should have been looking for shoe sponsorship or getting shoe designers involved,” she laughs.
Aletia intents to perform the show in India after finding that when she’s in a tight spot all she needs is ‘herself and her iPod’.
Keeping an eye on her musical output as well, she recently recorded a single ‘Catch Me When I Fall’ in the “fantastic, amazing” Milestone Studios in Cape Town, with the mixing to be done in London.
A visitor to Cape Town every year, Aletia brought both her shows over with her and regularly performs with the award-winning chanteuse DanieIe Pascal.
“She has even mentored me a bit and we are talking about doing something together, maybe in December this year”, says Aletia.
So what’s special about performing in London? “The number of venues is amazing and also audiences like to interact. Sometimes I end up standing on the stage just watching audience members doing their thing. In Miss Demeanour there’s a section where the audience can choose which language they would like me to sing in and because I have got a lot of languages the choices range from Swahili to Japanese to Afrikaans!
“Also it’s such a multi-cultural city so you find different kinds of audiences for all kinds of material.”
“And where else can you do a show including the music of Weill, Brel and Sondheim, add in a bit of Shakespeare, Latin, stand-up comedy and puppetry and still find room for some Piaf and Liza Minnelli?”
Aletia has built up a dedicated fan base in the city and they follow her around to gigs. “In the end a lot of your fans become your friends,” she says, insisting this is not in any way sinister…
How do artists keep going in London? “You diversify. I’m also part of a jazz trio (with a pianist and double bassist) and we’ve had quite a few gigs – sometimes admittedly providing the background music in restaurants and functions but it’s a good way to make money.”
What are the good and bad things about those kinds of gigs? “The good part is I get to do some of my own songs. But then there are the requests for old standards like Summertime and Fly Me To The Moon – they’ve been done to death…”
What’s it like playing back-up to a meal in a restaurant? “You can end up feeling like you are a CD player but I love interacting with people so I usually end up getting their attention. After all I studied drama and I am also an actress so I make damn sure I have eye contact. Every time they put their knives and forks down to clap, you’ve won!”
Albums include Goin’ Back Home 5, Possibility and Urban Gypsy Singles.
Aletia also has Upstairs Productions to produce shows, CDS and corporate performances.
Her brother is Francois Van Coke of Fokofpolisiekar.