James Bhemgee: From dustman to Nessum Dorma  

by Evan Milton

James Bhemgee, the 'SA's Got Talent' winner and former street-sweeper who fired the imaginations of a country is back in South Africa with a debut CD - and a new dream.

James Bhemgee was born in Worcester and grew up in Retreat, Heideveld and Gugulethu with his mother and step-mother before being placed in Klaksteenfontein outside Bonteheuwel with relatives of his fisherman-father. Partly due to the anti-apartheid school boycotts, he did not complete his schooling, and later found employment with as a municipal cleaner. While sweeping streets in the whites-only suburbs, he sang operatic arias and popular local radio tunes in the hope that a resident might hear him.
In 1989, precisely that happened. The late Angelique Fuhr, of Mowbray, was impressed to hear his rendition of Gé Korsten’s "Sonder Jou" ("Without You"), and resolved to pay for singing lessons. These included tuition under American baritone Wayne Long at Artscape (then still the Nico Malan Theatre) and attendance at the UCT Opera School under soprano ­Virginia Davids. Fuhr also garnered sponsorship from advertising agency Young & Rubicam which secured further training in Germany and England, where Bhemgee sang with Italian tenor Giuseppe Sabbatini. Then, in 2009, he entered "SA's Got Talent", earned high praise from judges Shado Twala, Ian von Memerty and Randal Abrahams - and went on to win the show.
"People take me more seriously now, and they know me in the whole of South Africa," says Bhemgee. "Before, people only knew me from being 'The Singing Dustman', but now the work is coming, and people want to meet me all the time, and there are jobs with the corporates, because they all like the story of my success. It's all based on 'Neve give up - you can do it'."
"I started out sweeping the streets every day and, in those years in the township, people didn't like the music I sang," he continues. "Every day, while working, I would sing, hoping for some rich white people to send me to school for music. A lot of people took my name, but nothing ever happened. Then it happened at last: Mrs Fuhr said, 'A lot of people took your name, but I am going to do something'. It went from there, and then I got overseas when more people thought, 'OK, I can help.' At that time, I couldn't read music, but in America I picked up my sight singing, and in Germany, at the Hoschule Für Musik they said I could be the next Pavarotti."
After achieving these dreams, Bhemgee has a new one, following the release of his debut album, "Vincero, My Victory". The ten-track CD features a selection of favoured tenor arias such as "Nessun Dorma" (hence the album's title), Schubert's and Bach's "Ave Maria", "Nella Fantasia" and, of course, "Gira Con Me", the song that saw him win the "SA’s Got Talent" finals three years ago. It also has songbook classics, such as "You’ll Never Walk Alone", sung as a duet with "Talent" judge Ian von Memerty; "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Impossible Dream".
"I worked very hard on this CD and it is a dream come true," he says. "I always wanted to have my own CD, and this one is a choice of songs that is suitable for everyone, from the old to the young. I hope it means more people will get interested in classical music. Now, my dream for the future, is for all South Africans to buy the CD. They all voted for me to win, so my dream is they must all buy it and, then, it can be introduced to the world, because I think it is a world-class CD."
Bhemgee is still called "The Singing Dustman" and "The Singing Streetsweeper" although those days are some distance away. What does he feel about the moniker now? "It will always be part of history," he says. "I read the papers, ne? If there's someone who's a murderer or a politician who's done something, then they always have the first part of the story, over and again. The other day, I said, "Jirre! This is the fiftieth time I've read this thing about some person,' and they don't go on with the story. In the South African media, that's what they do, so my story will always start with when I was sweeping the streets. It's fine like that, I guess."
In closing, does the proverbial "rags to riches" story that is James Bhemgee have a message for South Africa? "Vir Suid Afrika?" he says. "Ja. I want the people who have the power, to help the up and coming singers. In Europe they do that, they keep feeding you - here, all the great musicians die poor. Susan Boyle was only in the semi-finals (of "Britain's Got Talent"), and she is a multi-millionaire with hit singles and albums. I won the competition, and nothing really happens. I was contracted to a record company for six months, because that's what you get if you win, but to this day I have not even heard from them. So we did our own CD, with the help of Rand Merchant Bank. The record companies have the power and, man, why are they not trying to lift people up?"
James Bhemgee's debut album "Vincero, My Victory" is now available at all discerning stockists and from his website. Also hear him with Eugene Jephta and Matthew Overmeyer as the Cape Flats Tenors at a special Mother's Day show at Villa Pascal on Sunday 13 May (28 van der Westhuizen Street, Durbanville, 021-9752566, 6.30pm, R100. Booking advised). The trio also perform regularly at the Bellville Civic's "Melodies and Memories" concerts. More on JamesBhemgee.co.za and Twitter.com/James_Bhemgee.

First appeared in the Cape Argus "Good Weekend" of 2012/ 04/15

Music journalist, Digital marketing strategist, SA Music Awards judge and radio DJ for Fine Music Radio.

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