Less than a week after attending the European premiere of his latest musical, Spice Drum Beat - Ghoema, at north London’s Tricycle Theatre, Taliep Petersen (pictured), co-creator of it and the double Olivier Award-winning Kat and the Kings, was murdered in his home in Cape Town.

According to news reports from South Africa, late on Saturday (16 December 2006), armed robbers broke into Petersen’s home and after robbing and locking six family members in other rooms, took Petersen into the living room where they emptied a safe, tied him up, robbed him of his mobile phone and other devices and shot him. Police reported: “The body of the deceased was found in the TV room with a bullet wound in the neck. His hands and feet were tied with tie-strips.” The murderers fled in an unidentified vehicle and are still at large.

Petersen, aged 56, was one of the country’s most popular entertainers. Born in Cape Town’s multi-racial District Six, which was demolished during apartheid, Petersen became involved in music at a young age and won the “Mr Entertainment” competition with a local newspaper as a teenager. He started his career as a performer, touring South Africa and Mozambique with a jazz and variety roadshow and then joining productions of Hair, Godspell and Pippin.

In 1979, Petersen studied at the Fitznell School of Music in Surrey and, during his time in the UK, saw numerous West End shows. The experience inspired him to write a revue, Carnival a la District Six, based on his memories of New Year in Cape Town. In the early Eighties, he formed the band Sapphyre, which toured hotels and released the album Rose, re-interpreting traditional Cape Malay songs in a modern style.

Petersen and David Kramer met as performers early in their careers and teamed up in 1986 to write their first musical, District Six, which broke box office records in South Africa was invited to the Edinburgh Festival. Their collaborations Fairyland, Crooners, Poison, Klop Klop and Kat and the Kings followed. The last became a multi award-winning international success.

When it received its UK premiere at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn in 1997, Kat and the Kings - which offered a glimpse of the ‘Cape Coloured’ community through the life of a non-white band during apartheid - was the first South African musical to open in London since the advent of black majority rule in its native country. (Since then, other major South African hits to arrive on these shores have included Umoja and The Mysteries.)

In addition to two other runs at the Tricycle, most recently in 2003, Kat and the Kings transferred to the West End and Broadway and toured internationally. At the 1999 Laurence Olivier Awards, the musical scooped the prizes for Best New Musical as well as Best Actor in a Musical which was, unprecedently, awarded to the entire South African cast.

Spice Drum Beat - Ghoema - which premiered at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre last year and which opened on 11 December 2006 (previews from 6 December) at the Tricycle where it continues to 27 January 2007 - delves deep into the Cape’s early history, when the Dutch first settled in South Africa. Traditional folk songs are woven together with original music by Petersen and Kramer (who also provides the book and directs). The pair had intended to start work on a new musical, a light-hearted piece set in the world of ballroom dancing, in the new year.

In South Africa today, tributes have been pouring in from all quarters. In London, David Kramer - who stayed on after last Monday’s opening of Spice Drum Beat, while Petersen flew back to South Africa last Wednesday - was told news of his writing partner’s death yesterday. Speaking to Whatsonstage.com today, he paid his own personal tribute to Petersen.

“Taliep was a very good friend of mine. We met as entertainers on the stage 30 years ago and I started working with him 20 years ago on our first musical District Six. Taliep was born and grew up in District Six. It’s an area that looms so large in the history of South Africa and he is synonymous with that… The fact that these musicals have been able to bring the story of the so-called colour people into the foreground is what his great achievement has been.”

Kramer continued: “Taliep’s dream was always to see his work on in the West End. He achieved that dream with Kat and the Kings…. Winning the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical was one of his proudest moments”, followed closely by then South African president Nelson Mandela attending the show and embracing Petersen and Kramer on stage at the curtain call.

Kramer said that, although there are no plans to make any speeches at the Tricycle, the rest of the London run of Spice Drum Beat - Ghoema will be dedicated to Petersen. Once back in South Africa, Kramer and the company plan to organise a memorial concert at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre. According to Kramer, “Taliep lives on in his music. It’s a great honour to be able to perform it and keep him alive in that way. Whenever we walk on the stage and sing these songs, Taliep will be there with us.”

- by Terri Paddock