Tribute to ‘humble, humanitarian’ singer

James Bhemgee, 57, from Rocklands, former SA’s got talent winner and humanitarian dies.

The family of James Bhemgee, a talented opera singer who was discovered sweeping the streets of Cape Town and whose rags to riches story inspired many, were informed of his death from friends who had heard about it from the media.

“I was called to identify my brother at the hospital, said his brother Pastor Alfonso Schilder.

“Friends had called with condolences and to enquire of his death before the hospital telling me of his passing.”

Mr Bhemgee, described as a people’s person and humanitarian, had chronic hypertension and was declared dead on arrival at Mitchell’s Plain Community Health Centre, in Eastridge, after being rushed to hospital by a friend on Wednesday June 22.

He had risen to fame when he won the second season of SA’s Got Talent in 2010.

In 1988, while sweeping the streets of Mowbray, a woman named Angelique Fuhr heard him sing Gé Korsten’s Sonder Jou, and paid for his first singing lessons.

According to the Cape Historical Society, Mr Bhemgee took voice lessons from American baritone Wayne Long at the then Nico Malan theatre but left 18 months later to pursue a performance diploma at the University of Cape Town.

He left the country before completing his diploma.

In 1994 he appeared on Breakfast News (now BBC Breakfast) in the United Kingdom. He studied in Germany for four years and went on to learn music theory in the USA.

He performed in sold-out shows with renowned artists, including Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins.

His sister Nerine Schilder attended his performance with André Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra, at Grand Arena, Grand West Cape Town in March 2011.

“I remember weeping throughout the songs he performed. I realised how blessed he was to share a stage with such great men and be as humble as he was.

“I have never met an ‘international performer’ with such humility,” she said.

Ms Schilder said many rise to fame and forget where they come from.

“He was not embarrassed about his past or his roots,” she said.

Humility meant to him “living a simple life”.

After winning the talent contest he said to Ms Schilder: “Ek wil net humble wies ek worrie nie nog van mense nie,” she recalled.

Mr Bhemgee assisted people financially, lent them money and sang at charitable events, to help raise funds, expecting nothing in return, she added.

His family remember him as much more than just a singer.

Mr Schilder said: “Our brother was a public figure. He was a people’s person.

“We had the privilege and honour to know James Bhemgee as our brother. Others might know him as a friend and they can verify the things we would say of our brother.

“He was an individual who loved people. He was a people’s person, especially those downtrodden people, people who were in despair, people that needed help.

“Jame Bhemgee would go out of his way to help people with the little that he had. My brother was a true humanitarian.”

Mr Schilder said while Mr Bhemgee loved performing, he didn’t like attention. “All he wanted was sing (and) lift people’s spirits with the gift that he had.

“My brother recognised and acknowledged the gift God had given him,” he said.

Mr Bhemgee was born in Worcester on March 7, 1965.

At age three his mother dropped him and his brother Jonathan at his stepmother’s house in Retreat.

In 1971 she took them back and they stayed in Retreat, then Heideveld, Gugulethu and Kalksteenfontein.

Mr Bhemgee had been living in Rocklands for more than 30 years, where he mentored other singers and coached minstrels.

Mr Schilder recalled that when they were younger, he and Mr Bhemgee had been tasked with collecting water from a communal tap.

They would carry a bucket of water with a broomstick.

He recalled that one morning when they had gone to collect water “James opened the tap and enticed me to play a game of soccer”.

“We had left the tap running. The community complained to my mother. I remember getting such a beating. James was our guest and I should have known not to be distracted,” said Mr Schilder.

He said Mr Bhemgee was proof that no matter what the circumstances, irrespective of one’s background “you can still achieve with the help of God”.

Mr Schilder said they had been overwhelmed by the tributes on social media and the stories shared with the people who knew him.

“Those who have journeyed with him with pay tribute at the funeral,” he said.

Their father was often away at sea and died in September 2020, followed by Mr Bhemgee’s brother Jonathan, also known as Junaid in May 2021.

They were the Schilders’ biological brothers and never referred to as step brothers, said Mr Schilder.

“Although we didn’t grow up in the same household we had that unconditional love shared by siblings,” said their eldest sister, Juliet Schilder.

“We shared the same dad. I never saw him or treated him like a stepbrother. He was my brother,” she said.

“He was a beautiful soul, the most humble person I’ve met in my lifetime and I’m not just saying that because he is my brother.”

He called her “Tietie”.

“I will forever miss him and he will forever live on in my heart. His music will also live on.”

As a child Mr Bhemgee sang in church and at family functions, to which he was notorious for bringing along “his community”, which comprised two or three friends.

His youngest sister Dominique Schilder had the privilege of performing with Mr Bhemgee at events.

They would sing The Prayer, originally sung by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion.

Her eldest son was three days old, when the female vocalist failed to arrive at a friend’s ordination service.

“He whispered in my ear, ‘jy moet die song saam my sing’. Never mind the fact that I was still in pain or that I have never sung with him before.

“He took me to the car to practise it quickly and after two runs we performed it together for the first time and the rest is history.

“Just over a year ago I joined Belcanto Voce, a vocal ensemble of which he was a member and will treasure the many memories we spent singing together,” she said.

Mr Bhemgee is survived by his six children, his brothers and sisters.

His funeral will be at Orion Church, in Caravelle Road Rocklands, from 8.30am on Saturday July 2.