Theatre director brings ‘devil’s music’ to the stage
Cape Town-based theatre director David Kramer plans to bring the ‘devil’s music’ to the stage in his upcoming show Kalahari Karoo Blues.
Kramer says this neglected but not forgotten music from the deep Kalahari has nothing to do with Satanism though. And the award-winning showman will reveal more this month when he plays alongside indigenous musicians at the Baxter Theatre.
“Ten years ago, if you went into a small rural community you wouldn’t see or hear this music. The church played a large part in suppressing this music. Anyone with musical talent or aspiration would have been pulled into the church to not play ‘duiwel’s musiek’ (devil’s music),” says Kramer of the show’s sounds.
“Early church people called it ‘duiwel’s musiek’ because it’s associated with dancing under the moon and all the traditions that used to exist. The church comes along and says you shouldn’t be dancing under the moon like that. You should be in church playing gospel hymns.”
Kramer is referring to music of the Cape’s indigenous Khoi and San tribes.
“The romantic notion would be me going there (to rural towns) and there’s some old ‘oompie’ (uncle) playing on the stoep. It’s not like that. You go there and there’s nothing.
“You are pointed to some guy who hasn’t played his instrument for years and years and years. And you are the first one who comes to ask him to play,” says Kramer.
Kalahari Karoo Blues has taken two years to get together and it is not Kramer’s first attempt at reviving indigenous music. Musical content has been sourced from the Kalahari, the Hardeveld and the Klein Karoo.
Kramer has done so with a similar show, Karoo Kitaar Blues, almost a decade ago. Back then, this music also featured in a TV series that documented Kramer’s wanderings into small Karoo and Namaqualand towns in search of indigenous musicians.
“I met with some really old musicians. I was surprised that this old music still existed. I decided to invite them to perform with me,” he says.
Kalahari Karoo Blues features a range of indigenous musicians from South Africa and Botswana. Performers include Oteng Piet who plays the one-stringed Kalahari segaba, Ronnie Moipolai from Botswana with his “upside-down guitar styling” and Hannes Coetzee who offers teaspoon slide playing on a guitar.
Kramer recalls that this music elicited an “interesting emotional connection between some of the audience members and the players on stage” when he organised performances of it across South Africa.
It opened wounds for some and commented on the rough relations between Afrikaners and their farm workers of Khoi or San descent.
“People told me they grew up with people like this on their farms. We were playing happy music at the shows but grown men would cry in the front row,” says Kramer.
“They would have gone off to become educated and become something in the world while their farm friends stayed shepherds. There is an emotional guilt that also kicks in when some people hear this music.”
On the other end of that conversation, one of the musicians unpretentiously remarked that farmers at the shows for the first time saw him as human.
“Daar wa’ ek woon is ek ‘n boesman. Nou sien hulle my as ‘n mens,” one of the musicians told Kramer.
That means: “There where I live, I’m a Bushman (used in a derogatory manner). Now they (referring to farmers) see me as a person.”
Kramer believes in reviving this music as it is bound on disappearing as radio hits dominate small towns and traditional music fades farther into obscurity.
“Unfortunately, the decimation in the Karoo and Namaqualand destroyed all culture and history. This music is a Khoi-San culture that became an Afrikaans culture (when indigenous folk were enslaved on farms),” says Kramer.
Apart from his recordings of past live shows, not much recorded archive of this music exists, says Kramer. The songs and sounds of these rural towns have also not been passed on systematically from one generation to the next.
“There aren’t any teachers or schools for this music. Older people wouldn’t let kids pick up their instruments and let them play it. Nobody taught this music or songs,” says Kramer.
“A young shepherd would get an oil can and put strings on it. He then sits on his own and tries to play this thing. The younger ones would only watch the older players and work out their own tunings and chords. It’s self-inventive.”
He adds: “No-one’s defined this music and it’s only starting to be researched now. I have a curiosity and I would like to know more about it. This is a sound that is distinctive, like one has an accent in music.”
Kramer turns to his upcoming show which he says would be “spontaneous”.
“I asked one of the musicians, ‘How do you know when a song comes to an end?’ He looked at me and he was mystified by this question. He said, ‘We stop when we don’t feel like playing anymore.’ When the ‘gees’ (spirit) of the song is gone then you stop. But when the song has its own reality you go on,” says Kramer.
“This music is about losing yourself in it. It’s not about writing it down and analysing it into bars and then it becomes respectable or you can write a thesis about it. I’m overwhelmed by the authenticity and the unpretentiousness of it.
“This is not about someone trying to impress an audience. It doesn’t make any difference that they are performing just to me or to 1,200 people. The music envelopes them and that’s what the audience is experiencing as well.”
He adds: “There’s no script. It’s a theme of a forgotten, invisible music. I’m the host and my guest artists on stage will be introduced to the audience. It’s like a music concert or festival.”
Kalahari Karoo Blues runs at the Baxter Theatre from January 9 to 19.
This article was published in the Weekend Argus newspaper, a regional weekly newspaper in the Western Cape province of South Africa, on January 6 2013.