Khoi-San sounds meets classical music in new symphony

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Khoi-San and classical music do not commonly feature in the same symphony, but a local composer is uniting these sounds to tell the history of Cape Town.

Gerald ‘Mac’ McKenzie, a musician and composer from Athlone, has been living in small town Darling outside Cape Town, where he is readying his Goema Symphony Number 1: The Finale. It will premiere in Darling on February 7.

Athlone musician and composer Gerald ‘Mac’ McKenzie will premiere his Goema Symphony Number 1: The Finale in Darling next month. It features Khoi-San and classical music to tell the history of Cape Town. Picture Paul Darné

Athlone musician and composer Gerald ‘Mac’ McKenzie will premiere his Goema Symphony Number 1: The Finale in Darling next month. It features Khoi-San and classical music to tell the history of Cape Town. Picture Paul Darné

Goema is an hour-long musical journey starting with the pre-colonial Cape, dives into the colonial period, and wraps up with sounds of present-day democracy.

It will feature classically trained musicians alongside those playing indigenous Khoi-San instruments.

McKenzie, 63, started writing Goema a decade ago and is now ready to present it to an audience. He left city life last April to prepare the piece for his showcase at this year’s Darling Music Experience.

As this music festival’s resident composer, he has worked with local youth, training them how to play music.

McKenzie found home in the town’s abandoned church, with the belief that “building a new South Africa is very important”.

To this end, he founded the Darling Chamber Orchestra, featuring young musicians who would otherwise never have had access to formal music training.

McKenzie says he called the piece Goema, which for years has referred to a sound that emanates from particularly the Cape Town coloured community, with its mixed-race heritage and multi-cultural influences.

“We have the blood of people from all over the world in us,” says McKenzie.

“We are mixed people and we live in ‘The Land of the Goema’. We are the coloured people. Goema is our sound. And we also have a goema (or mixed) way of life.”

McKenzie says this enables him to draw easily on different influences, laying claim to it through heritage.

“If you hear a Mozambican, Indian or German sound, it’s because that is also part of our heritage,” he explains.

With Goema, he wanted to narrate through a score a story that includes the various voices and histories of the Cape.

“The first part starts with what happened before and in 1652 (the documented start of Dutch colonisation in the Cape). I’m talking about the music memory of that time. I am using a lot of bows and indigenous music to imply what is happening there,” says McKenzie.

“Then suddenly you hear European church songs. This is Europe moving to the Cape. Then we hear their music mixing with the Khoi-San music. There is a little party.”

But soon the music turns violent when the “Khoi-San realise the Europeans are not going away”.

“We hear a trumpet signaling war. And then come the conflict and a battle scene. After the battle, we have a quiet tiredness and sorrow.”

McKenzie delves into Cape Malay choir music at this point in Goema, to draw on the slave community’s Nederlandse ‘liedjies’, songs performed in an early version of Afrikaans.

These songs still exist in the coloured community, performed particularly at weddings and some family gatherings, but most especially during the early part of the year with the annual Cape Malay choir singing competitions.

“You hear the liedjies and people have to adjust as life has changed in the Cape. The slaves start singing their sorrow. Then there’s a slow way of finding life again,” says McKenzie.

“Then comes submission, collaboration and eventually cooperation. And then once again the music comes together to show we all mixing again. I come right into the modern day.”

“You have a lively European waltz mixing with Kaapse Klopse and Khoi-San sounds.”

Apart from Khoi-San and classical music, McKenzie has also written jazz music as part of Goema. He says his orchestra will feature 22 musicians playing “violins, violas, clarinet, flute, percussion, piano, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, some even sing” and “we have a banjo from time to time”.

“It has been hard work and I was motivated to write down this music. Cape Town musicians have to realise that they have to document their work so there is more sustainable value to it. They have to learn how to write down their music,” says McKenzie.

“When you are writing for an orchestra you can go anywhere with it. Some people in the orchestra don’t even understand me when I talk to them. There’s a Russian woman in the orchestra.

“But when she reads the music, she understands it. The people who play in my orchestra have all studied music. Any orchestra in the world can pick up what I have written and play it.”

McKenzie established his career countrywide decades ago, performing pop, jazz, rock and anti-apartheid songs. He says he has found, through writing his compositions for orchestras, he is now at “the top end of the game”.

“If you can bring people a written score, you are at the top end. I know top musicians are struggling. If they can’t write their music down, people don’t respect them,” he says.

McKenzie says he always had ambitions to compose his own music.

“I grew up in coloured areas where people copied everybody’s music. There were many nightclubs. When people came to dance at the clubs they wanted to hear the radio played by bands.

“Bands that were making the most money and fame were cover bands. But I wrote my own songs. Everybody thought I was a strange bird writing my own songs.”

McKenzie still has a number of ideas for musical symphonies he wants to write, including a “South African indigenous ballet”.

He says writing music results in “my heartbeat being the same as the person who was just running a marathon”.

And his intention now is that “we will all enjoy music together”.

“I’m still a struggle musician. I’ve never stopped thinking about how unfair things are,” he says.

“But the only way to counter that is to bring people together. We will sit in one concert hall and listen to the music.”

Goema Symphony Number 1: The Finale will debut at the NG Kerk, Church Street, Darling, on February 7 at 4pm. For more information call 079-445-9703.


The Darling Music Experience, launched in 2006, was started to “bring first class chamber music to the West Coast”.

Its organisers say “highly-rated musicians, together with Darling’s quiet country charm and small intimate venues” draw in crowds from across the province.

“Our aim is to give pleasure and to entertain without compromising on the quality of our music. This appeals to old and young audiences alike,” they add.

This year’s festival will feature 11 concerts, including Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

A performance of Beethoven’s triple concerto will feature Farida Bacharova on violin, Polina Burdukova on cello, and Kerryn Wisniewski on piano.

And homage to Hendrik Hofmeyr, billed as “South Africa’s most performed and internationally recognised contemporary composers”, will also feature.

The Darling Music Experience runs from January 30 until February 15. For more information check out, call Innes on 079-445-9703, or e-mail


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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