From Zambezi to Somma Ghoema

GLYNIS O’HARA does a ‘vastrap’ with Boereqanga’s Nico Carstens

NICO CARSTENS, once the darling of boeremusiek, subsequently an outcast, has been staging a quiet comeback over the last few years through his work with the likes of Ray Phiri, Johannes Kerkorrel, and now boereqanga.

It’s absolutely amazing what a nifty little name can do because the music Carstens plays on boereqanga’s just-released album, Made In South Africa, is just that, simply the music of South Africa, from Skokiaan to Zambezi to Ntjilo Ntjilo to Pata Pata, to Carstens’s new composition, Somma Ghoema.

When the Boereqanga project was first announced as a Grahamstown act last year, the jaded press sat up and took notice. Here was a hook and a line to hang a story on. And the concerts gained huge coverage.

But the name, said Carstens in a telephone interview from Cape Town, is not his. It came from the owner of the Green Dolphin club in the mother city, Henry Shields, and any further queries in this regard should be referred to him, he said. Carstens is, however, the leader of the band-cum-project.

Now 70, he’s been playing the piano accordion (definitely not the concertina) professionally for 51 years and his name has long been synonymous with boeremusiek.

But he says he was crowned ‘king of boeremusiek’ against his will. ‘I just play music, that’s what I do. Just because you’re Afrikaans, why call it boeremusiek?’ Later, though, he adds, ‘I suppose it is an honour to be called a king of something’.

‘I like the beat, I grew up in the Cape with gammat music. There’s a form of music in the Western Cape called Hotnot’s riel, which is not meant to sound derogatory. I have played and still play with a lot of Malay and coloured people. There’s also goema here. These kinds of rhythms are exciting.’

Dave Ledbetter, leader of the Truly Fully Hey Shoo Wow Band, co-arranged the music with Carstens and plays piano on the album. Jannie van Tonder plays trombone. There’s also sax, pennywhistle, guitar, banjo, the Good Hope Entertainers and Don Tshomela on vocals.

Carstens points out that Afrikaans music is huge: ‘Look, 50 to 60 % of whites are probably Afrikaans, which makes about three million people. There are millions more Afrikaans speakers in the so-called coloured community and in many parts of the country Afrikaans is spoken by black people. So probably nine to10 million people speak Afrikaans’.

He hates the term ‘crossover’. ‘It reminds me of cover versions. There’re some record companies here that do Afrikaans translations of German numbers and then they get sung by people like Rina Hugo. Crossover reminds me of that ‘ it’s not from the heart, not from the soul.

‘Boereqanga is South African music. Why cross over if it’s there anyway? It’s just what’s here.

‘The idea, I suppose, is to mix so-called boeremusiek with Cape Malay and mbaqanga, but it’s obvious you can’t do the whole spectrum. You cannot possibly cover 15 to 20 ethnic black musics plus Malay, plus my own.’

He has 1 000 compositions under his belt, and has sold two million records in this country, plus many more overseas, mainly due to Zambesi, a No 13 UK hit for Eddie Calvert in 1956, No 2 UK hit for Leo Busch and his orchestra in 1958, and No 17 for the Piranhas in 1982 (who also had a hit in 1980 with Tom Hark, the disputed authorship of which has provided a running story on these pages).

He is justifiably proud of his creative output, a man secure in the knowledge that he has worked hard and well in his field. The SABC library, he points out, has a 17-page list of his compositions.

Doesn’t he feel, though, that he was appropriated by the National Party and made part of their cultural ideology? ‘No, I don’t feel that. I was, in any event, locked out of the SABC for 15 years, through envy. All the heads of the music department, with the exception of Don Lamprecht in the late 1950s early 1960s, could not take my success. I didn’t get any transcription work.’ (Paid recording sessions of local musicians made by the SABC for their own use. There must be thousands and thousands of them, though when they get played is a complete mystery ‘ perhaps at 3am.)

‘There’s never been a Nico Carstens radio programme either, although with my success that would’ve happened anywhere else in the world. There was a TV documentary done three years ago by the then NNTV, but it’s never been flighted for some reason.

‘I’m going to Nantes in France in October next year (along with other SA musicians, like a revived Black Mambazo from the late 1950s) where they’re doing a series of ‘end of the millennium’ concerts with different countries. Next year it’s France and South Africa, and in 1999 it’s France and Japan.’

This touches on one of the key issues in the debate about local music. Some say South African bands can only compete internationally if they sound ‘as good as’ American and European bands. Others say South Africans should focus on what’s ethnic and unique to this country.

Says Carstens: ‘There’s a vast, vast treasure of music here.’

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