Avant goema

It is a fragile, seductive recording that captures the conviction that one would ask of a contemporary classical music born of the South African landscape. The collaboration captures the timelessness of vastrap and goema liedjies in arrangements for string quartet, trumpet, voice and accordion.

The two composers’ musical backgrounds shed light on the attitude and aesthetic of the recording.
Gripper, who once played with the legendary but now defunct Gilgamesh Ensemble, is a composer schooled in both the classical music of 20th-century Europe and the Carnatic classical tradition of South India. He is more interested in finding commonplaces between these classical traditions than in being bound to either one.

Van Heerden has led an equally hybrid musical career. He came from Port Elizabeth to the Cape to play jazz with leaders such as Mac Mackenzie, Winston Mankunku and Robbie Jansen, was diverted by electronica, and before long was plotting convergences between the hypnotic trance of goema music and the machine-hypnosis of psychedelic trance with his band Gramadoelas. He has more recently immersed himself in the Stockholm minimalist electronica scene, collaborating with producers Hakan Lidbo, Klas Baggstrom and Jonatan Axelsson.

The music on Sagtevlei was written at the beginning of last year, when the composers spent four weeks on a farm on the outskirts of Tulbagh soaking up the soul of the Boland landscape. The results, arranged for a string quartet that included Kerryn Bailey (violin), Fiona Grayer (cello) and Brydon Bolton (double bass), were performed almost immediately for Afribeat.com’s Wonder Gigs series. It is from the recording of that performance that this album has been produced.

The outcome is an honest meeting of centuries-old traditions, the vastrap and goema of the Cape and the classical traditions of Europe and India. The points of confluence are apparent from the recording. Both composers wished to move away from the manufactured timbres of European instruments to more naturally produced sounds that are rich in overtones, and reminiscent of the sound of the Khoisan uhadi mouth bow. Moreover, the cyclic nature of the music on Sagtevlei is founded in both indigenous music and the minimalist movement of European classical music.

There is a fragility in their music that relates to invisible sounds, sounds that can be heard even though they are not played. When Gripper describes the relationship between Indian and European classical music, he explains that “the two distinct musical cultures are doing a very similar thing, they’re just using different tools”. That point of convergence is an aesthetic that some might refer to as avant-garde, but which Gripper refers to as a silent aesthetic and Van Heerden names a seductive aesthetic.

The collaboration promises to bear fruit in the future. Gripper and Van Heerden recently collaborated on Swedish producer Magnus Bank’s hemisfar, exploring vastrap within a contemporary Scandinavian aesthetic. They have also been working on material for a second album. Meanwhile, taking Gripper’s performance at the Open Records launch on July 15 as an indication, his upcoming solo work with eight-string guitar will be an equally seductive fusion of Cape melody and classical traditions.

Pushing boundaries

Ross Campbell’s Cape Town-based Open Records launched this month, its stated purpose being to release “artists who are actively questioning their influences and looking beyond the established boundaries conceived to create music of beauty and worth”.

While Sagtevlei is the most significant of these recordings, Brendon Bussy’s Diesel Geiger is probably the most inventive and finely tuned of Open Records’s four new releases. It is a quietly moving and accomplished work that occupies that strange space on the classical/popular continuum shared by Kronos Quartet.

An enchanting sound world is created on Sui, Benguela’s third album and another exploration into the world of hypnotic cyclic improvisation, while Afrikaner industrialism takes a new twist on Ian Watson’s Enkeleen.

The albums are all beautifully packaged but, more importantly, represent a fearlessly uncompromising wave of South African musicians.

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