Lovers of the untapped cultural riches of this country are in for a rare treat this week. Musical legend David Kramer takes to the Baxter Concert Hall stage, accompanied by a line-up of musicians from the furthest reaches of the Karoo in Karoo Kitaar Blues — a celebration of South Africa’s largely forgotten folk music that should be a national treasure.
The series of concerts took the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in Oudtshoorn by storm in April and demonstrated that these rugged musical individualists from the poorest rural margins are a force to be reckoned with.
This week Kramer said: ‘Reactions to the show filled me with surprise: it was emotional and powerful. Clearly audiences connected with something vital that has been lost.”
The genesis of this project — which among other things has had a profound creative impact on Kramer’s own music — began in mid-1999 when Kramer was approached by filmmaker Jan Horn and asked to participate in making a documentary for the Afrikaans pay channel, kykNET.
‘Jan wanted my help in researching and presenting a programme on guitar music of South Africa; he planned to drive around the entire country looking for musicians. ‘Come, let’s go find ’em!’ he said. So we did!”
For Kramer, whose work has always been about the recovery and regeneration of local folk styles, Horn’s invitation was a date with destiny. ‘I’ve always been interested in our roots music. My blik guitar sound since the Seventies comes directly out of that,” he says.
‘My musical education began in my father’s furniture shop in Worcester, when the farm workers who’d come into town for the weekly shop on Saturdays would gather at the bottle store next door and play guitars and sing.
‘That was a huge influence: my interest in Afrikaans music and its roots in rural coloured music began right there.”
Finding a bevy of unsung players last year inspired Kramer to invite them to join him in concert. The shows in Oudtshoorn were so successful that Horn and Kramer compiled a second documentary.
‘We’d travelled all over the country first time out. This time we concentrated on the Karoo and Namaqualand: I felt closest to this music and its relation to Afrikaans.”
So who are the Karoo Kitaar Blues front-liners? ‘We have two guitarists: Tokas Loodewyk, a shepherd from Richmond, Karoo, and Hannes Coetzee of Herbertsdale, Klein Karoo — he plays the guitar with a spoon and he’s an aloe tapper.” (Yes, that’s right — he draws off healing aloe juice for a living.)
‘Then we have two shepherds from Kamieskroon, Namaqualand: Japie and Jacob Jaers — who play blik viool, fiddles made from oil tins — and the Mouers family from Victoria West, Karoo. They live in the old butchery in town and are a kind of coloured Briel family.”
Kramer’s testimony is frank and heartfelt: ‘Music is that wonderful thing: we bonded by improvising and playing. They play old, old songs and their own compositions.
‘I thought they might be intimidated on a big stage, but no! The performer in these guys came out and they’ve blossomed!”
There’s a fascinating link through these untutored folk stylists with the oldest traditions of Western music. Like the first poet-songwriters of ancient Greece, many of Kramer’s new collaborators are shepherds. ‘They evolved as musicians out on the veld to combat loneliness, and they developed unique tunings and chord structures because they had to teach themselves,” says Kramer.
‘Sometimes, there are different tunings within the same region: Jan Mowers plays an open tuning called Die Swart Hel. In Uptington, you get ‘a langbeen half C’ and ‘a langbeen half C with a flat’; in Namaqualand there’s one called ‘sofa’.
‘And you find the D chord is called the ‘Binne Kruis‘, the inner cross — a reference to the ancient legend, found in [the United States] too, that a true musician meets the devil at the crossroads at night for a musical duel.”
While the Karoo Kitaar Blues project has rekindled something deep in Kramer’s own work — ‘I’ve written four new songs as a result, some sharing credits with these guys, and we may make a compilation album” — he recognises sadly that it is late in the day to salvage this indigenous musical treasure-trove.
‘So much has been lost due to our peculiar history. These guys seldom play now, for the youth aren’t interested. Television has annihilated this stuff. We should have been doing this work 25 years ago, when as a long-haired university student I yearned to go on the farms and record singers. Music faculties now should be recovering this material.
‘I worry about where these guys go from here. We’ll play more concerts and I hope there will be other openings for them. Do they give back to their communities, do they give master classes? Perhaps somebody in the audience will have that moment, you know, when you see who you are and why you’re here. Who knows?”
Kramer, whose work is dynamic testimony to the power and vitality of indigenous folk music, concludes: ‘This show is about continuity: how to connect to past traditions and link them to the future.”
Here’s hoping that, through Karoo Kitaar Blues, these grizzled practitioners of a dying folk art will be heralds of what is to come, rather than museum exhibits of what once was.