Every week, the <i>M&G</i> chooses one great song that says something about what it means to be South African.
Artist: Bernoldus Niemand
Song: Hou My Vas, Korporaal
Album: Wie Is Bernoldus Niemand? (1984)
James Phillips was a good friend of mine, so I can’t claim to be entirely un-biased about his work. But I’m not the only person who thinks his contribution to South African pop and rock, particularly during the 1980s, was seminal; in his Business Day column this very week, Richard Haslop lauds Phillips’s song Shot Down as one of this country’s finest, and many would agree.
It was Hou My Vas, Korporaal, however, that really got the ball rolling. When it came out as a single in 1983, I didn’t yet know Phillips — and his identity was being concealed behind the mysterious moniker Bernoldus Niemand. This allowed for koan-like puns (‘Niemand gee om! [Nobody cares!]” and so forth), and for a half-joking marketing campaign, if it can be called that, focused on the concept that became the title of the album released by pioneers Shifty Records in 1984, Wie Is Bernoldus Niemand?
At first, I admit, I found Hou My Vas, Korporaal somewhat baffling. I was barely aware of the tradition of the Afrikaans light liedjie so popular on the SABC in those days (ditties by the likes of Sonja Herholdt and the songbird Phillips tended to refer to as Karike Konsentrasiekamp) so I didn’t get what Bernoldus was sending up. I couldn’t really understand, either, why Hou My Vas, Korporaal was immediately banned from the airwaves by the SABC and rejected for sale by the CNA, then South Africa’s largest outlet for records.
After all, it is a wry joke of a song, a fairly gentle prod at the institution of compulsory military service for young white men: instead of seeing the army as a rite of passage to manhood, the song’s narrator is
infantilised by the military. He begs his corporal, otherwise the most violent of disciplinarians (‘Hou jou bek!”), to hold him tight, to comfort him; he describes himself as a lost child. Perhaps that alone was enough for the SABC.
Then again, the song’s narrator also says that being in the army is his duty, not his choice; that he’s ‘playing war” with his best days; and that
his dad’s own series of compulsory army camps has only just ended. He isn’t interested in the great battle of the sacred white minority against the
Total Onslaught of communism; he just wants to get home.
There is also an immense sadness in the way he notes that, of his dad’s army contemporaries, they are only ‘almost all” together again. And his own cry
of ‘bymekaar, bymekaar [together, together]” is both a cry for the close friendships built in the crucible of the military and a lament for a split
nation that could not be ‘together”.
I once asked Phillips how he got through the army and he said: ‘I sang every Bob Dylan song I knew.” There’s little of Dylan’s classic-era amphetamine
rush to Hou My Vas, Korporaal, but Phillips clearly learnt something from his lyrical nous — perhaps as much as he learnt from the directness of punk (his bands Corporal Punishment and Illegal Gathering were key local manifestations of the punk ethos) or the dedication to a South African vernacular evidenced in a song clearly in the ancestry of this one, Jeremy Taylor’s Ag Pleez Daddy.
Phillips had a huge affection for ordinary and even debased South African culture; he wanted to find a way of making authentic South African music —
even if, as here, authenticity must be touched by irony. He despised bands such as Celtic Rumours, who wanted to be as non-South African as possible
and who slavishly imitated anything from ‘overseas”; they were thus unable to bear any real witness to real South African life. Equally, he mocked all those local ‘country and western” stars who pretended they lived in Memphis, Tennessee.
But he also wanted to reject or rework the stale conventions of the South African pop music then heard intermittently on local airwaves. In a way, he
wanted to go back to the beginning and start again. Hou My Vas, Korporaal‘s flatly accented spoken intro (”Scuse me, are you recording?”), before the thump of troepies running kicks in, stages Bernoldus’s complex invocation of
The lyrics are touching and amusing. They seem to skip lightly over the rhythm, yet with an emphasis that places the short, simple words right on top of the oompah-like beat. Individual words are over-enunciated, as though the singer were trying too hard to make himself clear. This adds to the
song’s apparent naivety and, along with the tight variations of the melody and the bouncy bass line, it makes Hou My Vas, Korporaal very catchy indeed.
It later became something of an anthem for the anti-conscription movement. As a whole, the Wie Is Bernoldus Niemand? album, released in 1984 and re-released on CD after Phillips’s death in 1995, would further display his lyrical and melodic genius, not to mention his sly humour, but the fact that it was largely in colloquial Afrikaans must have puzzled more than a few members of his likely audience (the white student hedonist left).
The South African protest song was burgeoning then, and Phillips would contribute more than one classic to that songbook, but in its lack of stridency and its paradoxical upbeat/downbeat tone Hou My Vas, Korporaal was a protest song that didn’t sound like one at all.
Phillips tried to keep his Bernoldus persona separate from his role as leader of his rock band, The Cherry-Faced Lurchers. The Bernoldus songs were not played live until the Voëlvry movement of ‘alternative Afrikaners” took off in the later 1980s, hailing him as a musical forefather. He joined the
Voëlvry tour and nobody asked, any longer, who was Bernoldus Niemand.
Hou my vas, Korporaal – Lyrics
Hou my vas, korporaal
Ek’s ‘n kind skoon verdwaal
Gaan ek weer my tjerrie sien
As ek van die trein afklim?
Ja, sowaar, korporaal
Dis mos swaar, korporaal
Ek speel oorlog met my beste dae
Ja ja ja, ek en al my maatjies
Sal so doen, kolonel
Sal nie weier alhoewel
Elke dag is deurgekruis
Een dag nader aan my huis
Hot en haar, korporaal
Ek word naar, korporaal
My ou man se eerste kamp is klaar
Ja ja ja, amper al sy maatjies bymekaar, bymekaaar
Oogklappe bring die skoon gewete
Dis my plig dis nie my keuse
Hier sit ek, ek sit en vrek
Dis nie my skuld maar ek hou my bek
[korporaal voice: Hou jou bek!]
Sy’s my nooi en haar naam is ‘Min Dae”
Ja ja ja, ek en all my maatjies bymeekaar
Ja ja ja ja ja ja ja ja
Ja ja ja ja ja ja ja ja, korporaal!
Lyrics and music by James Phillips and Carl Raubenheimer
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