The Sound of Musiek

Never mind Rodriguez, the comeback star of the Oscar-winning documentary, Searching for Sugarman: in South Africa, the big success story is Afrikaans music. For the past ten to fifteen years, growth has been in double digits, accounting for over 20 percent of all sales in the country. Not bad when you consider that the buyers—almost exclusively white Afrikaners—comprise just six percent of the population. Modern Afrikaans pop music borrows liberally from various international genres including dance-pop, country, soft-rock and schmaltzy crooning. It could be pop music from anywhere else in the world—except nowhere else in the world sings in Afrikaans.

Though it contributes only a small portion of the sales figures of Afrikaans music, perhaps its most symbolically important variety is boeremusiek. If a TV ad wants to parody the backwoods, hick white Afrikaner, the shorthand cues are khaki shorts with long socks, and boeremusiek. While Afrikaans is also the language of a slightly larger group of the South African population who were described as “Coloured” during apartheid, boeremusiek is wedded to white Afrikaner culture.

Boeremusiek usually has no vocals, and its central instrument is the crunchy, droning concertina, an originally European free-reed instrument replete with bellows—much like an accordion, but smaller and perhaps cuter. As with some forms of American folk music, guitar, banjo, occasionally violin, and bass or cello accompany it. It could be considered the bluegrass of South Africa, although perhaps it’s closer in sound to Cajun music, or polka mixed with Parisian cafe kitsch.

A typical boeremusiek song, like the traditional “Sonop” (“Sunrise”) as played by Die Oudag Boere-Orkes (The Old-Time Boere Orchestra), begins with a short figure played on a lone concertina, increasing in tempo like a wind-up record, before the rest of the band joins in. An acoustic guitar provides rhythm along with a bouncing, plucked cello to mark the bassline; while a second concertina provides harmonic lines and chord stabs. As in bluegrass, a banjo adds extra jauntiness, tripping atop the guitar rhythm. In the traditional bands, no drums feature, though they do in bands like The Klipwerf Orkes, perhaps the most successful current boeremusiek act. Their drummer adds plenty of splashy accents to the relentless, chugging rhythm in their version of “Sonop,” and they’ll often include clean electric guitars, synthesizers and pianos.

One of the concertinas gives a shiver, a kind of tremolo effect, at the end of a phrase from time to time. The technique might be used as a crowd-pleasing piece of showmanship, and it’s perhaps the only obviously emotional affectation (and even then, a somewhat humorous one). It’s only when you imagine hearing this music somewhere lonesome, like the Karoo scrubland, that you pick up a sense of the longing embedded in the sound.

Ultimately, boeremusiek is dance music. There are waltzes, polkas, seties (schottisches), mazurkas and vastraps (a South African invention). You might hear boeremusiek at a boeredans (boere-dance) in a small hall on a weekend, at food and wine festivals, or at any number of the many, well-attended Afrikaans cultural festivals that have sprung up in the last twenty years. At white Afrikaans weddings, a DJ might play a few boeremusiek numbers for the older folks. You’ll see couples clasping each other’s hands, arms extended, dancing langarm (long-arm). Though the younger set might prefer dancing to something more poppy, the quick sweeping movements are still passed on from one generation to the next.

Hardly any other style of music has the powerful association with a particular ethnicity and language that boeremusiek has. For that reason, the origins of boeremusiek aren’t normally a matter of dispute: of white Afrikaners and for white Afrikaners, the music is little studied, and the robustness of the genre depends on the tight control of its history by white Afrikaner musicians and organizations. The three-volume history of the music written under the direction of the Tradisionele Boeremusiekklub van Suid-Afrika (Traditional Boeremusiek Club of South Africa) describes it thus, with aggressive matter-of-factness:

Boeremusiek is what it says. It is the interpretation of the music that was brought by the European to Africa and that the South African, in his isolation in remote districts and farms, kept up as part of his own culture. Especially the cattle-farmers, who ventured further from established civilization in the Cape of Good Hope, kept up in their own way the music of   civilized Cape culture, in reality nothing but an extension of European civilization.

Born in the Cape, boeremusiek migrated to the interior along with the Boers during the Great Trek of the nineteenth century. In the 1830s, large numbers of Boers discontent with British rule in the Cape Colony moved into the interior of the country, leading to the establishment of the Orange Free State and Transvaal Republic (often referred to as the Boer Republics), and took their folk music with them. The sound of the Boer world came into being alongside its origin myth.

But, like so much of the world the Boers made, all of this seemed to implode in recent years, with the revelation that little of it may be true. Though the traditionalists might be reluctant to entertain a different version of the story, the South African musicologist Willemien Froneman has been questioning just how much Boer there is in boeremusiek. In her recent thesis, Pleasure Beyond the Call of Duty: Perspectives, Retrospectives and Speculations on Boeremusiek, Froneman states that the music is a “genre with an historical apolitical character and hybrid racial beginnings.”

It wasn’t until the Great Trek centenary re-enactment of 1938 that the term “boeremusiek” came into being. Until then, according to Froneman, the music was being described in terms that connoted people of color, not Boers: either vastrapmusiek (more on the vastrap later) or Hotnotsmusiek (Hotnot or Hottentot being an outmoded and offensive term for African Khoikhoi people).

The origins of this aren’t hard to imagine. If you were a white farmer in the Cape Colony in the 18th or 19th century and you wanted to throw a party, you’d almost certainly have a band made up of slaves or servants of a darker hue than yourself playing for your guests. There would have been the waltzes and quadrilles in the Cape that white people were going wild over throughout Europe. But these tunes would have been filtered through the sensibilities of the Khoisan, Indonesian, Indian, Malagasy and perhaps Xhosa slaves who performed them and who would have had their own musical traditions and aesthetics.

Among the innovations we know slave and servant musicians brought to this setting was a boom– pa-da-boom-pa rhythm called the vastrap. The word “vastrap” means something like ‘stamp firmly,’ but it’s more ancient than the given name. The vastrap is a literal trance music, from a Khoisan ritual called the hop dance. The rhythm put shamans into a trance in which they could receive visions and messages from their ancestors.

The vastrap rhythm is also the rhythm of the riel, a dance that survives today in Coloured communities in the Western and Northern Cape provinces of South Africa. And according to the late musician and student of Cape music, Alex van Heerden, the vastrap features in the ghoema beat of the Cape Town minstrel carnival bands, only played at a different tempo.

Although boeremusiek makes use of many European dance rhythms, the vastrap is one of the standard, easily identifiable beats of the genre, and hundreds of well-known boeremusiek song titles and band names include the word “vastrap”.

The website of the Traditional Boeremusiek Club is vague on the origins of the vastrap. While it mentions the connection to the riel, it says the vastrap didn’t appear until later in boeremusiek’s history and suggests that the music itself originated in the polka and American barn dancing.

Nor does the Traditional Boeremusiek Club acknowledge another form of music that had a lasting impact on boeremusiek. For about eighty years, blackface minstrelsy was the biggest form of entertainment in colonial South Africa. Another country’s slaves added fuel to the boeremusiek fire.

The minstrel hit, “Jump Jim Crow”—the most popular song in the antebellum US—was introduced into the Cape in the 1840s and minstrel-type shows subsequently all over the country. From the 1860s onward, a string of American minstrel acts toured the country, bringing with them Civil War songs that directly influenced Afrikaans folk music (a few were reworked note-for-note and sung with new Afrikaans lyrics). Crucially, they introduced two mainstays of boeremusiek, the concertina and the banjo. “Blackface minstrelsy was a big component of white entertainment throughout South Africa, in literally every small town in the nineteenth century,” says Froneman. “And not only groups touring from the States or England—those groups were made up of local people.”

Since writing her thesis, Froneman has discovered a photo taken of Boer prisoners at Greenpoint Prison during the Boer War of 1899 – 1902. It shows a group of thirty to forty Boers in blackface, with a boereorkes at the back holding a concertina and the other typical instruments of boeremusiek. Although in her estimation Boer blackface minstrelsy was commonplace, it’s the metaphorical aspect of blackface that she believes allowed boeremusiek to be born.

The Afrikaners’ Calvinism was always at odds with the kind of music that made you want to dance. You couldn’t trust it: dancing led to sex; there was a causal link. But blackface was a mask: it’s not you playing that adulterous music. Like the dual nature of minstrelsy that Eric Lott analyzed in his study Love and Theft: Black Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, blackface allowed Boer musicians to play in ways their religion wouldn’t allow, to mimic other kinds of music, to synthesize it with their own. All the sexual energy and pent-up emotion they considered the province of the uncivilized non-whites could find release in the safe space of minstrelsy.

Froneman believes there was a kind of racial envy going on, too, and points to the phenomenal popularity of Negro spirituals with Boer audiences. One of the biggest international stars of the late 1800s was a man with the extraordinary name of Orpheus McAdoo. His band, the Jubilee Singers, embarked on a wildly successful tour of Britain, Europe, Australia and South Africa. That such internationalism existed then might be surprising enough, but when you consider that McAdoo and every one of his Jubilee Singers was African American, it’s almost unbelievable.

McAdoo’s effect on South African culture was enormous; some musicologists have claimed he influenced isicathamiya (a cappella music made famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo), gumboot dancing and Cape Town’s annual Minstrel Carnival (also known as the Kaapse Klopse, and formerly called the Coon Carnival). McAdoo and his group traveled South Africa far and wide, leaving only when the Boer War broke out. Paul Kruger himself, president of the Boer Republic, is said to have wept at the Jubilee Singers’ performance of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

The need to distinguish boeremusiek as particularly white music came in the 20th century, during the years following South African independence (which came in 1931). In 1938, there were nationwide festivities centered around a re-enactment of the Great Trek on its centenary. An ox-wagon train started off from Cape Town and wound its way through small towns, waved on by people in Voortrekker garb. It finished at Monument Koppie in Pretoria, the site chosen for the Voortrekker Monument, where a crowd of over 100, 000 people met it. Newspapers at the time were full of ads for boere-tack: commemorative picture albums, stationery, crockery, sugar spoons and furniture incorporating wagon wheel motifs. Record companies jumped on the ox-wagon and began to market boere-music alongside the boere-outfits and boere-lounge-suites on offer.

Between the solemn speeches at the stop-off points along the routes of the Great Trek re-enactment, a band might start up a tune. Not everyone who tuned in to the events on radio recognized this music as fittingly and proudly Afrikaans music. It was undignified, some said. A revealing letter to the editor of an Afrikaans newspaper in 1938 complains about a song these days considered a boeremusiek standard, “Suikerbossie” (“Sugar-bush,” another name for the Protea, South Africa’s national flower). It appeals to the lower half of the body, he says, the ultimate put-down in that writer’s view. The letter goes on to say that “Suikerbossie” and its ilk, which the state broadcaster, the SABC, insists on ruining the airwaves with, is not even Afrikaans music. He knows the music, the writer continues, having heard it played by black laborers since childhood.

“I don’t know any well-educated Afrikaans family who does not listen to this music with embarrassment and abhorrence,” says the incensed writer. “There are hundreds and thousands of Afrikaners who are far superior to this ‘vastrap’ group and who constantly have to suffer the humiliation of having to bow down to that distasteful level. Why can’t the underprivileged group (if in fact they are Afrikaners) not gradually be educated to appreciate higher things?” That the music was strongly associated with people of color is something dealt with at length in Dr. Froneman’s study. It accounts for the fact, she says, that for many years boeremusiek has been associated with the lower classes.

It was at this moment that “vastrapmusiek”, with its vague overtones of proletarianism and mixed ethnicity, became “boeremusiek.” Capitalizing on the wave of Afrikaner nationalism sweeping the country around the Great Trek centenary, the Afrikaans composer and band leader, Hendrik Susan, put together a boereorkes to follow the wagons, and they were often broadcast on the SABC. Susan became a star thanks to these and later broadcasts, where he appeared in front of his orchestra always in a tailcoat, a violin under his chin, and with prematurely graying hair.

Nico Carstens, who played in Susan’s orchestra for five years from the age of twenty-one, remembers what it was like whenever the man came on stage: “Before you hear the applause, you hear a communal sigh from the entire female part of the audience.” The SABC broadcasts made him a household name. “He was the most popular band leader this country has ever seen,” says Carstens. Many felt Susan was finally lifting Afrikaans music from its lowly origins. But as some at the SABC became more interested in shaping Afrikaner culture, it’s apparent that boeremusiek’s mixed roots weren’t so much forgotten as hidden.

Just a few years after 1948, when the National Party took to power and instituted apartheid, boeremusiek began “dying.” In the 1950s, the program directors at the SABC identified certain threats to boeremusiek, a music that was becoming flag bearer to white Afrikaans culture.

Boeremusiek of the ’30s and ’40s was a much wilder animal than it is today. It drew on some of its mixed heritage, employed vocals and borrowed popular songs from the USA. One of the most successful bands of the time, David De Lange’s Naglopers (Nightwalkers), even included a Coloured banjo player (he posed as a Jew, changing his name from Gamza Karriem to George Abrahams, in order to avoid discrimination).

In 1951 Anton Hartman became program director of the SABC. He was at the same time a member of two other bodies: the Afrikaner Broederbond (Afrikaner Brotherhood), the secret, quasi-religious, apartheid-fostering, nationalist organization of Afrikaans men who were kingmakers to a series of prime ministers; and the FAK, the cultural body established by the Broederbond to promote the Afrikaner Christian agenda. With Hartman’s protective instinct for the culture, the SABC undertook a massive campaign in the ’50s to find “real” boeremusiek. Besides the untamed music of the ’30s, of late some of the “fake” stuff had been ruining the airwaves— Afrikaans tangos and rumbas, a little boere-jazz—and enough was enough.

In response to their call for traditional material, a Dutch woman named Jo Fourie toured the country with a concertina in the trunk of her car and collected over three hundred songs from rural Afrikaners. Hendrik Susan recorded a few, and the SABC introduced a new show featuring “real” boeremusiek called Uit die jaar vroeg (‘From Days of Yore’).

The program directors used a heavy hand in shaping the music the traditional boeremusiek organizations seek to preserve today. They were of the view that the problem with the genre was that it had strayed from the righteous road of tradition. To put it right, what was needed were a few rules:

1.   There should be no syncopation

2.   Players should make use of basic chords

3.   Improvisation and overly decorative playing is to be discouraged

To most musicians the rules were nonsense and showed little understanding of music. But the program directors set themselves up as the true keepers of the rustic folk-music tradition – even if it was one they’d dreamt up, or wished into being. In the same way folk dances were imported from Sweden, then sold to the white Afrikaner public as how the Voortrekkers did it on rest-stops (presumably between trekking, praying and killing), a few people at the SABC felt Afrikaners should be gently guided toward a folk music befitting them.

Before the SABC’s meddling, boeremusiek was working-class music, which was a problem for the intellectuals of the Broederbond and the FAK (essentially the architects of apartheid). They wished the baser elements out of the music to provide a more hygienic version that spoke of the wholesome values of simple, rural, white folk. These changes all but erased the evidence of a mixed racial musical influence – the spontaneity and the jauntiness of the banjo still present in Cape Minstrel music –  and made it easier for audiences to presume a wholly European provenance for boeremusiek.

Revelations about the mixed origins of boeremusiek have had little impact on the official history, nor have they initiated much introspection on the nature of tradition. With 605 members, the Traditional Boeremusiek Club continues to define boeremusiek for themselves. They reissue early recordings and are in the process of assembling a database of real, original and rare music of the genre. Without being specific about the origins of the music, the Traditional Boeremusiek Club of South Africa’s website will only concede: “The term [boeremusiek] came into circulation, withoutadequately taking into account that the music referred to originated from a broader group thanonly those who have been called ‘Boers.’”

The Boeremusiek Guild of South Africa is a considerably larger organization and their branches around the country convene regular meets. They continue to promote the “dying” music (and the notion that it is “dying”). Their annual competition, which takes place in alternate years in the Cape winelands and at the Voortrekker Monument, attracts a large audience of white Afrikaners.

Of course, changing the official story of boeremusiek would change its nature. The organizations deal in nostalgia for a simpler time—a tricky concept in a country where the large majority of people have no nostalgia for a past under colonial masters. In order for traditional boeremusiek to survive in its “pure” form—however sickly and inbred a musical animal that may be—it needs to be protected from its true past as well as new influences. As long as there are people willing to ignore the country’s cruel history, traditional boeremusiek will survive.

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