Kalahari Karoo Blues
This is a blog you have to listen to, as opposed to just read. The words can only ever serve as an introduction to the incredible music that comes from the most remote corners of southern and South Africa: the Hardeveld, the Klein Karoo and the Kalahari.
It’s music that is intimately connected to the people who make it and the places they live; it’s music that has been friend to a lone sheep herder during long days in the veld; it’s music that has warmed cold winter nights for centuries; and it’s music that has animated celebrations, mourned losses and given voice to the histories and stories of the people who make it.
Recently, Cape Town theatre-goers were treated to an exclusive performance of this extraordinary music in David Kramer's Kalahari Karoo Blues at the Baxter Theatre. Brought together by musician and playwright David Kramer, a group of musicians who still play the old instruments the old way performed to rave reviews: Oteng Piet on his one-stringed segaba; Ronnie Moipolai (from Botswana) with his unique kitara style; Hannes Coetzee with his ‘teaspoon slide technique’; and Mary Kriel from Vredendal who, on hearing the call of the music, is compelled to answer it with a typical Karoo ‘rieldans’, first described in the 1700s.
It’s music that is intimately connected to the people who make it and the places they live.
The show, which follows Karoo Kitaar Blues (first staged 10 years ago – see a video of some of it here), reflects Kramer’s ongoing interest in folk musicians, the ones who keep the old folk techniques, dances and songs alive. He describes it in a TEDx talk on the topic as 'music that goes back hundreds of years in this country'. The video, TEDxJohannesburg – David Kramer – The Sound of Silence: Invisible Musicians of the Karoo, is worth watching in full.
Kramer’s journey into the history of Afrikaans roots music was physical as well as musical. He travelled all over South Africa’s back roads, 'because you’d heard, just maybe, there was someone down this road who could remember the old music'. He discovered artists like Jan, Magdelena and Siena Mouers from Victoria West; Dawid van Rooi; Helena Nuwegeld; and Koos Lof, who he says sang the most beautiful and plaintiff songs from the Karoo that he has ever heard.
It really is music rooted in southern Africa, learnt by watching, listening and experimenting with a home-made instrument, tuned to the person who plays it and, often, played for that person alone.
In the same video, Kramer explains how he’s explored the ancient and improvised string instruments he discovered being played in remote locations in South Africa and Botswana – like a violin made from an oil can, and an instrument known as a segankuru, or bush fiddle, which is a single-string violin. It’s a whole musical world, and for years it was inhabited only by a privileged few.
Thanks to Kramer’s efforts, more and more people are discovering these artists, and David Kramer's Kalahari Karoo Blues received rave reviews.
To me, the songs, the tuning and the harmonies express all of the beauty and diversity of the places – and the people – that shape them. Listen and decide for yourself.