Christmas with my Gallotone guitar


Christmas with my Gallotone guitar

JAN HORN remembers the festive season as a child in the Northern Cape: watermelon, picnics, lame arms from churning butter … and a musical awakening.


I AM 12 years old, in standard 5, and incredibly excited.

It's the end of the year, school is closing in two weeks. The long vacation lies ahead, my birthday and Christmas. It's watermelon time, picnics, swimming in the Harts River, hunting meerkats with my dog, but the best of all is Christmas. The crepe paper Christmas of my barefoot days in the dry Northern Cape.

Mom takes out the crepe paper decorations from her wardrobe. They are so beautiful. Long coloured chains that the children hang from corner to corner in the rooms. And then the big paper balls that unfold like an accordion, from flat to round, for the centre of our front stoep. Magic.

Mom is also the neighbourhood's candy maker. In the heat of summer, in front of the Welcome Dover stove, she bakes pans of the most delicious treats. Green, pink and white Turkish delight that melt so delicately in your mouth, caramel and chocolate fudge, layered pink and white coconut ice. The best of all is when we are allowed to lick the mixing bowls and spoon clean.

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Of course, we have to contribute to the butter-churning as well and the four children take turns. Your arms go numb. One hundred turns per child, then the yellow butter from our Jersey cow called Roomys emerges. Dad gets the churned milk. Oh! And then there is the Christmas cake. With raisins and yellow and brown currants, brandy and tickeys.

For a Christmas tree, Dad chops down a young Karoo thorn tree, full of yellow flowers. Cherries are pinned to the thorns. The cardboard Bethlehem star made of chocolate foil right on top. The scent of cherries and sweet thorn flowers mixes with the aromas of Mom's pastry in the kitchen.

A week before Christmas, we embark on the big journey to Kimberley to buy gifts. We leave early because the old Standard Vanguard station wagon is quite slow. At Warrenton's low-water bridge, we enjoy Mom's picnic breakfast. Meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, thin boerewors, sandwiches with Sandwich Spread and Dad's big Thermos of hot water for coffee. The four children get a full five shillings to buy presents. What wealth. Five shillings is ten sixpences or 20 tickeys.

In Kimberley, we start with deliberations at the Rendezvous Cafe. I marvel at the mirrors that cover the walls. I look at the images that disappear in perfect copies of my face into the eternity of reflections, and I wonder if the universe is also like that. Infinite in starry images.

With my handful of pennies and sixpences, I head to Handle House. Lucky packets cost sixpence each. I buy three for my two brothers and sister. I still have seven sixpences left. On the way, I stop where a blind man is sitting on his amplifier powered by a battery. He plays the most beautiful Christmas songs on a worn-out electric guitar. Silent Night; Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. The notes enchant me.

Shall I or shall I not? I drop a penny in his tattered hat on the sidewalk.

I step into Handle House and a sensory orgasm of sound brings me to a standstill. The jukebox pumps out the most heavenly music. It washes through my body like a tsunami. Johnny and the Hurricanes with Red River Rock. The bassline's padadiedadiedoem, padadiedadiedoem dispels all thoughts of gifts from my mind. Magical music. My feet don't want to stop. The scream of the electric guitars and keyboard is engulfed as the saxophones take over. The lead guitar wails high on the E-string, making the notes of the 12-bar blues cry. I stand in rapture. Music will never be the same again.

On Christmas Eve, the farmworkers stand on the front lawn for their Christmas boxes. We children hand out cookies and green Kool-Aid drinks — it always reminds me of grasshopper poison. Dad asks them to sing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. The workers speak Setswana but press on with a Tswana-accented isiXhosa. God bless Africa in any language.

The sun sets. We hang Dad's rugby socks on our beds and make plans to stay awake until Father Christmas arrives. But I think Mom must have put some kind of sleeping potion in our drinks because we never catch Father Christmas red-handed.

It's Christmas morning and we fly out of our beds. The rugby socks are bulging with packages. Only mine is empty. Then I see it. Under my bed, stuffed in a pillowcase, a white Gallotone guitar. Complete with Black Diamond strings — probably bought in Kimberley. The strings are as hard as wire and sound about the same. But it doesn't matter. On New Year's Eve, with blisters on my fingers, I churn out the bassline of Red River Rock on the strings. Padadiedadiedoem, padadiedadiedoem.

Whenever I hear the iconic precursor to 12-bar blues and rock 'n roll music today, I'm 12 years old again in Kimberley's Handle House. The day the earth moved under my feet. 

♦ VWB ♦

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