Discovering a forgotten musical genius


Discovering a forgotten musical genius

CARSTEN RASCH discovers how David de Lange and boeremusiek delighted South Africans but horrified the establishment.


LATE last year I had a call from Rob Allingham, the Gallo archivist and music historian whom I’d never met but with whom I’d had many WhatsApp conversations, some lasting the better part of an hour. He’s in town and would love to meet. Rob is an interesting conversationalist, to say the least. His knowledge of South African music is deep and detailed. He can endlessly tell stories of any local musician you’d like to mention.

So, unsurprisingly, our meeting, initially lunch, ended only when darkness settled in. Our conversation, mostly about marabi, mbaqanga and jive, me asking questions that Rob answered at length in a slow drawl, often interrupting himself and frequently inserting a boisterous guffaw, veered this way and that like a drunk crossing a busy street, helped along by some good red wine. Eventually we started talking about goema, and what sent me down this particular road was his question, just as I was cutting up a spanspek to have with some Black Forest ham: “Have you ever heard of David de Lange?"

I hadn’t, because there has been no reason, as sure as god made little green apples, to encourage in me an interest in Afrikaans music. Not in the least. It left me not only cold, but the idea of it sent little shivers of something not quite strong enough to be referred to as revulsion down my spine. “You should, you know, listen to him, because he is brilliant," Rob said. “I collect his records," he added. “I think I might have them all." I looked at Rob with all the doubt of a deaf-mute hearing about a blind bargain. He nodded sagely. “An unrecognised genius…"

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It is weird, isn’t it, that an American who arrived here in the Seventies because of an obsession with steam engines becomes the man that digitises and basically saves our entire black music history from oblivion. In the process, he falls in love with boeremusiek and vastrap and inspires me to belatedly start looking into the life and times of this David de Lange guy. This latter part is the weirdest of all. OK, there must be something in it, I thought, at the end of a lovely day of shooting shit and talking music.

I grew up with boeremusiek, my oupa’s radio tuned to the Afrikaans station all day long. Fanus Rautenbach’s morning programme, Flink Uit Die Vere, introduced the day and the Nuus om Sewe ended it, Oupa finally switching off the radio before we ate supper in the kitchen. Afterwards, he’d conclude the day with “boekevat", reading a few verses from the Bible then saying a prayer. I’m thinking of this while doing the research, but when I listen to Japie Laubscher’s Ou Waenhuis, a throwback to a much simpler life, a strange nostalgic longing for this time that I can hardly remember comes over me, and with it an emotion so sudden and so deep it catches me completely offguard. I can see Oupa sitting on the back stoep, humming along and tapping his foot to the beat, Ouma appearing at the back door with the 4 o'clock tea, or instant coffee rather, a plate filled with crunchies and Johannesburg koekies covered in hundreds-and-thousands, sighing lightly as she puts it on the table and takes her place in the other rottangstoel. “’n Koffietjie, boeta?" she asks. I am moved to tears…

Moved to tears? What the fuck is this?

These times, this music, concertinas, accordions and banjos, Fanus, Afrikaans radio, boekevat, the entire scenario that I rebelled against a few years later as a young adult because it was so perfectly symbolic of the nationalist Afrikaner culture that I had come to despise, is now filling me with an emotion that I cannot in all truthfulness describe. Next thing, I’m going to actually like the music!

Japie was a concertina player, a master of the boeremusiek lead instrument. There’s a picture of him on the YouTube track I’m listening to. He looks like a nice omie, a middle-aged schoolteacher type who doesn’t like giving cuts, Cab Calloway-like pencil-line moustache on his lip, tinted reading glasses. According to musicologist Stephanus Muller, his style of playing had “a meticulous, pernickety quality, just like Japie’s thin moustache”. Like most of his contemporaries, Japie was a “kaalvoet” composer — he couldn’t read or write music but he learnt to play the instrument at the age of 16 and played it until he died at 62. He “wrote” more than 300 compositions, released several albums and basically forced the Afrikaans radio station to playlist boeremusiek.

It would be hard to find any sheet music of any of those songs, as most of them were stored in his head and remained there. He made a massive contribution to the genre of boeremusiek yet there is no mention of him (or any other boeremusiek composer/musician, or in fact boeremusiek itself) in any of the South African music tomes. “Not in the South African Music Encyclopaedia. There is no reference to boeremusiek in Jan Bouws’s Komponiste van Suid-Afrika [Composers of South Africa] (1971), Bouws’s Die Musieklewe van Kaapstad 1800-1850 en sy verhouding tot die musiekkultuur van Wes-Europa [The Musical Life of Cape Town 1800-1850 and its relationship to the musical culture of Western Europe] (1966), Peter Klatzow’s Composers in South Africa Today, or in any of the 25 editions of the South African Journal of Musicology (SAMUS), or any of the congress proceedings of the then South African Musicological Society or the Ethnomusicology Symposium. All this according to Stephanus Muller.

How come? To figure this out, we must go back to the beginning, to a song called Daar Kom die Alibama, which, like Ou Waenhuis, was probably composed there and then by another kaalvoet composer a hundred years before, this time a Cape creole descendant of slaves.

The Cape of Good Hope had been colonised by the Dutch in the mid-1600s and it stands to reason that the indigenous music we know today as goema must have started taking form shortly afterwards, being worked on over time by slaves from Mozambique, Madagascar, Angola, Ceylon and Indonesia, and that the song Daar Kom die Alibama is more of an endpoint than a beginning, a point of final recognition, because of its popularity. It became the anthem of the Cape Carnival, then known as the Coon Carnival or Tweede Nuwejaar. Like the samba, calypso, zydeco, salsa, sega and other music hybrids of the New World, goema is a volatile marriage of the music of slaves and their masters.

The origin of this song is open to discussion — it is either based on the good Confederate ship the CSS Alabama, which ignited the passion of the Cape population by capturing a Unionist freighter in full view of the public gathered on the beach; or it is based on the less legendary but perhaps more realistic story of the Berg River riverboat also called Alabama, which visited the Cape once a year with a load of reeds and rottang, high in demand by the young brides-to-be of the Malay community. Either way, the composing of the moppie (as these songs were called) was most likely the first step in securing goema’s emergence as a folk music, or more precisely the folk music of the Cape.

The most popular music at the turn of the 19th century was the music of the Austrian, German and English dances, the waltz, the polka, the mazurka and the quadrille, and these rhythms intertwined with the music of the Cape Malays, as they were called, but who were in reality a hotchpotch of all the slave nationalities present there at the time. This jumbled up mixed masala with its offbeat rhythm, and the instrumentation of concertina and banjo made sure the Cape sound that emerged was unique. Of course, it didn’t end there (and more of this in part two).

The 1930s rolled up, and with them the Afrikaner nationalist experiment. Daar Kom die Alibama was appropriated by white Afrikaner nationalists and included in the Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Associations, at which time it was notated, the lyrics written down and the song “cleansed" of its past. But despite this illegal occupation, it remains a popular Klopse tune until today.

Almost unseen, and unacknowledged, another phenomenon was raising its ugly head — a class distinction among Afrikaners. David de Lange, the Afrikaans vastrap superstar, perhaps the Afrikaans superstar, had sold more than a million records by the 1940s but couldn’t get playlisted on the fledgling Afrikaans radio station. Apartheid was in the process of being born and its effect was not only felt by other races but seemingly classes too.

Pushed by Eric Gallo, who signed him up, recorded his songs and banked the proceeds of those astonishing sales figures, De Lange tried time and again and was repeatedly rejected by one of the most heartless gatekeepers, Anton Hartman. Why was he so despised? Because he just didn’t fit the bill and neither did his lyrics. De Lange sang about parties, getting drunk, girls and good times, all of which were offensive to the Calvinist fathers (and mothers) of convention. To top it all, he recruited a Cape-based banjo-player, Gamza Kariem, and enticed him to stay in Johannesburg, where he was based. It was becoming unacceptable for musicians to play across the colour line, so De Lange and Kariem hatched a plan — Kariem became a Jew called George Abrahamse (his grandmother’s surname).

Kariem/Abrahamse played with De Lange until his death and even shared his house. De Lange was also influenced by the Dixieland music produced by black musicians in New Orleans. His Waar is Bettie is a rendition of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s 1917 song, Tiger Rag. His exuberance, so present in his music, spilt over into his real life, too. He drank like a fish, swore like a sailor, fucked like a rabbit. The  world was his oyster, no? Perhaps, but not that Afrikaner world … he was cast out into the unpublished cold, an unmentionable along with the  other kaalvoet boeremusiek musikante, excluded from the warmth in the circles of those that mattered, who would undoubtedly eventually become the Broederbond.

When De Lange died at the ridiculously young age of 42, some say the cause was a broken heart. Despite his massive popularity, no newspaper published an obituary or even carried a death notice. He sank without trace and would probably have remained there were it not for an American who discovered him gathering dust among the masters in the Gallo archives.

When Rian Malan was introduced to David de Lange by Rob Allingham, probably very much like I was, over several glasses of wine, he was immediately taken by him: “[To my mind De Lange is by far] the most compelling figure in the history of Afrikaans popular music,” he said, “His music is electrifying. His banjo player was coloured in days when that was unthinkable. He danced and drank like a demon. He screwed everything that moved. His band was called the Naglopers … How cool can you get?” I thought so, too.

Malan was so taken by De Lange, he wrote a cabaret called Die Naglopers and got together with Ian Roberts to form the Radio Kalahari Orkes, who played the music in the piece. Die Naglopers told the rebel history of this extraordinary musician and composer, who also translated black American jazz songs into Afrikaans. Yes, the plot widens, considerably. As I said earlier, it doesn’t end here. The Nats thought they could keep our shit apart but they didn’t reckon with musicians.

Goema, vastrap, tiekiedraai, langarm, rieldanse and boeremusiek, even marabi, kwela and something called quela (more about that in part two) all getting it on together, cross-pollinating and doing stuff that looks like it should have an age restriction.  These mostly Cape genres and dances gradually spread to the rest of the country. As time passed, the music became more removed from its European roots and more in touch with the stories, feelings and concerns of the people of the land.

I can’t help wondering what my oupa would have thought of his beloved boeremusiek getting mixed up with all this.  I shouldn’t have worried too much about that, because when I found the signature tune of his favourite radio programme, Flink Uit Die Vere, it turned out to be a song called Penniefluitjie Kwela by one Fred Wooldridge, the penny whistle king from Lichtenburg.

The most important lesson I learnt from this exercise is that music, like language, cannot be racist. These days, I am seeing boeremusiek and vastrap through a very different lens.

(Thanks to Rob Allingham for taking me to the water.)

♦ VWB ♦

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