David Kramer’s Kalahari Karoo Blues well and truly lives up to its name. Examining the music of the desert, it conjures up images of arid desert plains that stretch way beyond the horizon. Places where lone musicians sit and bond with their instruments while the sun inches its way across an aching sky.
Kalahari Karoo Blues is an exploration of Southern African folk music born out of Kramer’s earlier project, Karoo Kitaar Blues (performed more than a decade ago)and his meetings with various musicians from as far back as 2001. In Kramer’s own words, this music has ‘a harsh Southern African sound that reflects how the sun has affected our voices’.
While many of the musicians from his original meetings have passed away, their songs and their lyrics and, most importantly, their individual styles of playing can still be heard in the music Kramer has composed in their honour. In some cases, such as Dawid van Rooi, writer of popular song ‘Pepsi Cola’, film clips of the musician precede the stage performance of their works. The same screen shows images of the desert as a backdrop throughout the show.
Most of the time though, the musicians are able to present their music in person. Some, like 29-year old Ronnie Moipolai (a guitarist from Botswana), have never played beyond home. Unique instruments are the norm for this show, and much of the interest lies in the similarities (and differences) in the instruments and their sounds, particularly in relation to which part of Southern Africa they originate. It is really a case of the ‘past meets the present’ to see blikvlooi kitaars being tuned electronically!
Hannes Coetzee, pioneer of the teaspoon slide guitar-playing technique, has become popular on YouTube with millions of views. For the show, Coetzee plays a couple of compositions on his own handmade ruimkie made up of an empty oilcan and strings, and delighted the audience with a steel guitar on which he demonstrated the teaspoon slide technique. He picks the tune with the teaspoon in his mouth while his thumb keeps the rhythm and his fingers are doing the optel and knuip. The co-ordination required is quite brain-numbing, but the resulting sound is a thumping riff that’s reminiscent of American Deep South country music. Not surprisingly, Coetzee is a hit in Nashville, and his song, ‘Mahala’ features on the upcoming album of American old-time string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Ronnie Moilopai, another YouTube phenomenon, was a reluctant highlight of the evening with a shy demonstration of his unique kitara style in which he uses his fingers as a bow with slight inflections of his back hand. His flamboyant bass-style sound is reminiscent of the South African genre umbhaqanga, and is produced with only one bass string, the next two strings having been removed so that only two top strings remain. Extraordinary.
Mary Kriel from Vredendal, whom Kramer met at a Riel Dance competition, composes and sings folk songs. She accompanies herself by strumming an empty coffee can. Dressed in what looks like a handmade Dutch bonnet and apron, she is nothing short of charming.
The line up also includes Oteng Piet from Limpopo who plays a 3-stringed guitar that he has built himself for its ‘special sound’. Called the kopano, it is made out of a crushed tin can, and played with a bow at waist level with a result, like Coetzee, reminiscent of American Blues.
Then there is 80-year-old Babsi Barolong from Botswana who plays another 3-string guitar but this time like a violin. Barolong is one of the comedians of the evening, but while his lyrics are often amusing, they carry huge social commentary such as the song ‘Condomise’ which encourages senior citizens to protect themselves.
Of course, a show like this would not be complete without moments of musical abandon, and sure enough there are songs that go on and on, unusual collaborations, and dancing. We were also treated to a brand new composition that Hannes Coetzee, Babsi Barolong and Oteng Piet created upon meeting in Cape Town.
The wonderful acoustics of the Baxter Theatre carried the impromptu moments of the show and the audience was delighted with a quality sound throughout the evening. Even though the house was full, the intimate set up of the show meant that the audience felt a personal interaction with the musicians on stage.
In Kalahari Karoo Blues David Kramer affords us a rare glimpse of a music genre that refuses to die, a reflection of life that many may not know exist, and one that – perhaps to our surprise – leaves us echoing with nostalgia.
by Nelisa Ngqulana
Kalahari Karoo Blues runs at the Baxter Theatre 9 to 19 January 2013.