The first time I saw Gary Herselman, he was going under the name Piet Pers and was thrashing the bass on a wild night that some old-timers at Durban’s Central Methodist Church probably still talk about over cups of tea.

It was 1989, and a motley audience of lefties (and a sprinkling of curious but ultimately unlucky churchgoers) gathered in the church hall, upstairs on Aliwal Street, to welcome the Voëlvry Tour to Natal. As we filtered into the space, we could scarcely believe it had actually made it to our city after reports of a countrywide trek littered with bannings and unmitigated rock’n’roll excess.

In fact, Herselman had already become known to us as the leader of Die Kêrels, whose song “Slang” (off the album Ek Sê, and also featured on the Voëlvry album that we adored) had come to signify, in our minds at least, the omnipresent menace of the Security Branch and the far-reaching tentacles of apartheid’s stealthy iron grip.

But on that night, Herselman was on stage as a member of Johannes Kerkorrel’s Gereformeerde Blues Band (GBB), the main act for many in a line-up that included André Letoit (Koos Kombuis) and Bernoldus Niemand (James Phillips).

I wore, quite unbelievably to me now, a black lace vintage dress and ’50s-style heeled shoes with a front tip so sharp I could have used it to defend myself had the police arrived, as you always knew they could during the 1980s. We later found out, through Pat Hopkins’ meticulously researched Voëlvry: The Movement That Rocked South Africa, that the hall had been booked by “Dirkie Uys” – and that the hapless church official who took it had thought the event was some kind of “youth improvement group”.

Those of us in the audience – which Hopkins describes as “600 of Durban’s flamboyantly dressed, outer-edge rockers” – had no such misapprehensions. In a city ringed by ongoing battles between Inkatha and the UDF and deep in the grip of the security cops based just down the road in Stanger Street, we were there for the music and the message: the lilting sorrow of Johannes Kerkorrel’s Gereformeerde Blues Band’s “Hillbrow”; Bernoldus Niemand’s tragically funny “Snor City”; André Letoit’s sparse, moving “Boer in Beton”.

It seems strange looking back now, but at the time we didn’t even think much about the ability of a bunch of outlaw musicians to get white, English-speaking Durbanites – the kind who laughed easily at shoeless Afrikaans kids on their way to school – to sing in a language we professed to despise. We just knew that, on that night, we truly joined a movement that was deploying music to get a generation to slip the patriarchal shackles of apartheid and dance towards the future. Twenty-five years after that night, long after the context that gave the songs such power had been stripped away, the music that defined Voëlvry still holds up, mostly because of the strength of the songwriting on the 12-track album that bore the movement’s name. And it’s as a songwriter that I again encounter Herselman late in 2013.

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Posted: Thursday, 08 May 2014 09:55 | Diane Coetzer