The Most Famous Band You Never Heard Of
They might have sold more records than any other South African music act, but they’re almost totally invisible in the world of big-city English people. Rian Malan introduces Klipwerf, the multi-platinum-album band that keeps Boers happy at dancehalls in the Afrikaans heartland.
By Rian Malan
So here we are, roaring down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere in search of the most famous band you’ve never heard of. Klipwerf? Ring any bells? Probably not, but don’t worry, we’re all on a learning curve here.
Klipwerf is the band playing on the stereo in Guy’s bakkie. Specifically, we’re listening to “Wie Se Kind is Jy”, a catchy ditty that seems to have originated in Garies, a dusty town about three hundred clicks behind us. It was originally a coloured song, but Klipwerf has pulled it slightly this side of the racial border and infused it with their patented vastrap groove. Someone pumps a simple bassline on the bottom end of an organ. The drummer moers the offbeat with both hands, simultaneously whacking the snare and hi-hat. There’s a fat sakkie-sakkie rhythm guitar in their somewhere, and atop it all, a Yahama synth picking out the melody. Not to everyone’s taste, perhaps, but I tell you one thing: Klipwerf sounds great on a sinkplaat road in an arid and empty wasteland.
We’re crossing what appears to be an ancient seabed, a level plain of blackened rocks and grey grass. Every half hour or so, we pass a windmill and a flock of dejected sheep, but otherwise, there’s nothing: no trees, no houses, no respite from the glare. Our water ran out hours ago. Now we’re dopping wine to fight dehydration. We know where we’re going, but when we’ll get there….God knows.
Somewhere along the line, someone went mad on this road and defaced all the distance signs, causing them all to read “Kliprand 0km”. At first, you wonder why anyone would do such a thing, but after an hour or two, you get it: the vandal could not bear to face the awful truth about the unbearable distance he had yet to travel. “Wie se Kind” segues into “Lientjie se Vastrap” and then “Wals vir Hessie”. All the songs sound similar. We put on another Klipwerf CD, and it sounds similar too – relentlessly cheerful and devoid of all pretensions to art or introspection. There are no solos in a Klipwerf song, no fancy windgattery, no vocals. This music exists only to drive a certain kind of dancing, and if you aren’t dancing, it can be a bit much.
When I move to put in a third Klipwerf CD, I see Guy’s eyes rolling so I say okay, your choice. He proceeds to play some acid jazz by Jestofunk. This cool Italian shit is eons removed from the dust and stones of Bushmanland, but it’s also dance music, and the approach is identical to Klipwerf’s – start with a simple bass pulse, wed it to a suitable beat, add some earworms and repeat ad infinitum. “The main difference between Klipwerf and these guys is style and attitude,” I say. Guy concedes the point. “Besides,” he says, “they sound completely wrong out here.” So we axe Jestofunk and play more Klipwerf.
This time, it’s “Kom Kuier in Die Hantam,” their very first CD, the one with the (subsequently fired) singer whose semi-yodelling demolition of a cheesy American country song called “Forever and Ever” has us in stitches. After that, it’s back to hard vastrap. I am thinking about my Afrikaans father and the vastrap hoedowns he used to stage in our garage in the sixties, after he and his friends had braaied and downed a few brandies. The old man loved his vastrap. I didn’t. In fact, I was always worried that my English friends would show up and witness these embarrassing Dutchman rituals.
What can say? I was a stupid little twat, but now I’m on a learning curve, crawling interminably towards Kliprand. We pass a few more windmills and a squashed dassie. This could be the loneliest road in the whole country. It is the road from Pofadder to Kliprand. It is also the road that leads into the strange domain of the reigning kings of vastrap. Lemme tell you about them.
The year is l988, and Murray Anderson is one of the coolest dudes in Cape Town. His politics are leftish and his hair is waist-length. He owns a small recording studio just off Long Street where he works mostly with jazz cats from the Cape Flats or alternative rockers like the Kalahari Surfers, who combine machine beats with mocking excerpts from the speeches of apartheid politicians. One day, a bunch of hefty Afrikaners pitch up on Murray’s doorstep. These okes are mostly middle-aged, with leathery skin and hands scarred from years of wrestling with pumps and barbed wire. They are sheep farmers by profession, owners of vast spreads of dust and stones in Bushmanland, but they’ve saved up some money and want to make a record.
Murray’s not about to argue. These Boers are big. So big that when they walk into a dance hall, people sometimes say, “Are you here to play, or have you come to donner us?” So Murray invites them to set up their instruments and lay down some tracks. Being an Englishman, he’s in no position to understand that he’s hearing something special – boeremusiek from a place so lonely and isolated that it is almost completely uncontaminated by the sterile conventions that have ruined its Pretoria equivalent. To Murray’s ear, everything sounds wrong. He tentatively suggests a few improvements, but the Boers slap him on the back and say, nooit, this is how we roll.
That first album does fairly well, so the Boers return to Murray’s studio a year later to make another. As far as Murray’s concerned, the sound is still wrong, but he’s a rooinek, so he has not the slightest inkling that this second collection of vastraps and waltzes will explode like a supernova, selling around 80,000 copies and turning these amiable sheep farmers into superstars of the Afrikaans dance music underground. It will also (eventually) turn Murray himself into the most successful record producer you’ve never heard of.
Twenty-five years later, Murray gave me a tour of Milestones, the magnificent recording studio financed largely by his long association with the sheep farmers aforementioned. The roof was as high as a cathedral, and there was a grand piano in one corner. All the mikes and desks were the best money could buy, and an alcove just off the reception area featured a floor-to-ceiling display of gold and platinum records. Hugely impressed, I moved in for a closer look, only to discover that all these shimmering awards were generated by one band, an unlikely agglomeration of Afrikaners with boeps, snors and (sometimes) matching blazers. “Who the hell are they?” I asked.
They were Klipwerf and I’d never heard of them, which goes to show what a doosagtige soutpiel I used to be. Klipwerf are big. Very big. Since l988, they’ve issued 28 CDs and three DVDs, which might be a record in itself. They’ve also won 28 gold and platinum awards and traveled around 1.7 million km in their bus to perform at some 4,000 dinner-dances in the Afrikaans heartland. If you add it all up, they’re one of the biggest bands in South African history. Maybe the biggest ever.
I was going through some sort of midlife crisis at the time, trying to come to terms with the fact that I was growing old and a bit bored with the life I’d been given. Like all old hippies, I wanted to go back to nature and be a farmer. Failing that, I wanted to be a rock star. In such a state of mind, Murray’s stories about Klipwerf were revelatory. This was exactly the life I yearned for – Zen-like isolation on a lonely sheep farm, interspersed with road trips to barn dances where fans would offer me brandy and Coke and sexual favours. Murray didn’t say any of this, but that’s how I pictured it, and it sounded magical. I wanted to meet these guys. In truth…I wanted to be them. That’s why we were here, Guy and I, driving down a lonely road to meet the kings of vastrap.
Klipwerf is a band that has existed in various forms for nearly half a century. It takes its name from a settlement too small to feature on any map, but if you must, go to Google Earth and check out the empty quarter between Calvinia and the Orange River. The hamlet of Klipwerf (meaning “stony ground”) is in there somewhere. In its present incarnation, the band is a four-piece – Willie Burger on guitar, Johnny Dreyer on drums, the glamorous Genè van Niekerk on keyboards, and Kobus Visagie on keyboards too.
Kobus is the man who calls the tunes. He’s a tall, rangy Boer with hooded eyes, a shy smile and hands cursed with what he calls “banana fingers,” meaning that they’ve so often been caught under rocks or hit with hammers that they’re all swollen and misshapen and so broad he’s inclined to hit two keyboard keys when he’s aiming at just one. That’s a drawback in his music career but no hardship in his real life, which plays out on a farm called Middelwater, on the border between Bushmanland and the Hantam ecosystem. The distinction is vital to sheep farmers, but to the layman, it’s quite simple: there are some mountains in the Hantam, some dry watercourses with thorn trees. In Bushmanland, there’s nothing.
Kobus’s ancestors settled in this moonscape in 1801. They dug wells in hard rock with their bare hands, lived in crude huts made of straw brick. As recently as World War II, they were still living a semi-nomadic existence, following rainstorms across the arid plains with their herds of sheep. Kobus’s father, Henty, was pulled out of school at the age of 14 and sent into the veld to protect his father’s sheep from jackals and the dreaded rooikat. “It was a primitive life,”msays Oupa Henty, now 90. “It was also boring. So long as the wind pumps kept working and the rams did their job, there was nothing much to do. At night, after the sheep were in the kraal, I used to sit around the fire with the Hottentots, playing my one pound ten guitar.”
Henty’s parents disapproved of such things because Hottentot rhythms led to dancing, and dancing led to unspeakable sins. Henty took an easier line with his own sons, Johan and Kobus, born in 1945 and 1953 respectively. When they showed an interest, he bought some instruments, and when the sun sank down over the barren plains, the Visagies would play vastrap on their stoep. Kobus was on the accordion. Dad played guitar. Johan stretched a piece of rubber inner-tube across the mouth of an oil container and fastened it in place with wire. This was his drum. He hit it with a plastic container filled with stones.
After a few years, the Visagies started sounding quite lekker, so they recruited a few friends and organized a dance at the Klipwerf Farmer’s Union hall. “It’s hard to explain what life was like in those days,” says Kobus. “How isolated we were. How desperate for entertainment. In those days, all you had to do was beat a drum and people would start dancing.” That first dance created demand for another, and then another. Soon, Boers on the far side of Bushmanland were phoning to book the band. To reach the Visagie farm, you had to call an old manual telephone exchange and ask for “Klipwerf 1121”. So the band became the Hantam Klipwerf Boereorkes, and later, just Klipwerf.
Over the years, their gear improved. Johan got a real set of drums. Their dad acquired an amplifier. Kobus bought a Lowry organ, a big clunky thing with speakers at the player’s knees, facing backward, which meant Kobus had to sit with his back to the audience. This would never do, so he added a rear-view mirror that enabled him to watch what was happening on the dance floor.
You must understand that Kobus was not an artsy-fartsy oke. He just wanted to make Afrikaners dance, and somewhere along the line, he discovered the secret. It was in his left hand. If he pulled fancy moves, the dancers in his rear-view mirror shrugged and sat down again. But if he moered one bass note, really loud, and the drummer responded by whacking the offbeat with both hands, the band started generating a killer vastrap groove that had the dance floor heaving in seconds.
Decades later, when Klipwerf became a huge success, that groove was subjected to much analysis by jealous rivals. Murray Anderson was inundated by bands who said, “Just make us sound like Klipwerf so we can also make millions.” But he couldn’t. There was something about the Klipwerf groove that defied emulation.
Kobus says, “I think the secret was isolation,” but that doesn’t help unless you understand the history of boeremusiek. Born of a dalliance between European folk tunes and Gamat rhythms from Cape Town, boeremusiek was an embarrassment to high-minded Afrikaners from the outset. Mac Jackson, the first boeremusiek artist captured on wax, turned out to be a black man. That was in 1929. Four years later, Dawie de Lange emerged from a Jo’burg gold mine to become the first great vastrap star. De Lange was barely literate, and his music was a raucous celebration of the poor-white lifestyle – dopping mampoer, dancing all night to the tjank of concertinas and threatening to shoot anyone who stole your girlfriend.
The cultural commissars of the National Party were horrified. “Boeremusiek is inferior,” sniffed Dr. Anton Hartman, who became head of music at the SABC in the early fifties, just after the National Party came to power. Given their druthers, Hartman and company would have replaced boeremusiek with Germanic lieder, but they could never eradicate that vastrap gees, so they tamed it instead, using their control of the radio to eliminate undesirables like De Lange and raise everyone else to a more “civilised” level. By l970, boeremusiek had become a sterile form, performed by bland okes who wore suits and ties and defiled the music with all manner of passing chords and alien jazz inflections.
So when Kobus says, “I think the secret was isolation,” what he means (I think) is that he somehow escaped these deadening interventions and maintained a connection with the spirit of the old music. That’s why ordinary Afrikaners responded so strongly to Klipwerf’s primordial vastrap. It’s also why posh Afrikaners sneered, and continue to sneer. Klipwerf CDs are seldom reviewed in the Afrikaans press. There is no mention of Klipwerf on the website LitNet, where Afrikaans intellectuals debate cultural affairs.
The band doesn’t even draw support from Traditional Boeremusiek Club, which disapproves of Klipwerf’s deployment of synthesizers. These were added in the 1980s when Kobus decided that he couldn’t stand listening to the concertina for hours at a stretch. Enter the Yamaha PSA300, the JVC, and the Roland, keyboards that can be tuned to sound like almost anything. On one setting, they sound like a guitar. Hit a button, and they turn into a sax or a banjo or anything you please.
These days, Kobus appears on stage with a stacked array of these instruments, playing
instrumentals that range from traditional waltzes and vastraps to “boerified” versions of “Sloop John B” and “Bad Moon
Rising.” Kobus plays the tune in one voice. His sidekick Genè plays it in another. Then they play the tune together. There’s nothing to it, and yet there is.
If you want deeper insight, find Hantam Carnival, a DVD film of Klipwerf’s 40th birthday party. I watched it with my fiancé, Shmerah, who is entirely English, Jewish and urban. Her taste inclines to Bon Iver and electronica. Her style is short skirts, high heels and champagne. She has no love for boeremusiek, no point of connection. In fact, she only watched that DVD to humour me.
At the start of the show, an ordentelike young Afrikaner in smart casuals introduces Klipwerf to the audience. This is
Kobus, that’s his guitarist Willie and here at centre stage, we have Genè van Niekerk, a slim and attractive 52-year-old with a light dusting of glitter in her hair and on her cleavage. Genè is the Dolly Parton of boeremusiek. Her make-up is always perfect, her hair and fingernails just so.
Genè and the boys are wearing matching green shirts and black slacks. They listen politely while the MC describes their long history and many achievements. Shmerah yawns. “Christ, this is zef,” she says. “I’m going to bed.” But when the band starts up, she doesn’t. It’s not the music that holds her, it’s what happens on the dance floor. People start pouring out of the darkness on the edge of the screen. Hundreds of them.
These are decent ordentelike people, got up in their Sunday best, and they dance in the formal style, gentlemen with one arm around the ladies’ waists, the other hand clasped and stretched out sideways, in the pose known as langarm, or long arm. At first, it’s chaos out there, all the couples milling aimlessly and treading into each other’s toes, but then they get their bearings and start moving through the darkness in anti-clockwise circles. There’s a camera high above them, and from up there, it’s like watching a vast human whirlpool, or maybe, a wildebeest migration on the Serengeti. Another camera, on the fringe of the maelstrom, picks out couples who dance particularly gracefully, gliding around the dance floor as if skating on ice.
That first song lasts nearly six minutes. It’s followed by another just like it, and then twelve more. Shmerah watches until the very end, enchanted. Then she says something interesting. “These people are like Jews,” she says. “They’re clinging to this because they’re afraid of annihilation.”
“I’ve been praying for this since Christmas,” says Kobus. It’s early evening and there’s a cool breeze blowing. “This is the wind that brings rain,” he says, “and if it rains, my lambs won’t die.”
I assume he means the animals will die of thirst, but there’s another threat here on the brink of Bushmanland — newborn lambs that lie on the ground in high summer are likely to be baked to death by heat radiating off the stones beneath them. I say, jeez, Kobus, this is a cruel and unforgiving place. He looks hurt.
We’re standing outside his farmhouse, looking out across the lonesome desert. In the distance, there’s a clump of bluegum trees, and beneath it, an old whitewashed structure where his ancestors made their home. His own house is more modern, but it’s nothing much to look at. Kobus must have made millions off CD sales, but there are no gold rings on his fingers, no fancy cars in his garage. He drives a 16-year-old bakkie, buys his clothes at chain stores. If he has any vices, they aren’t apparent; he barely drinks these days, and he’s been married to one woman for 37 years.
Rita’s in the kitchen right now, kneading the dough for roosterkoek and marinating the meat for tonight’s braai. Kobus and I are discussing Shmerah’s theory of boeremusiek. Speaking for myself, I think she’s onto something. As an urban teenage rebel, I never wanted to be an Afrikaner. But once the Boers abandoned apartheid and set forth into the African unknown, I started thinking it might be time to join the tribe. Did a similar sense of deepening unease perhaps play a role in the rise of Klipwerf, who came out of nowhere at the very moment of the National Party’s demise?
Clearly, this is an idea that hasn’t occurred to Kobus previously, and he doesn’t find it convincing. He thinks Klipwerf’s success has more to do with the Afrikaner’s nostalgia for his lost rural past. “You know,” he says, “a lot of city people have grandparents who grew up like we did, dancing in farm sheds and smoking cigarettes on the sly behind the old stone kraal. If you have that in your blood, the Klipwerf sound makes you break out in goosebumps.”
This too is true; vastrap engages me on the level of blood and instinct. I feel much the same about Kobus himself. He isn’t a philosopher. He just wants to entertain his people, and maybe cheer them up a bit in hard times.
Right now, he wants Guy and me to taste his lamb, which is apparently a very special delicacy, infused with rich flavours that come from grazing on gannabos and boesmangras. I wouldn’t know, because smoking has ruined my palate. But I can tell you that they’re amazingly hospitable, these sheep farmers. The men are constantly offering to top up your dop. Their wives constantly in the kitchen, cooking up sumptuous meals of yellow rice, curried beans, quince chutney, and mutton. Everyone says grace before meals and prays before going to sleep at night.
Next morning, Kobus puts us in his bakkie and takes us out to see his sheep. That cool breeze is still blowing. Kobus keeps casting his eyes skywards and begging for rain. None comes, and by noon it’s as hot as a furnace. “On a day like this,” says Kobus, “there’s nothing between you and hell but a jackal-proof fence.” I keep getting out to open farm gates. Kobus talks about his band.
In the 43 years of its existence, about a dozen guys have joined and left again, and two have died. One was Kobus’ elder brother Johan, the drummer. The other was Pieter van Loggerenberg, Klipwerf’s ace accordion player. These deaths created problems beyond your imaginings.
Klipwerf is based in a place where humans are scarce and scattered across enormous distances. The talent pool is tiny. When Pieter van Loggerenberg died, it was almost impossible to replace him, because Kobus didn’t like the idea of playing with outsiders. Eventually, someone told him about Genè van Niekerk, a farmer’s wife who’d played the organ in her distant childhood. Genè lived in the remotest heart of Bushmanland, but Kobus persuaded her to drive to Brandvlei, home of his buddy Willie, Klipwerf’s guitar player. Willie and Genè jammed some vastraps in Brandvlei while Kobus sat in distant Calvinia, listening over the telephone. Genè’s chops were rusty, but her spirit or gees was right, so she was in.
Drummer Johan’s death precipitated a similar crisis. Kobus initially replaced him with a professional from Cape Town, but that wasn’t ideal so they kept looking. One day, Willie found himself in Kliprand, a settlement so tiny that if you blink you miss it – just a scattering of houses, two shops, a bottle store and a petrol station with l950s pumps outside. Johnny Dreyer was Kliprand’s postmaster, general dealer, and purveyor of papsak, lowly wines sold in silvery plastic bags. Willie noticed an old drum set in a corner of Johnny’s home and said, what’s this? Johnny said, well when I was a panel beater in Garies, I had a band called 4U2Dance that played Creedence and Elvis covers.
This wasn’t exactly the pedigree Kobus and Willie were looking for, but Johnny knew his way around sheep, bakkies, and boreholes, and that counted. So Johnny got the gig.
When Guy and I showed up to research this story, Kobus insisted that we interview everyone in the band, so we revved up the bakkie and headed into Bushmanland, where we learned some hard lessons about heat and emptiness. In Klipwerf country, the distances between points are so vast that the band’s four members have to travel a collective 1,800 km to get together for a rehearsal.
Our first stop was Brandvlei, home of Willie the guitar player, but he wasn’t there, so we pressed on towards Genè’s place. The landscape grew more naked and unforgiving with each passing kilometer. The heat was suffocating, the glare unbearable. Five hours later, we spied a patch of greenery in the distance. Up close, it turned into barn-like structure surrounded by wind pumps, solar panels and, God help us, real trees. We slide] into a patch of deep cool shade and cut the engine. In the silence, we heard water tinkling into the cool green depths of a stock dam. It was like arriving in paradise.
Genè’s home is an oasis, surrounded by orchards, stables and neat vegetable gardens. Inside, everything is perfect, like Genè herself – hair and make-up just so, even when she’s slaving over her old cast-iron stove, making fig jam, sultana chutney and what-not. Her manners are courtly and her taste immaculate, with furnishings of the sort you see in upmarket B&Bs and little sprigs of boesmangras and lavender on your pillow.
Towards sunset, we find ourselves sitting in Genè’s garden, drinking wine and watching the sun go down. As shadows lengthen, the landscape softens, and I begin to see that one might grow to love this place. Genè tells us that her great musical influence was her Ouma Ellie, a tough old lady who played the fiddle with such vigour that she was known to wear a hole in the armpit of her dress in the course of a single all-night dance party. When we express interest, Genè produces a rough recording made around 1970, when Ouma Ellie was nearing 80. The music sends shivers down my spine. I glance at Guy and see he’s on the same plak. Genè says, well, if you like it, why don’t you make a copy?
We ate mutton again that night, with salads and roosterkoek on the side. Next morning, there was cold mutton on the breakfast table, along with bacon and eggs and all manner of homemade jams. When we’d eaten our fill, Genè and her husband, Stolly, insisted on escorting us to the “main road”, actually just another corrugated abomination running straight as a die over the southern horizon. Genè offered hugs and blessings. Stolly extended a manly hand, and we set off for drummer Johnny Dreyer’s place.
Soon as we’re out of sight, Guy digs the Ouma Ellie recording out of his baggage and puts it on full blast. This is amazing music, even rawer and wilder than the Dawie de Lange tunes that first converted me to boeremusiek. Some songs are familiar, but there’s something else going on here, a wild and eerie noise that seems to hark back to the very dawn of the Afrikaners’ adventure in Africa. Guy says jeez, if we were in Klipwerf, this is the music we’d be playing, preferably unplugged. We’d rebuild Johan’s homemade drum, restring Oupa Henty’s box guitar, and recreate those early barn dances where they played vastrap on farm implements for lonely Boers who’d driven hundreds of miles to be there.
“We could make a film about it,” I say, “intercutting music with stories about jackals and Bushmen and days so hot that lambs who lie on the ground too long get baked to death by solar radiation. They’d be famous, man. They’d be like those old Bossanova cats in Buena Vista Social Club….” Guy schemes it’s a bright idea, but it’s not much use to anyone. I mean, we can’t exactly tell Kobus we think he should drop the synthesizers and play primitive folk music. We’re soutie journalists. Kobus is the king of vastrap.
Shortly afterward, we turn onto the road to Kliprand, the one where all the roadside distance boards have been vandalised to read “Kliprand 0km”. In truth, Klipwerf is far, far away. After nearly five hours on that road, we see a dust cloud in the distance. Another car! The first we’ve seen all day! As we draw near, it turns into a bakkie with three big Boers in the cab. It’s Johnny and his gabbas, driving out into the desert to look for us. They turn around and guide us back into Kliprand, where the entire white population is waiting to meet us. That’s Johnny, his wife, his brother, two relatives from the Strand and his mother. And her dog.
Johnny serves brandy and Coke in tall frosted glasses. He says, “I think we’ll braai tonight, hey.” I am too tired to ask more questions about boeremusiek. We sit on the stoep, watching the sun go down. Dogs bark in the distance. A donkey brays. The light fades to golden, and then pitch dark, with stars. The nearest bar is in Vanrhynsdorp, 180km away. The nearest movie house is in Cape Town, nearly nine hours’ drive to the south. There is nothing to do, but that’s okay. We reach for guitars, and play vastrap.
It’s a Friday morning, and Klipwerf are trekking off to play a dinner-dance in Alberton. Their bus lives in Kobus’s back yard. He drives it to Brandvlei, where the rest of the band is waiting. By now, they’ve all been driving for hours already, and the journey hasn’t even begun yet. Kobus takes the wheel, with Genè as his co-pilot. Johnny and Willie sleep on the seats behind. They drive through the night, stopping every four hours to change drivers.
It’s a murderous trip, one that Kobus has been doing it every second weekend for decades. He smokes, drinks coffee and downs a concoction called Herbalife to keep going. When the sun comes up, they’re nearing Johannesburg. Kobus starts noticing things only a farmer would see. For a start, all the roadside fences are gone, looted by thieves and carted off for scrap. You can’t farm without fences, so Boers are disappearing too, their abandoned homesteads turning into ruins as squatters strip the roofs, windows and, in the end, even bricks.
Alberton’s downtown is faring a little better, but here, too, there are signs of hard times and decay. The streets have been taken over by Congolese traders. Every third shop is empty. Inside the Civic Centre, Afrikaans ladies are laying the groundwork for this evening’s festivities. Tickets are R170, which buys you dinner – lamb stew and malva pudding – followed by four hours of dancing. Klipwerf’s bus pulls up at the loading dock at ten am on Saturday morning, and the boys start unloading gear – another grueling ordeal, given the size of their PA. By the time it’s set up, it’s midday, and the band goes off to sleep for a few hours.
The punters start arriving around six. Some come in family groups – toddlers, grannies, teenagers and dads lugging cooler boxes full of booze. Most are middle-class and middle-aged, but there’s a fair smattering of beautiful people in evening dress, plus a contingent of poor folks whose shabby clothes suggest they’ve made a huge sacrifice to be here. Everyone is polite and helpful. Shmerah and I brought a bottle of wine, but we can’t open it, so we ask around for a corkscrew. In the next few minutes, four strangers come over to our table, offering help and friendly handshakes. I am reminded of something President Zuma once said about “the warm feeling of being together” found in African tribal society. This gathering is tribal too. I feel like we’re being welcomed into some sort of family.
At seven-thirty, the band appears on stage, wearing matching red shirts and black slacks. Kobus steps up to a mike and clears his throat. “Hello, he says. “My name is Kobus Visagie, and I farm near Calvinia.”
Then he introduces the rest of the band, offering details that fix them in the Afrikaner firmament – Johnny’s also a farmer, Genè is a farmer’s wife, and Willie over there is a Telkom technician. The message is, we’re ordinary people, just like you, and we’re all in this together. “Folks,” he concludes, “it was a helluva job to get here because we had trouble with the bus on the way… but we’re here, and we’re ready for you! Now let us pray.” With that, the entire gathering joins hands and thanks God for the meal they’re about to eat and the fun they’re about to have.
I want to cry. It’s all so courtly, so old-fashioned, so…Afrikaans, down to the matric dance decorations draped across the
back of the stage and the disco ball at the band’s feet. There’s even a corny old smoke machine that starts belching erratically as the band opens up and the great human whirlpool starts churning. The tribal rite has begun, and it’s time to join in. I bow to a likely lady and ask her to dance. The spirit is willing but my feet are ignorant, so I mostly just tread on her toes and get in the way of the real dancers, the ones who look like they’re gliding on ice. If my father was watching he’d have a good laugh at my expense, but what the heck: I’m on the learning curve.
From time to time, the human current carries us past the stage. Kobus is fixated on his keyboards, seldom looking up. Willie and Johnny exchange an occasional grin, but they too are mostly deadpan, concentrating on that thunderous vastrap groove. Only Genè is jiving and sending it, sometimes playing her keyboard with one hand and while raising the other to point skywards. Shmerah thinks she’s experiencing rock ‘n’ roll epiphany or maybe imitating John Travolta’s famous pose from Saturday Night Fever.
I have a theory of my own, and when the band takes a break, I run it past Genè. “We’ve been arguing about that sky-pointing
gesture of yours,” I say. “Looks to me like you’re warning the rest of the band that you’re coming up to a key change. Is that right?”
“No,” says Genè, “you’re wrong. I am thanking God for the pleasure music gives me.”