In search of the Karoo’s rockstars

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / Dear reader — I’ve finally I found him! Urbane in loose black pants, a nylon shirt and sky-blue tie, walking in the street on a slow Sunday morning. I assumed he was on his way to church. Which was true, partly anyway — just another devout believer off to commune with his Maker.

However, when his steady strides drew him closer, I could gradually make out a rare sight around Kuyasa – one I’d actually believed to be more or less extinct. Slung over his shoulder, like some primordial weapon strapped on the back of a gallant warrior, was an acoustic guitar. Indeed at that moment, to a connoisseur of music, *Mr John, 75 years old, could not have been anything less.

I was momentarily mesmerised, unsure of how to coax him into strumming something. Anything. Could he even play? The last time I’d heard anybody play the guitar around here was the late Bonakele Mrwarwaza (Bra Bombo). Scraggly, always laughing, and so tall that he stooped under doors, he always perplexed local residents – at least, his guitar did. It was a beaten-up old thing, strung with bits of fishing gut, and patched with wood from old pallets. Carrying it everywhere he went, it clanked uselessly, like it would break apart at any moment.

That’s until Bra Bombo, with unkempt dreadlocks, an artist of the wayside, composed himself, tuned his relic, and began to pluck at the strings. Distinct Afro gospel riffs here, hints of that eighties disco-funk style there, the man played songs that made drunken dance merrily with tears streaming down their cheeks.

He played to the beer-addled crowds in the dingy haunts where he hung out. Or on his way home from them. Sometimes all alone on his stoep. Mostly, though, he played for anybody who cared to hail him on the street.

A caricature of the struggling artist, his talents largely went unrecognised. He regaled audiences who swooned about his music, but had nothing to give him when his sets were done. Sometimes he might get a refill of his poison, or a R5 coin snuck into his shirt pocket, but he mainly played for no more than a ‘thank you’. Legend has it that, in a former incarnation, Bra Bombo was a suave session musician travelling the country, who played with outfits from Mdantsane – the mammoth (the country’s second biggest), boxing-crazed township of East London.

They went everywhere — from small clubs to rowdy community halls. Those were Bra Bombo’s glory days, when he smoked Courtleighs and drank stiff brandies in the more genteel joints. A lanky gentleman, with square teeth and an easy smile, he may also have been quite the cassanova.

But artists lead turbulent lives, all angst and adrenaline – taking off to any anywhere the wind may blow. Then suddenly there are new acts on the scene, fellow bandmates getting married or dying, gigs not coming as frequently, and slowly the abyss begins to swell all around you. As exciting as the ascent into the spotlight, as quick the come-down to disillusion. To insipid everyday life, finding regular employment, making ends meet, and asking yourself all along if the show is really over.

Bra Bombo died in the 2010s, the familiar, adored sound of his guitar eternally muted. In the intervening years, I’d longed to listen to a flesh and bone guitarist from Kuyasa. It seemed I’d raised my hopes too high, was asking for too much. Then, like some apparition from a dream I wished never to wake from, there stood Mr John on a Sunday morning, starting to play to nobody in particular, not even the slowly growing crowd of curious kids.

We could have admired him all day, but the church bell began tolling, and he said he couldn’t keep God waiting – maybe another time – as he disappeared, still playing, kids at his heels. Ah! Kuyasa’s own Chuck Berry, sans perm, turning the corner. The wonderful things my eyes have seen!

Despite being roused from his afternoon nap a week later, the old man still patiently heard me out. But he said, ‘I’m an old man, nowadays my whole life, the music, everything is simply dedicated to God. Whatever it is you plan to do, don’t do it!’ I’m gutted, buoyed only; by his caveat as I walk out of the gate – ‘but I’ll think about it, and you may use my photo.’

David Kramer and Tokas Lodewyk on tour. Image: YouTube.

Then Jefferey Rademeyer, the man who’s on a mission to create a legacy project around Kuyasa and Lowryville, calls with a story worth looking into. ‘Ever heard the name Tokas Lodewyk?’ he asks. I hadn’t, and as a Noordkapenaar I’m all the poorer for it. Hailing from nearby Richmond, the late Lodewyk was an old hand at Afrikaans blues and folk. The world would never have known about him were it not for the jolly, eccentric David Kramer, who was ‘invited by Jan Horn to accompany him on a road trip in 2000 to seek out musicians who still played and sang the ou liedjies’ – as Kramer has recounted on Daily Maverick.

Their quest carried them to outposts like Beaufort West, Fraserburg, Richmond, Chatsworth and Victoria West and into the musical company of the Mouers family, Siena, Jan and Magdalena; the accordionist Koos Lof; and the guitarist Tokas Lodewyk, amongst others. This might have been an unexpected surprise for tho9se up-country folk who were barely recognised in their own backyard. But for Kramer, who had long realised that ‘old Afrikaans folk songs that were presented in the FAK Sangbundel as volksliedjies had not originated in the mouths of ‘white’ singers but had been created on the farms by self-taught musicians’, it was cathartic.

This encounter would lead to ‘Karoo Kitaar Blues’, a documentary that still moves audiences as deeply today as it did back then. In it you stare into the genius of the likes of Hannes Coetzee, the man who slides a teaspoon (held steady in his mouth) on the guitar strings as he strums endearing bluegrass-ish melodies with BB King-like whining in between. His collaboration ‘Ek Ko Huistoe’ alongside Kramer and Lof — Kramer with his signature knees-bent-hips-thrusting dance, Coetzee playing a small blikkitaar — is sheer musical madness. Not to mention phenomenal, if one takes stock of the fact that barely months earlier Coetzee and Lof were probably playing on a stoep somewhere in the Karoo. Now, they are playing to rousing applause inside the Baxter Theatre.

Helena Nuwergeld performing. Image; YouTube.

It’ll be difficult not to tap your feet as Helena Nuwergeld, frugally dressed in a sweater and a doek, Koos Lof with his accordion by her side, and backed by Kramer’s band, sings ‘Pale Toe’ – a shuffling, jumpy liedjie with non-standard lyrics best avoided in polite company. Unapologetically rustic music; no holds barred, no part of the anatomy too crass.

Then Lodewyk, the man with the faraway gaze and expressionless if slightly sad look, blikkitaar in hand, launches into ‘Antie, Maak Oop Jou Deur’. A simple man, in the attire of any farm labourer, strumming his blikkitaar even though more sophisticated instruments are lined up behind him.

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the simple beauty of these legends of the boondocks, content in the unsophisticated ways they’ve known all their lives. And to think that all these years nobody had looked up and said, ‘Geeze! Now here are talents to get behind!’ Until Kramer and Horn rolled up in a VW bus.

Jefferey Rademeyer, the man who seeks to preserve Colesberg’s township history. Image: Facebook.

It’s precisely for these sorts of reasons that Rademeyer means business about the envisaged legacy project. Community-driven and apolitical, the long-term vision would be to preserve the township story – then and now. To seek out the people and the literature who could help  to piece together the origins of the place and its people.

Mr John has renewed our hopes in unearthing local talent, and a cursory search has led us to names like NolinDevotion, a gifted rapper from Lowryville. We’ve heard of a guitarist from that part of town too. Jefferey is certain that if one visited the Plakkerskamp, one is bound to stumble over many other Tokases. And there’s a Mozambican acquaintance of this writer who, having seen a few instalments of the Karoo Kitaar Blues videos, smiled and said, ‘I could play that.’ Throughout our interactions, he’s never given me any reason to question his decency. Still, we’ll have to but him to the test. But first, we have to get our hands on a guitar.

FEATURED IMAGE: The talented but humble *Mr John on his way to church. Image: eParkeni.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Phakamisa Mayaba’s website, eParkeni. Used with permission.

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