The Art of Cape Town Singing: Anwar Gambeno (1949-2022)
Mr Anwar Gambeno, a KlopseCarnival troupes, parading and performing every year in January. and Malay ChoirsMale choirs, usually holding their own competitions after the Klopse Carnival “legend”The Daily Voice, March 16, 2022, accessed on March 18, 2022. passed away on March 14, 2022. He was a very talented singer, a respected choir leader (“coach”) and composer who organised several choirs for various Klopse and founded his own groups: the Tulips, in 1983The contents of a CD recorded by the Tulips is freely accessible here; various documents regarding the Tulips are available here, and some pictures are included in this file., and the Cape Traditional Singers in 1984, with whom he performed in many foreign countriesVideos of a concert given in France by The Cape Traditional Singers are freely accessible here.. When directing a choir, he always displayed a powerful sense of humour that did not weaken his natural authority. After being for a long time an active member of the Cape Malay Choir Board, he decided to leave in 2010 over disagreements about the management of the board and participated in the foundation of the Keep The Dream Choir Board (KTDCB), of which he eventually became honorary president. Mr Gambeno was also very active in his neighbourhood of Portland, Mitchell’s Plain, where, among others activities, he ran a soup kitchen from his home. For him a choir was both a musical grouping which aimed at the highest possible quality of vocal performance and a place where youngsters would be safe from the dangers of the street and acquire a sense of discipline while enjoying themselves.
I met Mr Gambeno at the very beginning of my research on Cape Town musicsThe history of my research in Cape Town is narrated in: “A Research Itinerary from Fieldwork to Archives: Cape Town (South Africa), Festivals, Music, ‘Identities’, Politics”, Sources (online), n°3, 2021.. He immediately understood my project and supported me in many ways, introducing me to the art and life of the Klopse and the Malay ChoirsWithout the assistance of Mr Gambeno (and of his friend Mr Melvyn Matthews, executive director of the Kaapse Klopse Karnival Association), I would never have been able to write the three books I dedicated to Cape Town’s musics and festivals: Coon Carnival, New Year in Cape Town, Past and Present, Cape Town, David Philip, 1999; Sounding the Cape, Music, Identity and Politics in South Africa, Somerset West, African Minds, 2013; Cape Town Harmonies, Memory, Humour and Resilience, Somerset West, African Minds, 2017 (with Armelle Gaulier).. Between 1994 and 2015, I taped eight interviews with him, not to mention the many informal conversations we had. He told me about his life in Harfield, then in Heideveld; he explained the particularities of singing, composing and harmonising for Cape Town choirs, all rooted in a tradition he insisted on defending, although he was curious about every style of singing practiced around the world and open to innovations. In order to thank him for his support and friendship and to pay him the tribute I feel he deserves, I have compiled passages from the interviews I recorded with himThese passages have been slightly edited to make them more easily readable; however, I have not altered Mr Anwar Gambeno’s ways of speaking, usually very lively and sometimes intense. Footnotes have been added by the compiler. I want to thank Mr Muneeb Gambeno, Mr Anwar Gambeno’s son and chairperson of the Kaapse Klopse Karnival Association, for his assistance in correcting my transcriptions and checking details in his father’s narrative.. I think they are interesting on several accounts: Mr Gambeno provides very perceptive views about the art of singing in Cape Town; the narrative of his life also tells a lot about social interactions in several neighbourhoods of Cape Town during the 1950s and early 1960s. On the whole, they relate how a child born in an underprivileged family managed to become a great artist.
Denis-Constant MartinFormer senior research fellow with the French National Foundation for Political sciences; associate Researcher, Les Afriques dans le Monde, Sciences-Po Bordeaux, France.
Anwar Gambeno’s autobiography
I was born in a place called Harfield, a southern suburb of Cape Town, into a family that wasn’t well off. My father was a fisherman and my mother was a dress maker and the eight children, most of us, were one or two years apart. So, you can imagine when we were young the battle that my parents had raising us. I went to school at a Methodist primary school and from there I went to Rosmead Primary, and then I went to a high school called Oakland’s High School in Landsdowne until standard 8Now known as grade 10., and after that I didn’t go any further. They were all coloured schools at that time. Strangely enough when I was young, the whites and the coloureds stayed together; our neighbours were white; the people across the road was white; the Group Areas Act wasn’t so enforced. That was in the 1950s, 1960s, it wasn’t so heavy, because when they really came down with the Group Areas Act, Claremont and Harfield was the first to feel the Group Areas Act. The first forced removals happened in Harfield, and what was very difficult was that most of the people owned their own houses and they were paid absolutely nothing for their houses. I can remember, I think I was about 12 years [old], the government officials came there and they offered a pittance, and the people had a month to respond; you either take it or you don’t take it, but you’re out. Then people started moving to Bonteheuwel. I think Bonteheuwel was the first township they built.That really broke up the community because Harfield was a very tight up community. I can remember when I was young there was Coon troupesThe term “Coon” has been discarded because of its association with Blackface Minstrelsy in the United States and the form of racism it staged; it is usually replaced by Klopse, although many members and captains of Klopse still use it. in Claremont and in Harfield. They had the Yankee Doodle Darkies, and the Samba Serenaders, and the Dixies and the Meadow Cottonfield Darkies, and the Gold Dollar Nigger Minstrels and the Kentonians Crooning Minstrels, and the biggest troupe of them all was the Coronations, then they had another troupe: the Jolly Jolsons.
One year, there was a competition at Newlands, and I entered the Gold Dollar talent contest and I won that competition. I sang a song called You got a Funny FeelingCliff Richards and the Shadows, Got a funny feeling (Marvin, Welch), TheYoung Ones, Columbia (UK) SEG 8159 (45 RPM), 1962. and after that, things took off: I sang for a band called the Furries and after a while when I was 18 years old, I started my own band called the Wizards. We were playing Creedence [Clearwater] Revival and this kind of songs.
I was always interested in the traditional music because since a laaitieA youth, a young boy. I was involved with the Coons. The moppiesComic song performed by the Klopse and the Malay Choirs. Moppies are call-and-response comic songs aiming at making audiences laugh because of the lyrics and the antics of the soloist; they are composed by assembling snatches of melodies “borrowed” from pop songs, South African or international, and superimposed on the ghoema beat (see below). always intrigued me. There’s one moppie, one comic, that always sticks in my mind that we used to sing: Hiep Hiep Hoera Dis ’n Nuwe Jaar.
I could never forget these words, it stuck in my mind and when I grew older, I thought that I want to be with the traditional music […] The Malay Choirs played a major role in Claremont; I can remember there was a troupe called the Happies and then there was a troupe called the Violets. Then there was a troupe called the Young Blossoms. I can’t remember all the names but there was quite a number of Malay Choirs.
[December 10, 2001]
My father was born in Sicily, in Palermo. Then they came over and they settled in Simonstown. His father owned a bioscope, a theatre, in Simonstown, and this is how they started fishing: they owned a couple of boats. I think the music came with my father, he played the violin, he played the drums, he played the piano, he was multi-talented. He was not a professional musician but he was a fisherman. I can remember he was the drummer for Joe Mary’s Dance Band. They played langarm musicBallroom dance music mostly performed by coloured orchestras usually featuring a saxophone; see: Michael Hamlyn Dunseith, Manifestations of ‘Langarm’: From Colonial Room to Contemporary Practices, Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch University, 2017 (Master in musicology); https://scholar.sun.ac.za/handle/10019.1/101096 ; accessed August 24, 2022., and then he played for a band led by Wally Reites, it was also langarm. He was also part of Christmas ChoirsChristian brass bands, playing mostly arrangements of Christian hymns, holding competitions at the beginning of every year; see: Sylvia Bruinders, Parading Respectability:The Cultural and Moral Aesthetics of the Christmas Movement in the Western Cape, South Africa, Makhanda (South Africa), NISC, 2017., he belonged to the Young Belgians, they came from Bloemhof Flats in District Six… I think basically the love of music probably came from him because he used to play music and sing. He ended up being classified coloured, that is strange. I don’t really know where the coloured thing came in, maybe because he was a fisherman, maybe because when he grew up there was not so much apartheid and people mixed rather freely… They stayed in Simonstown… I think they moved out of Simonstown before I was born.
We were taught from a very young age to fend for ourselves… My father, being a fisherman, was away most of the time. I was always busy with chores for my mom at that time, I was always the one that had to do the chores and do the running around. It was after the war, but I can still remember the queue; you had to stand in a queue on a Saturday morning with the army lorry and you get the Elovo goldenSyrup which can be used with any sweet preparation, even with salads or ham and cheese pastries. and the brown sugar — the old people used to say government sugar — and the unsifted flour. At that time, even though it was after the war, it was illegal to own a sift; if they caught you with a sift you would go to jail“In December 1942, sifting regulations were put in place, which stipulated that only the sale of un-sifted flour would be allowed which was to be enforced during times of serious shortages.” Yolandi Albertyn, Upsetting the Applecart: Government and Food Control in the Union of South Africa duringWorld War II c. 1939- 1948, Stellenbosch,Thesis presented in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master ofArts (History) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University, 2014: 40 Download PDF; accessed 28 September, 2022.. But my father had a sift and we had to make our own sift at that time. You had to walk miles to the dairy, and it was wood burning stoves at that time, and to earn pocket money I made myself a small cart with these bearings — you know the bearings they have in the wheels of motorcars — we used to take the bearings and used to use them as wheels for the carts, we used to call them the waentjie, or wagon. I had a cart, and every Saturday morning I used to go and fetch prestal logs; that was a log they used to make from pressed soda ash and they burnt it to keep the heat. I had a couple of people that I went to fetch it for, and I used to earn a five-shillings, and at that time five shillings was a lot of money, you had to take it home to your father.
Hear the Music of SorentoTorna a Surriento (Come Back To Sorrento), Ernesto De Curtis / G.B. De Curtis (English verse: Alice Mattullath), sung among many others by Dean Martin.that was one of my favourite songs. I used to go to the dairy, I had to walk to the dairy and I used to pass a place called Joe Canadian Cafe where all the — at that time they didn’t say gangsters, they called them skollies — all the skollies used to stand on the stoepA platform or verandah, a porch, in front of or all round a house.. They always used to give me a six pence to sing a song, and I always used to walk singing, and one day there was a couple walking up Second Avenue to Landsdowne Road to the bus stop. I was singing a song, and when I came to the dairy, this guy said: “No man, sing… walk behind us and sing a song until the bus stops” and I walked behind them and I sing that song. I walked and turned the corner of Landsdowne and Livingstone singing and that guy gave me five pounds, it’s unbelievable but it’s true, the guy gave me a five-pound note because he was so madly in love… I came home, when I walked into the door with that milk, my dad said to me “Where is the five pounds that man gave you on the corner of Landsdowne Road?, I’ll put it away for you…” Until today, I don’t know how my father knew that guy gave me five pounds. That shows you how the community was involved in the rearing of a child and the discipline that there was […] that’s the way I grew up in Claremont; it was a good life. It was a hard life, because there were times that there was no fish, and then we had to battle, but that is how we grew up. We kept our own chickens, we had our own ducks, a couple of sheep, and my father grew his own vegetables…
When Harfield was declared a white area, I think that was in 1961-62, we moved to Mowbray. We stayed in Mowbray for six months, from there we moved to Heideveld, where we stayed six months. That was just while they were building the houses, I think I was 14-15 years old… Then I left my parents’ home and I got a house in Heideveld… I was married and I rented a place. That’s in Heideveld where I got involved with the Kitchen Boys. Music played a major role in that gang, and that’s why I got involved with them in the first place: most of them were singers and that’s what attracted me. When I was a youngster, to survive in the townships you had to belong to a group — call it a gang if you want — otherwise you couldn’t survive, and unfortunately I also belonged. After a while, I became the leader, but luckily for me I never ever went to jail. At home, we spoke English, as a matter of fact I came to learn to speak Afrikaans when I started belonging to that group, then I started to learn to speak Afrikaans properly.
That’s what happened when I was young; most of my friends were Muslim and there was one particular family, the Isaacs family, and what I saw in their house, the love that I saw in their home, and the way they lived really impressed me. I didn’t see that in my house, because my father was a Roman Catholic, but he wasn’t a practicing Roman, and my mother was a Jehovah’s Witness, we had this… diversity at home. My mother had the responsibility of the spiritual upbringing of the children, my father never used to bother. He used to force us to go to church with my mother. We used to have Bible studies at our house. That was a problem for me, because that love that was supposed to be there was never there. There were major limitations because of my mother’s religion: you couldn’t belong to a soccer team, you couldn’t belong to any social clubs, they didn’t celebrate Christmas, every holiday was a pagan holiday as far as they were concerned. You lived in a in a vacuum, you couldn’t associate with your peers because they didn’t belong to the Jehovah’s Witness faith. Then when I met up with these guys, the Muslim guys, and I started learning about the Islamic faith, I noticed that there was lot of similarities: I’m quite conversant with the Bible because I grew up studying the Bible until the age of 15 years old, so with the knowledge of the Bible that I had and what I learned from the Muslims, I thought that this is the right way to go. The love that there was, there was not these heavy limitations that was in my home, that actually was the deciding factor that I became a Muslim. Then I met my wife, and she actually enhanced my decision; I got married when I was 17 years old. She was a born Muslim. This is how I became a Muslim, and I never looked back since that time. Without the assistance of my wife, I would never have made it. I mean she worked and I worked, and we had to raise a family, and we’re still working, we’re still battling, we’re still surviving. We couldn’t have done that without the upbringing that we had, the discipline that we were brought up with.
My father was the person who introduced us to this culture of Coons, Malay Choirs, and Christmas Choirs. And I grew up in that community where those sounds were there. On a New Year’s Eve, you used to see these groups of guys standing singing at their house, these Malay Choirs, they used to call them a Nagtroepe, you didn’t see the lead singer: he was in the middle, but you could hear him, and that was intriguing because when you were a laaitie you wonder… Who is this guy singing? You heard that voice on the top, above the choir all the time, and you heard the karienkelMelismatic ornament used to embellish the melodies of Nederlandsliedjies. and that was very intriguing. This was something that drove me closer, but I never had a chance to practice this thing, because my mother belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We were very controlled, especially when we became young guys like 12, 13, 14 years old, we couldn’t really get involved in this thing. But I used to be involved every year, because I used to run away for the Coons. My elder sister was married to a guy that used to sing with the Coons and I used to run to my sister’s house, spend the weekend there and then go with the Coons. I started singing with the Coons when I was about 7 years old as a juvenile sentimental singer. I used to sing for a troupe called the Sambas. Afterwards when I started becoming a teenager, 15, 16, I started to become my own man and I met up with my friends, the Kitchen Boys. They were singers, and that’s how I got involved with them. We used to sing the popular music of that time: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley. I started a band and we called ourselves I think it was the Wizards. Afterwards, we changed the name to call ourselves the Signet Fives. We did the local music, rock and roll, and we used to play in people’s backyards, they used to have parties and they used to pay a shilling to get in, it was a “bob up”. It was mostly done for the enjoyment of the thing; obviously we earned a little bit of money, but it went back into the instruments. It was lovely, it was lovely. All those groups belonged to the Kitchen Boys; we also had our soccer team: the Blue Spurs; then we started the Malay Choir: The Junge Heidelandes Sangkoor, because of Heideveld. It didn’t last for long, about two years, and then everything just fell apart because at that time the guys weren’t very interested in Malay Choirs… I was interested but they weren’t, they were more interested in the Coons. We were young, and discipline and laws wasn’t the order of the day. The Malay Choirs had lots of laws: you couldn’t smoke, you couldn’t do this, you couldn’t do that; and at that time the Malay Choirs used to start with the prayer, and the guys wasn’t into that, they were more interested in the Coons, because the Coons was more of a loose thing and they would make a bigger impression, because we used to win a lot of trophies. I’m talking about the Kitchen Boys, we used to be the main guys on the block for the Coons at that time. And of course, with the Coons there was always a party and the party was actually the main attraction. After a while, the guys started to get married and settle down, then they became interested in the Malay Choirs. I got married when I was 17 years old. Some of the guys went to a choir, the Young Aces; others went to the Primroses and two of the guys, just two of them, went to the Young Mens. I went to the Young Ideas, I was with them for about a year or two, and then I decided no, no, no, no, I’ve got too much potential to be a follower, then we started the Jonge Studente Sangkoor and I was with them for about twelve years. Then, in 1983, I started my own choir: the Tulips.
[December 4 and 10, 2001]
We have to save this thing [the music of the Klopse and the Malay Choirs] because it’s time; we have to get the youngsters interested and that is at the moment one of the greatest challenges… I’m not here to line my pocket. There are perks obviously and, if the perks come our way, we are more than happy to accept it. I think for any man’s labour in any field, at the end of the day you do receive one or two perks, but that is not actually the ulterior motive. The ulterior motive here is to preserve this thing so that our children’s children can sing the NederlandsA repertoire of old songs originating in the Netherlands and orally transmitted for generations. Some of the lyrics are in High Dutch — often transformed because of oral transmission and the singers usually do not understand them — most in Afrikaans. Musically, the Nederlandsliedere, Nederlandsliedjies or Nederlands are characterised by the alternation of a soloist, who sing melodies ornamented with karienkels, and a choir who sings tonal harmony chords, there is usually overlapping of the solo part and the choir part. This is a closed repertoire and the Malay Choirs Boards forbid the introduction of new songs in their competitions. one day, and can sing a moppie, and they can say one day “my dad played a role”, never mind how small but a significant role, “in preserving this thing”. We do not want to become famous but if we become known in the community because of our efforts, so be it, and if our children and our peers or our families and our friends should benefit from what we are doing, then so be it. But be sure that at the end of the day this thing is saved and people don’t see us as fools. Because we are not fools; we are not running around in the streets with umbrellas and a black face because we want to entertain the world by showing that we are a bunch of clowns. This is a serious thing; I believe that without culture and without a tradition, a society cannot survive, and I believe that we have a unique culture in Cape Town, a tradition that is being practiced by people on the ground, working class people.
[December 10, 2001]
The traditional dancing of the Malays is no longer practiced because people thought that it was degrading; they didn’t practice it anymore and eventually it went down. The kussingdans (pillow dance) was danced in the old days. It was done with pillows. Now there are two reasons for the pillow; we don’t know which is the true reason, because the people who used to do this dance, they don’t want to talk about it. The girls used to be on the one side and the guys used to be on the other side, they used to do like what we call the kransdans (circle or round dance), and they used to pass the pillow. Now, the one school of thought says that the pillow represented a baby and the one guy used to pass to the other guy: “this is not mine this is yours” type of thing […] The song says “Ou Lammadie“, it means “Oh my dear whose child is this?”, that’s why they say the pillow was a child […] According to the other school of thought the pillow was there to prevent the touching of the women and the men, which is against the religion: unmarried people shouldn’t touch. I don’t know which is the true history. The lingo was also a dance that was done by the Cape Malays, the slaves, it was done with the fingers, the movement of the dance was in the hands. The one school of thought says the fingers used to be used to talk to the lady. The other school of thought says that the fingers formed the first 10 letters of the Arabic alphabet. Which is true, I don’t know. The kransdans, the lingo, and the kussingdans, they were traditional dances which has absolutely died out.
[October 3, 1994]
The participation of girls in the Malay choirs… That is a fight that I’m busy with at this very moment, trying to introduce woman folk in the Malay Choirs. I have got support, but not open support. People are a bit scared to openly support you in this fight, because where the Muslim religion is concerned, meeting of man and woman is taboo and unfortunately because of the very strong Malay influence in Cape Town that is a bit of a bone of contention. But I want to introduce the woman into this thing as musicians first, not as singers.
[December 10, 2001]
It is mostly the working-class man, the man in the townships, that is involved in the Klopse. It’s a way of entertainment for the poorer class people and the tradition of the people comes to the fore when it’s New Year. What really happens is: October, the people start getting together and they start having practices at various members’ houses and these houses become known as klopskamers. They start practicing the traditional Malay songs like the Nederlandsliedere and the moppies. The Nederlandslied is an Afrikaans song; they use various Dutch words and the Afrikaans that was used 30, 40, 50 years ago. The moppie is actually a comic song sung in a very fast beat; it is normally made by the members themselves about something that happened in the community or in the country, and it projects the humorous side of this happening. Then as the time grows nearer to the New Year, the uniforms, the flowers that they are wearing on their caps, and the jerseys and the trousers get made by various people, we usually say: “die motjie maak die doek” (the woman makes the cloth). The motjie is a term that we use for the old Malay woman who makes the Coons’ gear with the colourful satin. New Year’s Eve comes along and the thing reaches its climax at 12 o’clock midnight: all the Malay Choirs take to the street. It starts off with the choir singing at their klopskamer, outside, in front of the door, and then they go along and they sing at their members’ houses. The people, they go out of their way to put something on the table for the guys. They’d save the whole year for this type of thing, cool drinks and biscuits, whatever they can afford, and the whole night from 12 o’clock they go around and they sing at these people’s houses until the next morning about 10 o’clock.
This is New Year’s morning, then the whole thing changes: then we go into the carnival proper, the guys come back and they dress in the colourful costumes and they colour their face with the black and the white, and then they go to the Coons […] On a New Year’s Eve you see the guys going down to the klopskamer with their sand shoes, they used to get their uniforms on the New Year morning because it was a closely kept secret, the colours and the banners, now it’s different obviously.
[December 10, 2001]
The carnival to me it’s very important, the reason being that the tradition, the cultural part of the carnival, is the most important thing where I’m concerned. What other way do we have to practice our tradition than at New Year? We don’t like talking about politics but unfortunately politics has to come into this thing. Our community has been deprived of a lot of facilities, our community has been deprived of expressing themselves in various fields, and at this time of the year this also helps to lift the frustration of things that went on, that is going on […] The educated people of our society, they look down on this thing; they say “noooo listen don’t go to this, there’s a lot of stupid guys running around there”. And this is wrong; what we are fighting for, we want to eradicate this type of image. Because they see a couple of guys that are out of the way… This is mainly practiced by people that are totally and utterly underprivileged, this is the only form of entertainment that these people have; they can afford to pay a 100 rands for a satin uniform and they enjoy themselves for January and after that it’s back to work, back to normal, back to the grindstone. They cannot afford anything else, so it is not degrading, it is only because these people have a way of expressing themselves, they are so happy to be involved in something that they go overboard, the same with the Malay Choirs.
[January 10, 1994]
I write my own songs, I write my own moppies. I was never educated in music, I never had formal education; it’s always been by word of mouth or ear, and because of that I’m not capable of writing music. So what invariably happens is: you pick up a tune here and you pick up a tune there and you put your own lyrics into it. I don’t know if you can call that writing your own songs; maybe you can say that you write the lyrics of it, but we always use other people’s tunes. In the competitions, I’ve been successful with it […] The music is independent of the words. I used to put in the words afterwards: I first get the tune and then I will sit and… that is the most difficult part because I think: “I’ve got a tune, but what I’m gonna write about?” Then you decide on a theme and once you’ve got the first line then it just…. ffffft… But you can’t write every day, you can sit for hours with a pencil in your hands and nothing will come and all of a sudden you get that. Because of that, in my car I’ve always got a piece of paper and a pen, because when it just starts, then you must write it.
[December 4, 2001]
To compose the music, I listen to the radio or I listen to the TV channels. When I hear something that sounds all right, then I use it, and put it on the ghoema beat.
Then I’m going to another tune that I heard on the radio, but there’s like a bridge between the two tunes, I have a tune, but how do I get there, to the other tune? So I have got to compose my own little piece so that I can get there. So as I am driving, I got my phone and I record. Years ago, in the 1950s and the 1960s, they used to go to the bioscopes [cinemas], because there were lots of musicals at that time, and they used to get the tunes; the guy, he went to watch the movie four or five times, and he tried to write down the song. He had to remember, and it also takes a special kind of person to be able to listen to it four times and remember the song exactly like it must be. May be the words is wrong, but the melody is right. That’s how they did it that time, but now we’ve got the DVDs and stuff…
[October 11, 2011]
“Coaching”In the vocabulary of the Klopse and the Malay Choirs, a “coach” is the musical director of a choir, in charge of conducting rehearsals; he also very often composes and arranges the pieces sung by the choir. and harmonising
The first guy that made a very big impression on me with the coaching, his nickname was Boeta Faki, from Claremont; there were also other coaches, like “the Moor”, he coached the Yankee Doodle Darkies; I learned a lot from these guys. I knew nothing about singing… I’m still learning, but what I learned from these guys was that you have to have discipline and you have to have a good ear. I can use the word intonation now, but at that time I didn’t even know what it meant, what was false and what was right; it was these things that I could learn from them. When there was a hundred people standing and singing, these guys could pick up the person that was not singing properly and they could pinpoint this guy. You coach a choir or a Coon troupe and you’re standing in front of 200 people and you try to teach these people in four-part harmony, but in actual fact these people are singing eight different voices, because everybody is singing their own voice, especially in the Coon troupes. You must listen to everything at the same time and this is what I picked up from these people: how they did this.
It’s not an easy thing to do. I didn’t know what was a change of key at that time, I only found out later how you could change your key, and I learned how to write a combinedThe combined chorus is a song sung by the choir, without a soloist; it is composed in the same manner as a moppie but is not accented with the ghoema beat; it is the quality of the harmony and of the lyrics that makes the beauty of a combined chorus. especially an Afrikaans combined chorus.
Most of the coaches, they don’t write the music, they take music from the radio, old music or music that is popular and they change a line or they change the melody a little bit to suit the song, to suit the story, and that is what I learned from these guys. After a while, as you develop, you start making up your own tunes in your head. I can’t write it down on paper but I can sing it because I memorise it all the time. That is a miracle, that is what is fantastic. We will make the bass line that we think is right, you heard it yourself. You hear the melody line; what I do is I sing the song in my mind, and I make the tune in my mind, and I write the story and I’ve got on paper the words, and I’ve got the tune in my mind and I go to David Valesco [who played electric bass with the Tulips] and I say “David, let’s set the music”, and then they have a fight with the other musicians over what is the chords: the one says A minor, the other one says D minor… and at the end of the day they come to decide “OK it’s not A minor it’s not D minor it’s…”. Because they also taught themselves, nobody taught them to play the guitar but they know exactly where every chord and where every note is on the guitar. So we come together, they play the chords. Then the tenors should do that, the sopranos should do that, the bass should do that; it’s difficult because it’s always subject to alteration, you’re always changing, but at the end of the day you decide: this is the intonation and this is how we’re going to do it. This is what I picked up from these guys. They didn’t say you come here and let me teach you; you had to teach yourself: while they were teaching the choir, you had to pick it up. You would see to it that you were in the frontline so that you can watch the man, and see what he does, and listen to the vocabulary that he uses. The way you talk to the Malay Choirs and the way you talk to the Coons is two different things, because the Coons is dangerous people, you’ve got to speak their language and you’ve got to teach them to understand.
[December 10, 2001 ]
When I started the Tulip Malay Choir in 1983, I had a coach, he cost us 1 500 rands to coach the choir. One day I was standing listening to this guy and I thought he is not teaching my choir properly, because the choir’s intonation was off and he couldn’t hear it, he just let them sing and he only coached for an hour. When he left, I said to the guys “now listen here, let’s sing that part that you were singing and let’s hear, there’s something wrong, the intonation is off”, and from then on I started coaching and since that day I coached my own choir, and I found out I can also coach, thanks to my experience that I picked up since a youngster. I started coaching and I started writing. The Malay Choirs and the Coons is virtually the same thing, the only difference with the Malay Choirs, there’s less people and there’s more discipline. With the Coons, there’s a lot of people and not too much discipline because the guys that come to the Coons, they’re allowed to come drunk, some of them take drugs and the owners of some of the troupes is not worried… What I realized from the beginning was: the guys that you are teaching, they also don’t know music, they imitate you, they listen to you.
So if you sing like you want it to be sung they will do it exactly like you are doing it, so you’ve got to do it properly; the easiest way is that you come there with your songs, you write the words on the boardDuring rehearsals, the words of the songs are written on large paper boards that hang from a wall; nowadays, some coaches have them on a computer file that is projected on the wall. and you sing the first line. Last year I taught the choir “Nessun dorma“From the opera by Giacomo Puccini, Turandot. that’s in Italian, I had to first teach myself the words and learn the song from tape. I used to write down the first two lines, the words, then teach myself from the cassette, and then go to the Coons and say “OK fine, this is the way we sing the first the line” and we sat in repetition over and over and over until they knew it. This is the way you teach these guys, repetition all the time; it takes a bit of time and a lot of patience because teaching the guys the song it’s fine, but now you’ve got to put in the harmonies, the bass line, the tenors, the altos, you’ve got to do it by ear. What I do is I hear the first voice, for example they sing “I hear an angel singing far away” [sings in tenor voice], that’s the first voice now I think about the bass line “I hear an angel singing far away” [sings in bass voice], the intonation is right and if you put the two together there’s harmony. I can hear the four parts together; now I put in the alto and I put in the tenor, the soprano. What is funny is we don’t say soprano alto and bass, we say first voice, second voice and third voice. If the first voice sings “I hear the choir singing far away” [sings in tenor], the bass line will sing “I hear the choir singing far away” [sings in a bass voice], the tenor will sing “I hear the choir singing far away” [sings in a soprano voice]; if you put that thing together you gonna have a fantastic harmony. Everything is open to correction because I might do it this way now and I’ll come home from the choir and I’ll sit and I’ll wait; if the bass line does something here, a double up here, it will sound better and I am now singing the three voices in my mind, I hear the whole choir in my mind at one time.
[December 4, 2001]
This is the way I write the moppie: I take a story, a serious story, and I try to come across the story with humour, so that I don’t make a direct attack on whoever I’m talking about. This is the way I was taught to write a moppie, because if we go back, you will see that a lot of moppies were written during the struggle, but because the white man at that time, especially the guys that were in power, the bourgeois, promoted the idea of the “jolly hotnot”“Jolly hotnot”, was a derogatory expression implying that people classified coloured were happy and contented, irresponsible and, therefore, should be led by the white people. “Hotnot was a name given to KhoiKhoi people by early travellers, built from “hottentot”; it was extended to people classified coloured and resented as offensive because it connoted the idea that Khoikhoi people were savage and primitive and that, by extension, so were coloured people., they thought that the coloureds were a bunch of clowns and drunkards. But what they did not know is that in the meantime the coloureds were educating themselves and becoming au fait with what is going on in the country. There were some of the people that went out and blew up the toilets; there were some of the people that went to stand on the Parade and shouted what they wanted to shout and got arrested; but then there was the Minstrels and the Malay Choirs that was very subtle: we used to write the moppies to actually tell these guys what we thought of them, but in humour, in a humorous way…
I normally look at a pertinent story, and I take a story that is very serious and I shroud it with humour, but you will still get the message the way I want to put it out. That is the way I write moppies. Then obviously the rhythm is very important because we must understand that the rhythm of a ghoemaliedjieThe ghoemaliedjies, literally little drum songs, predated the moppies, they were sung at parties and picnics against the ghoema beat and their words were very often improvised on the spot, usually poking fun at someone present or at some important figure in the community or in politics. and the rhythm of a moppie is different. The rhythm of the ghoemaliedjie is slower than the rhythm of the moppie. The rhythm of the moppie is very fast. What we try to do, what I normally try to do is to marry the two, to use the rhythm of the moppie and the rhythm of the ghoemaliedjie in the same thing, to merge the two the result is normally very exciting, especially for the youth: they like this slowing down of the things […] We can’t read music, so we can’t write music. But we can hear music and we have very good ears. So what do we do? We listen to the popular songs, and we actually pinch the tunes, but never ever take one complete song: we pinch a tune from Shirley Bassey and we pinch a tune from Elvis Presley and we pinch a tune from Michael Jackson and we bring that together and then we use it. But you’ll always find that it makes sense. We select melodies from pop songs, but not only popular songs of 2010, it can go back to the 1960s, all depends on what melody suits the story. It’s a very selective process, you must have the right melody to suit the lyrics. For example, this new thing that I’m busy with, it starts with my own melody, I made that in my mind, but it suits the song. Now Ricky Nelson had a song and that was the chorus line, I can’t remember the title but I know the tune. I can remember: my mind is like a computer, I can go back and I can remember the tune. And as you go along, you don’t know what is the next tune. That’s how the thing happens. So there is no set rules here, because the moppie is actually a compilation of different tunes. What I always have on my mind is, this guy, he used to be an adjudicator for the Minstrels and the Cape Malay Choirs, and one day he made a statement and he said: “The moppie must form a whole at the end of the day”, it must not be a fragmented thing, it must form a whole, all the tunes must form one whole thing… So that is what I try to get. At the end of the day, you listen to it and you recognise that this is Michael Jackson, that is Beyoncé, and that is Ricky Nelson, you recognise the tunes, but when you listen to it as a whole, as a complete thing, a complete song, you find that it is different.You understand? Because all those tunes have been brought together to make one whole thing. And then I put it against the ghoema beat and I try to get variations in, and dynamics, and I arrange the voices, which is sometimes very difficult, because when a solo artist sings a song and you want to arrange it in different harmonies, and you have to do it in your mind, it sometimes becomes a bit difficult. But, thank God, we’ve got this kind of talent, that we can do that, so we have this unique ability to arrange the harmonies. It might not be what the adjudicators want. So big deal! I don’t give a shit if they want it or not. I know that they enjoy it, because I watch them, and I watch them tap their feet, and I watch them laugh, and I know that they are recognising the humour and they know what I am talking about. But it might not be technically correct so they cannot give me a higher mark. But that’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that. As long as I have entertained the people and they have enjoyed themselves. The trophy is a bonus […] Our tradition is spontaneity, it must be spontaneous; this is our tradition, people must be able to join in, and not be scared that there is going to be intonation problems. Obviously, we know that intonation problems is taboo; but it shouldn’t be a criteria where we have to sing strictly to European standards. Because it’s not right.
[October 11, 20111]
There is different components to the Nederlandslied. There is the skondeerSkondeer is derived from the English to second; in a call-and-response song, such as a Nederlandslied, it is the name given to the response of the choir (also called the pak), when the singers join the soloist and support him in a way that allows him to be “on top”: to be clearly heard.. In the skondeer, you must have the different harmonies; there is no criteria that says that you’ve gotta use a four-part harmony, or a three-part harmony, or a six-part harmony. The Nederlands is supposed to be sung spontaneously and you’ll find that there is more than four or five or six parts in the Nederlands when people sing it the proper way, because you have what you call the “flat voice”, that is also bringing the karienkel, that’s what the lead singer, the voorsinger, is doing. The choir is actually echoing him, and they are actually a split second slower or faster than the voorsinger, and that makes it unique, that makes it very beautiful: if you listen to it being done properly, you can hear the beauty. At some point, the voorsinger must “pass” the melody to the choir, that’s what we call the angeeA word built on the verb gee aan, to pass., in order to do it he must end his karienkel on the precise pitch and time where the other singers must enter. That is the component of the voorsinger; then you also have the rhythm, the rhythm of the Nederlandslied: it can either be fast or it can be slow, all depends what Nederlands is sung. In competition today, we see to it that the harmonies are correct. It has become a problem, because people are using choral harmonies in the Nederlands nowMr Gambeno did not approve of coaches who try to imitate large European choirs, such as the Welsh choirs.. The lead singer normally, if he’s got the right karienkel and he knows where and how to hand over to the choir, it is very beautiful when they connect. For competition it is rehearsed, but when we sing at weddings, it is not rehearsed, then it is spontaneous. The number and the place of karienkels depend on how good the voorsinger is. Some will place a karienkel after every second word because he is capable of doing that, others are not capable of doing that, they’ll do it at the end of the line, when he’ll give it over to the choir with the karienkel, then you’ll find other guys who will do it at the beginning of the line, so it all depends on how capable the voorsinger is. If he’s good, he will start the karienkel and he’ll actually “go flat”, he’ll actually have an intonation problem in that karienkel, or it sounds like this to you in the audience but he’s not off the note, he’ll come right back to where he wasThe realisation of melisma in the karienkels accommodates inflexions; that is what Mr Gambeno described here: a rapid movement away from the exact pitch then back to the pitch. and that’s the beauty of it. It all depends on the imagination of the soloist. For me, a Nederlandslied must have the banjo, a cello, or slap bass, the guitars and the mandolins, not the violins or the piano, it doesn’t belong thereHowever, in the competitions of the Cape Malay Choir Board, it has become customary for choirs to be backed by a small orchestra including violins, cellos, guitars and piano, in addition to the traditional banjo and mandolin and even Mr Gambeno had to conform to this trend.. Now today we have this kind of thing happening where people are using pianos, and violin, it’s not very nice to listen to, because it’s taking away the flavour of the Nederlandslied.
[October 11, 2011]
All photographs on this page were taken by, and are the copyright of, Denis-Constant Martin. They are published here with kind permission of the author. This article was first published in LESEDI, a magazine brought out by the French Institute (IFAS) in Johannesburg. Published in herri with kind permission of the author and the editors of LESEDI.
|1.||↑||Carnival troupes, parading and performing every year in January.|
|2.||↑||Male choirs, usually holding their own competitions after the Klopse Carnival|
|3.||↑||The Daily Voice, March 16, 2022, accessed on March 18, 2022.|
|4.||↑||The contents of a CD recorded by the Tulips is freely accessible here; various documents regarding the Tulips are available here, and some pictures are included in this file.|
|5.||↑||Videos of a concert given in France by The Cape Traditional Singers are freely accessible here.|
|6.||↑||The history of my research in Cape Town is narrated in: “A Research Itinerary from Fieldwork to Archives: Cape Town (South Africa), Festivals, Music, ‘Identities’, Politics”, Sources (online), n°3, 2021.|
|7.||↑||Without the assistance of Mr Gambeno (and of his friend Mr Melvyn Matthews, executive director of the Kaapse Klopse Karnival Association), I would never have been able to write the three books I dedicated to Cape Town’s musics and festivals: Coon Carnival, New Year in Cape Town, Past and Present, Cape Town, David Philip, 1999; Sounding the Cape, Music, Identity and Politics in South Africa, Somerset West, African Minds, 2013; Cape Town Harmonies, Memory, Humour and Resilience, Somerset West, African Minds, 2017 (with Armelle Gaulier).|
|8.||↑||These passages have been slightly edited to make them more easily readable; however, I have not altered Mr Anwar Gambeno’s ways of speaking, usually very lively and sometimes intense. Footnotes have been added by the compiler. I want to thank Mr Muneeb Gambeno, Mr Anwar Gambeno’s son and chairperson of the Kaapse Klopse Karnival Association, for his assistance in correcting my transcriptions and checking details in his father’s narrative.|
|9.||↑||Former senior research fellow with the French National Foundation for Political sciences; associate Researcher, Les Afriques dans le Monde, Sciences-Po Bordeaux, France.|
|10.||↑||Now known as grade 10.|
|11.||↑||The term “Coon” has been discarded because of its association with Blackface Minstrelsy in the United States and the form of racism it staged; it is usually replaced by Klopse, although many members and captains of Klopse still use it.|
|12.||↑||Cliff Richards and the Shadows, Got a funny feeling (Marvin, Welch), TheYoung Ones, Columbia (UK) SEG 8159 (45 RPM), 1962.|
|13.||↑||A youth, a young boy.|
|14.||↑||Comic song performed by the Klopse and the Malay Choirs. Moppies are call-and-response comic songs aiming at making audiences laugh because of the lyrics and the antics of the soloist; they are composed by assembling snatches of melodies “borrowed” from pop songs, South African or international, and superimposed on the ghoema beat (see below).|
|15.||↑||Ballroom dance music mostly performed by coloured orchestras usually featuring a saxophone; see: Michael Hamlyn Dunseith, Manifestations of ‘Langarm’: From Colonial Room to Contemporary Practices, Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch University, 2017 (Master in musicology); https://scholar.sun.ac.za/handle/10019.1/101096 ; accessed August 24, 2022.|
|16.||↑||Christian brass bands, playing mostly arrangements of Christian hymns, holding competitions at the beginning of every year; see: Sylvia Bruinders, Parading Respectability:The Cultural and Moral Aesthetics of the Christmas Movement in the Western Cape, South Africa, Makhanda (South Africa), NISC, 2017.|
|17.||↑||Syrup which can be used with any sweet preparation, even with salads or ham and cheese pastries.|
|18.||↑||“In December 1942, sifting regulations were put in place, which stipulated that only the sale of un-sifted flour would be allowed which was to be enforced during times of serious shortages.” Yolandi Albertyn, Upsetting the Applecart: Government and Food Control in the Union of South Africa duringWorld War II c. 1939- 1948, Stellenbosch,Thesis presented in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master ofArts (History) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University, 2014: 40 Download PDF; accessed 28 September, 2022.|
|19.||↑||Torna a Surriento (Come Back To Sorrento), Ernesto De Curtis / G.B. De Curtis (English verse: Alice Mattullath), sung among many others by Dean Martin.|
|20.||↑||A platform or verandah, a porch, in front of or all round a house.|
|21.||↑||Melismatic ornament used to embellish the melodies of Nederlandsliedjies.|
|22.||↑||A repertoire of old songs originating in the Netherlands and orally transmitted for generations. Some of the lyrics are in High Dutch — often transformed because of oral transmission and the singers usually do not understand them — most in Afrikaans. Musically, the Nederlandsliedere, Nederlandsliedjies or Nederlands are characterised by the alternation of a soloist, who sing melodies ornamented with karienkels, and a choir who sings tonal harmony chords, there is usually overlapping of the solo part and the choir part. This is a closed repertoire and the Malay Choirs Boards forbid the introduction of new songs in their competitions.|
|23.||↑||In the vocabulary of the Klopse and the Malay Choirs, a “coach” is the musical director of a choir, in charge of conducting rehearsals; he also very often composes and arranges the pieces sung by the choir.|
|24.||↑||The combined chorus is a song sung by the choir, without a soloist; it is composed in the same manner as a moppie but is not accented with the ghoema beat; it is the quality of the harmony and of the lyrics that makes the beauty of a combined chorus.|
|29.||↑||Available at:, as a complement to Denis-Constant Martin’s “A Research Itinerary from Fieldwork to Archives: Cape Town (South Africa), Festivals, Music, ‘Identities,’ Politics”|
|26.||↑||During rehearsals, the words of the songs are written on large paper boards that hang from a wall; nowadays, some coaches have them on a computer file that is projected on the wall.|
|27.||↑||From the opera by Giacomo Puccini, Turandot.|
|28.||↑||“Jolly hotnot”, was a derogatory expression implying that people classified coloured were happy and contented, irresponsible and, therefore, should be led by the white people. “Hotnot was a name given to KhoiKhoi people by early travellers, built from “hottentot”; it was extended to people classified coloured and resented as offensive because it connoted the idea that Khoikhoi people were savage and primitive and that, by extension, so were coloured people.|
|30.||↑||The ghoemaliedjies, literally little drum songs, predated the moppies, they were sung at parties and picnics against the ghoema beat and their words were very often improvised on the spot, usually poking fun at someone present or at some important figure in the community or in politics.|
|31.||↑||Skondeer is derived from the English to second; in a call-and-response song, such as a Nederlandslied, it is the name given to the response of the choir (also called the pak), when the singers join the soloist and support him in a way that allows him to be “on top”: to be clearly heard.|
|32.||↑||A word built on the verb gee aan, to pass.|
|33.||↑||Mr Gambeno did not approve of coaches who try to imitate large European choirs, such as the Welsh choirs.|
|34.||↑||The realisation of melisma in the karienkels accommodates inflexions; that is what Mr Gambeno described here: a rapid movement away from the exact pitch then back to the pitch.|
|35.||↑||However, in the competitions of the Cape Malay Choir Board, it has become customary for choirs to be backed by a small orchestra including violins, cellos, guitars and piano, in addition to the traditional banjo and mandolin and even Mr Gambeno had to conform to this trend.|