“Dit is soos lekkers (it is like sweets). The sweetest music I’ve ever heard. It’s like dreaming,” says Eva Jacobs.
The music she is referring to is that of Hannes Coetzee. Coetzee’s quiet life in a small village near Mossel Bay was shaken when a US folk band recorded a version of his song Mahalla and included it in their album Leaving Eden.
The album by Carolina Chocolate Drops has been nominated for a Grammy Award.
Coetzee, a humble, shy 69-year-old man, has also starred in Karoo Kitaar Blues, and Kalahari Karoo Blues, David Kramer’s most recent production.
We met Eva Jacobs when we went in search of Coetzee in his home village of Herbertsdale.
We never found Coetzee. The musician is notoriously shy and has never been interviewed by the media. What we did find is a town proud of its most famous son – and also protective of him.
Coetzee’s music is unique. He plays his battered guitar in a pick-up and pinch style, sliding out a melody with a teaspoon in his mouth.
“Dit is soos lekkers (it is like sweets),” said Jacobs. Her husband, Jan, and Coetzee have been close friends since they were young men. She said the two would drink on weekends and make music throughout the night – but hastened to add that Coetzee’s music was more than enough compensation for keeping her family awake.
“When they sang and he played the guitar, I did not mind what time of night it was. Hannes is a lovely and soft- hearted person. He is very shy. Using the teaspoon is coming for many years,” Eva Jacobs said while demonstrating how Coetzee would wrap a piece of paper around a spoon before playing.
Jan Jacobs said: “We know each other for donkeys’ years. He and other guitarists used to come to my parents’ place. There would be music and everybody danced through the night. He comes from a family of guitarists and as a child would sit under the table and watch his parents play.”
He said as a young boy Coetzee honed his skills while herding goats and later as an aloe tapper would sit in the hills playing his guitar.
“He also has a way of using bottle to slide the guitar. It is absolutely amazing. Hannes taps aloe, but his music is his gift from God. He can play any tune.”
Like most Herbertsdale residents, Coetzee lives in a small RDP house. The whitewashed home in Lelie Street is hidden behind a tree in a somewhat neglected garden. Two dogs play on an unkempt grass patch and a single red carnation sways in the light breeze. An old cream Ford is parked on the property, which is fenced off with barbed wire.
Coetzee’s wife, Shiela, would not let us near him.
His personal life was nobody’s business, she said.
“I’m not talking about it. Leave him alone,” she said while standing at the gate – holding a stick in her hand.
A neighbour, Lizette Plato, said she understood why Shiela was being “over-protective” of a man everybody in the town loves so much.
“I know the Coetzees very well. She loves him a lot. Oom Hannes is very friendly and humble, but also very shy, and him getting hurt by all this exposure is probably her biggest fear.
“They have been through a lot. Their only daughter died a few years ago as did two of their sons,” Plato said.
Herbertsdale is a close-knit community, a quiet Karoo town tucked away in a mountainous valley about 60km north-west of Mossel Bay.
Although there is poverty, there is little crime. For six weeks of the year most residents leave to do aloe-tapping (tapping sap from aloes for medicinal and other purposes) deep in the Karoo.
Coetzee’s community is happy about his achievement. And while they agree his humble living conditions do not match the fame which has come from his performances, they differ about what being rich means.
“You can have the grandest house, the best cars and all the money, but you can still be poor. Hannes lives in a tiny house, but laughs and seems happy all the time,” said Tokkie Oosthuizen, a dairy farmer in whose garden Coetzee had worked.
John Stears, owner of Bakgat Algemene Handelaar in the town’s main road, said: “Hannes plays lovely music which should be appreciated. One wonders what he gets for his music, but it seems he is struggling and things are not going well with him.”