LOUKMAAN Adams has spent 31 years of his life immortalising District Six in song. On February 11, 1966, District Six was declared a whites-only area. Weeks later, bulldozers moved in to reduce the area to ruins.
That was 50 years ago and, on February 11, that sombre day will be remembered. That evening Loukmaan and a cast of stars will take an audience down memory lane to celebrate the sounds of the once-vibrant suburb in a new show called District Six Kanala at the Fugard Theatre.
It’s hard to believe Loukmaan is just 40 because he is already a theatre veteran, starting his stage career as the character Broertjie in Taliep Petersen and David Kramer’s District Six – The Musical when he was only nine.
District Six was long gone by the time he was born. But Loukmaan has a connection to the place like few have. His father started his education straight after his first audition as Broertjie at the Baxter Theatre.
“I know the story about the place but only from what people told me. My dad was the first person who, after my audition, took me to the District Six area. Obviously there were just weeds, the mosques and some other places and he had to explain it to me.
“I then had the fortune of working with (cast members) Salie Daniels, Aunty Niesa (Abrahams), Giempie Vardien, Cyril Valentine, Dougie Schrikker… people who grew up in District Six. They would tell me about the Star Bioscope, they painted these pictures for me and that is how I got to understand. And by doing the musical, that was my foundation.
“Salie Daniels was like a jukebox. You could ask him what kind of songs they were singing at the time and he’d break into song. He’d tell me about how he was with the Rockets when their song went to number one. But when it became known they were a coloured group, the song was scratched.”
Daniels was the inspiration for Kat and the Kings – a Petersen/Kramer musical about Kat Diamond and the fellow members of a singing quartet from District Six called the Cavalla Kings. The group’s dreams are crushed because, as a coloured act, there was a ceiling to how far they could go. But this sad end is but one theme in the musical which is a larger celebration of the comedy and vocal genius that emanated from District Six provided by the likes of Loukmaan’s character Bingo – whom Kat Diamond describes in the musical as his “best bra”.
Loukmaan’s performance of Lonely Girl, complemented by the vocal skills of Alistair Izobell, is among the most memorable and iconic moments of the musical.
It’s that karinkel in his voice, a trademark of the Nederlandse liedjies sung by the Malay choirs, or nagtroepe, in which he spent much of his childhood, that makes Loukmaan’s sound instantly recognisable and distinct.
Kat and the Kings took Loukmaan to Broadway in New York and London’s West End and earned him a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical and a Tony nomination. Loukmaan has since been involved in every production of Kat and the Kings, most recently as choreographer.
These songs from musicals spanning decades about District Six will be featured in Kramer’s District Six Kanala from next Tuesday night at the Fugard Theatre. And Loukmaan will be in the thick of things.
Kanala, which is colloquial Cape Malay for “please”, has been specially produced to commemorate 50 years since the people of District Six were forcibly removed.
Naturally, Loukmaan jumped at the opportunity. After all, District Six has played such a pivotal role in his life.
But it was also a chance to pay tribute to his mentors and the chance to educate a new generation about District Six.
“We’re celebrating a space; a space that should have been here. I look at Bo-Kaap because a similar thing could have happened there and right now it’s probably one of the biggest tourist attractions.
“If you look at pictures of District Six, these houses should still have been here. I look at those buildings – like the one Charly’s Bakery is in – and I think, wow, imagine these buildings were still here. It would have been the most expensive area in town.
“We’re trying to remember that and celebrate that. We don’t dwell on the ugliness of how people were removed, but it was where our forefathers lived.
“The youth need to know where they come from, where their forefathers come from. It’s a part of their history. The days when Taliep wrote these songs… it’s not just a song, you feel it.
“I don’t know if Taliep’s spirit is there but as soon as you sing these songs, it just does something. We also pay tribute to Salie Daniels and perform some of his songs. It’s emotional and a lot of people are going to cry.
“Everything I know about District Six I either got from my parents or people who lived there. Taliep couldn’t stop talking about District Six. David knows a lot about it. He had to give us the stories, especially with this younger cast.
“The first day we walked into rehearsals for District Six Kanala, Alistair Izobell, the musical director of the production, asked what songs they knew. Let’s do Broertjie, My Bra, and they’re like, ‘what?’ This is a new generation and now they know the stories. They’re fast. We had the songs down in three days.”
But for Loukmaan, District Six Kanala is more than just a show.
“I think for coloured people it’s very important to have a sense of where they come from. At the Slave Lodge, for example… I saw a piece of paper where the word tamatie (tomato) was written in toelies (Arabic script). I was like ‘Wow, it makes sense’, and you put the dots together but that stuff wasn’t taught to us at school. So you have to make the extra effort and that’s why I was really keen to do this.
“I didn’t work with David since probably Kat and the Kings three or four years ago. He said he was doing District Six and everyone kind of expected it was going to be the musical. But he said we’re celebrating District Six.
“This was my first musical – this place. I recently did Remembering the Lux, and those characters (from District Six) were the first people I performed with and I had to do that. Giempie, Terry Fortune, Terry Smith, Leslie Kleinsmidt. I performed with them more than 30 years ago when I started.
“I knew they wouldn’t be able to perform like they usually do but I wanted to be part of that because it was probably going to be their last professional performance. I wanted to be part of that moment. Maybe that’s a bit sentimental but that’s the way I look at things now.”
What makes Loukmaan’s journey all the more authentic is that he had no formal training in the arts until recently. But that has motivated him to start his own project to provide a platform for young, upcoming acts.
What do you do when there are limited opportunities in theatre to blood new talent? You do what Loukmaan and his partner Kim Cloete did: open your own theatre.
The Garden Court Theatre opened its doors three years ago in the space where a club used to be located in the old Holiday Inn in Walmer Estate, which is now the Garden Court Hotel.
“I think nowadays you have to study. I look at the kids and it’s beautiful. They can play the piano, the guitar, they can read music and it works so much better.
“We grew up with the ear where you were scolded with ‘moenie nonsens sing nie, djy kan mos hoor issie reg nie (don’t sing out of tune, can’t you hear it’s wrong?)’ and I wish I studied back then. I’ve done it now but it is so much easier when you do.
“Even in the klopse, the little boys playing trumpets can read music. In the Malay choirs now, your articulation needs to be on point. At first, our people didn’t quite accept it because they said, ‘We don’t sing like this’. But kids from Manenberg are taught proper speech, pronunciation and diction.
“It’s difficult for our people to change because they’re set in certain ways. The Malay choirs are now changing the Nederlandse songs and the comics. The sound is changing. People are saying that’s not tradition but tradition went out the door 20 years ago when we stopped singing Ou Lamadie, and started singing about Michael Jackson and tax.
“Kim and I saw the space about three years ago – a 200-seater. We went to the hotel and signed a lease. The idea is to have a space where young people can start. It’s very difficult to just go to the Baxter Theatre and say you want to have a show here. We’re trying to create a space with all the facilities, the lights, sound, engineers, where you can start off with an idea with our help, if that’s what you want.
“It’s a beautiful venue. Kim likes to call it a boutique theatre. It’s like a compact amphitheatre.”
Where to next for Loukmaan? How do you top an Olivier Award and a Tony nomination at such a young age?
“Sometimes I think I was too young to receive the Laurence Olivier Award and Tony nomination because how can I outdo that? Probably by winning it again? But I know there were people much more talented than us, before our generation who should’ve won those awards and who put in much more work, sweat, blood and tears.
“When we came back and I shared it with my friends they were like, ‘Who the hell is Laurence Olivier? Let’s go buy a gatsby’.
“I said, ‘But guys, you don’t understand, it’s a Tony nomination.’ They were like: ‘So, what?’
It grates Loukmaan that there is little recognition for coloured artists and he, Kramer and Bianca la Grange, his co-star in District Six Kanala, have started dreaming of an awards show for coloured people that they want to launch this year.
“We need to start acknowledging our people. It’s time we did our own thing and start recognising our own people and be proud of onse mense. Once we start appreciating our work and our people the industry will begin to change.”
Loukmaan has a special place in his heart for David Kramer and the late Taliep Petersen. Both men have had a profound impact on his life. Losing Taliep was especially hard for Loukmaan.
“With Kat and the Kings we started in a caravan and then we were on Broadway. That’s insane. When does that ever happen? We were sort of living their dream.
“When we’re doing these songs, you still feel Taliep’s presence. It’s definitely a legend gone too soon. How do you fill those very big shoes? You can just celebrate the fact that you were part of a certain part of his life. You can only aspire to get where he was at.
“That’s difficult because that was genius. You don’t get that these days.”
* Abarder is the editor of the Cape Argus