Cape Town - Visit any Cape Flats community at this time of year and you’ll hear music in the streets as brass bands and singers practise in halls or on open fields.
It’s a rhythm that has played across the city through many generations. The history behind the melodies we hear today is tragic and inspiring.
January 2 was the one day slaves looked forward to: It was their one day off. This would become the date set for the traditional Tweede Nuwe Jaar Minstrel Carnival. Slaves would visit each other’s homes and celebrate in the streets.
Long after the abolition of slavery in 1834, the Tweede Nuwe Jaar celebrations continued.
It is believed the first minstrel troops were formed in the late 1800s. They walked the streets and sang a variety of songs and moppies – funny Afrikaans ditties sung to make fun of their bosses without them catching on.
Different groups emerged, many influenced by visiting American minstrels. Some say the face-painting was done to conceal their identities from their bosses. Others suggest it was part of the American tradition of minstrels painting their faces black and white to resemble raccoons. This is apparently where the term “coon” came from.
The first formal minstrel carnival was held at the Green Point track in 1907 by the Green Point Cricket Club. More than a decade later, Cape Town Cricket Club held its own carnival in Newlands.
The build-up to the carnival and assembling troupes is steeped in tradition.
The captain chooses the troupe’s colours, which are kept top secret until Guy Fawkes Day, November 5. Then residents see the “lappies” – swatches of fabric with the colours – being hung up in the streets.
Once the colours are up, members of the troupe go from house to house and perform a few songs from their repertoire. They invite people to join the troupe if they like what they hear.
Executive director of the Cape Town Minstrels Carnival Association Richard Stemmet is the captain and owner of one of the top troupes, the Shoprite Pennsylvanians.
The troupe was established in 1932 in District Six. His father, Martin Stemmet, was a member and eventually became captain.
Stemmet was born in 1959, and soon after was part of the parade. There is an old black-and-white photograph of a one-year-old Stemmet in uniform.
“It’s always been part of my life,” he says. He recalls three to four different troupes in one street.
After many decades, the Pennsylvanians closed shop. Stemmet resurrected the troupe in 1989. Today, his children – aged 16, 20, 22, and 28, – either march, sing or play in the band. But new arrivals Santam District Six Entertainers have given them a run for their money.
Troupes are judged for costumes, singing, dancing, and best bands. They are divided into categories according to size. The super league has between 800 and 1 500 members, the premier league troupes have 300 to 600 members, while first-division troupes comprise 100-300 members.
The D6 troupe was started in 2008 by Malick Laattoe and Shaheed Simons. Both are in the super league and are bitter rivals on the field. These two have been the top contenders for most categories in the competitions, which now take place at Athlone Stadium.
Stemmet and Laattoe will attest that it takes a lot of work all year to manage a successful troupe.
All their work eventually pays off on January 2, the traditional date on which the Tweede Nuwe Jaar parade has been held.
This year, however, the event will take place on January 4, to accommodate Muslim visitors and residents who celebrate a holy night on January 2.
“This is the highlight of the year for many people. When we see 1 000 people lined up in the street, in our uniform, and we see them bring smiles to the faces of the community, then we’ve already won,” says Laattoe.
A stitch in time makes Klopse Carnival rhyme
Three basic items make up a minstrel’s uniform: the suit, a hat, and the umbrella. And the deadline for all orders is New Year’s Eve because uniforms are collected on New Year’s Day.
Dorothy Human of Hanover Park is part of an army of seamstresses, tailors and cutters working behind the scenes to make the troupes look their best.
Last year, they worked around the clock to finish on time. They were running on adrenalin when the sun came up. Somehow they met the noon deadline, when troupes started filtering in to collect their uniforms.
“People needed more gear, so we worked right through the night until 11am,” says Human.
Sewing the minstrels’ uniforms is woven into her family’s tradition and she wouldn’t miss being part of it. As a teenager, she too marched in the carnival.
“It’s part of our history. It’s a tradition that we really look forward to each year.”
Desire Layman is a hat setter and examiner. “It takes a lot of hard work, time and effort. And this is crunch time now.”
Most of the minstrels’ panamas come through their factory. Depending on when |the stock arrives, they start |work on the hats in August.
“It doesn’t matter what we do or how many orders there are, we finish on New Year’s Eve,” says Layman.
Seamstress Fatiema Hendricks was brought in specially to help with the minstrel uniforms.
She has more than 40 years of experience, but even she is jittery about the tight deadline they face from behind their sewing machines – the pressure is on to finish the mountain of orders, she says.