When I heard the news I mentally high-fived the music gods. Arno Carstens and Francois van Coke performing live together – two generations of great music on one stage. My curiosity got the better of me and I insisted on attending a rehearsal to see them at work.
A few days before we had met at the Biscuit Mill in Cape Town for a photo shoot. Carstens was playing patient Daddy, following his agile two-year-old son around, while van Coke worked on his computer.
Both dressed in black and looking every bit the rock stars they are, the two cut cool figures against a stark white background for the shoot. They were clearly enjoying each other’s company and being in front of the camera, as if they were meant to be in a band together.
But it was the rehearsal I was really looking forward to. Would it live up to its potential?
Van Coke arrives first and mutters something about a braai at his spot the previous night that turned into a tequila braai.
So how did the collaboration come about? “There was a comedy show and Arno and I had acoustic guitars. The organiser, Rob Nel, asked us to do a song together, which sparked the idea.”
The pair put a few shows together which sold out almost immediately. That was last year. Now they have extended the idea to include covers of some of their favourite South African songs. When Van Coke gives me the list of covers I immediately recognise Carstens’s choice – Battery 9’s Kom Hier and Sugardrive’s Disco Lazarus. They were the two bands he was particularly close to over the years.
Van Coke’s choices include Johnny is nie Dood nie by Koos Kombuis and a new track by Karen Zoid. Then, of course, the show will also include songs by the Springbok Nude Girls, Carstens’s solo career, Fokof-polisiekar and Van Coke Kartel.
Their CVs are impressive. Carstens has released 10 studio albums, won five South African Music Awards (Samas) and played at international music festivals including Isle of Wight, T in the Park and Glastonbury.
Van Coke’s 10-year career includes seven full-length albums, three EPs, three Samas and multiple MK Awards. He has collaborated with Seether, Jack Parow and Die Heuwels Fantasties.
Carstens arrives with paint splattered on his left shoe because of his foray again into fine art. As they set up, I ask the pair what their first memory is of each other.
“Mine was watching you at Tempos,” recalls Carstens, smiling at Van Coke. “I think you almost fell off the stage.”
“Almost?” asks Van Coke.
“Well, part of you fell off the stage. I think the contents of your stomach fell off stage. It was very impressive.”
“We first met at Oppikoppi in 2004 at the top bar and I thought Arno was crazy,” says Van Coke.
“But I was a massive Springbok Nudie fan. I remember seeing them at the Bandslam and at Wingerdstok in 1996. We’ve had mutual respect for each other over the years.”
The format of the band is the two of them on vocals and acoustic guitar with Van Coke Kartel’s Jedd Kossew on his magical electric guitar and Carstens’ Gus Warden on drums.
Carstens takes out lyrics from a plastic folder.
“Yeah, it took me about three weeks to learn them. Battery 9 has a lot of lyrics,” he says as he spreads them on the floor.
Van Coke starts the first song. Kossew comes in effortlessly. They end up doing the song over. Carstens stares intently at Van Coke, trying to follow the words. The second time the contrast between Van Coke’s higher, strained voice with the deep resonance of Carstens’s is noticeable.
The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable. I can’t help wondering, ‘if these two were the same age, just what would have happened back in the day?’ The Nudies changed every-thing when they burst on to the scene with Neanderthal One in 1994. Their music was unique, challenging with heavy guitars, but a strong sense of uncompromising pop music.
Our democracy was brand-new and South African rock music was in uncharted territory. Ten years later, when the cracks were beginning to show in the Nudies’ rock ’n’ roll life-style, Fokofpolisiekar took up the baton and changed the game. Never had such viciously honest and irreverent music been made in Afrikaans. Revolutionary visionaries, the pair of them.
But perhaps they were only supposed to work together now in 2014, both settled, married and a lot less wild.
“What do you think, Arno Carstens?” Van Coke repeats himself: “What do you think, Arno Carstens?”
He turns to me: “What I must stress in this interview is that I like Arno to remember he is Arno Carstens.”
Replies Carstens: “Maar nie te veel nie en nie te min nie.”
The rehearsal moves on, the energy moves up. Then they do Blue Eyes and I melt. A-ha. Here is the chemistry I expected. While Van Coke is passionate, Carstens is reserved. Their harmonies on that tragic chorus: ’Round about, ’round about, ’round about now, sorry to say, the others didn’t make it, are so beautiful I have tears from a mixture of nostalgia and brave new wonder.
It is ’round about then that I choose to leave, it’s all a bit too much of an emotional experience. Carstens looks up: “But I wanted you to hear Kom Hier and Disco Lazarus.”
Oh, there is no ways I am missing these shows. This is the history of our music and country. Not to be outdone, Van Coke jokes: “Yeah, I was enjoying playing to such a small audience.”
Tour dates for Arno Carstens and Francois van Coke’s 20 Years of SA Rock:
April 3: Club Al Capone, Oudtshoorn, Western Cape. Book at Computicket.
April 13: Barnyard Theatre, Cresta, Gauteng. Book at 011 478 5300.
April 14: Barnyard Theatre, Boksburg, Gauteng. Book at
011 823 6933.
April 18: Grant Erskine Marquee, Splashy Fen, KZN. Book at Computicket.
April 27: Barnyard Theatre, Willowbridge, Western Cape. Book at 021 914 8898.
April 28: Barnyard Theatre, Gateway, KZN. Book at 031 566 3045.
May 7: Klein Libertas Theatre, Stellenbosch, Western Cape.
Tickets at Ticketweb.
May 11: Barnyard Theatre, Parkview, Gauteng. Book at 012 368 1555.
May 12: Barnyard Theatre, Rivonia, Gauteng. Book at 011 234 2033.
July 10: Guy Butler Theatre, Monument, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape. Book at www.nationalarts festival.co.za from next month.