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Kramer pulls strings for the blues

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cz Kalahari Kitaar Blues

From left to right: Bapsi Barolong, David Kramer and Ronnie Moipolai

DAVID Kramer’s latest show – Kalahari Karoo Blues – is a deliberate variation on the show he did 10 years ago.

That production was so successful that people still ask him when he’s going to bring it back – a physical impossibility since most of those musicians have since died.

But, the music style has not, which is something Kramer is very keen to showcase.

More than a decade ago Jan Horn was making a documentary tv series about the indigenous music of South Africa and invited Kramer along – which is how he met the musicians who went on to perform in Karoo Kitaar Blues.

This time around, it’s a Youtube clip of a Botswanan musician that started the ball rolling.

“Like millions of people around the world, I was just fascinated by this man’s playing style. He’s not a woman, he’s just got a doek on his head and they just mistook him,” Kramer explained about the original clip titled Botswana woman playing guitar.

Kramer decided to track down musician Ronnie Moipolai using the same technique as last time – while working on the documentary it was a case of going to small towns and asking people to point out the musicians.

“So Rene and I just jumped into our motorcar. We thought, ‘let’s see if we can find him’. That was about two years ago. We were a bit naive about that. Gabarone turned out to be a much bigger place than I’d imagined. I thought it would be a small town and it turned out to look a bit like Sandton.”

The Kramers quickly discovered that the same rules did not apply and were sent from a butcher shop to a café in Kopong (apparently Moipolai’s home town) with no luck, until he stumbled across a wake where he was put into contact with someone who knew someone.

“Eventually I ended up with this chap’s younger brother and apparently where they lived. This kid could speak a little English and he told me: ‘Ronnie does live here, but he’s gone to Gabarone,’ and he didn’t know where he would be. So we had to give up on that one and came back home.”

Kramer persisted and kept on e-mailing the man who had posted the Youtube clip, who was still posting clips of some interesting musicians. Eight months down the line he received a response, the two started corresponding and last year Kramer flew to Botswana to meet some of the musicians.

He’s now invited three musicians from Botswana – a box violin player, bow player (a segaba), Oteng Piet, and Moipolai the guitar player – to perform with him at the Baxter.

“All of that connects to the Karoo Kitaar Blues in that the three-stringed violin and the tin can violin, the sound of those instruments is all the same.”

It has become apparent to Kramer that the tradition of riel dancing – to which the Karoo blues style is an accompaniment – has not been lost in Botswana, which seems to him to have a very strong folkloric tradition.

“They have dance competitions and weekends where these guys play and it’s quite lively and active.

“Ronnie, the guitar player I’m bringing, is part of another tradition, which is the troubadour tradition. He goes to shebeens and then if they want him to make some music, they have to pay him five pula and he’ll play a song.”

While he is not a professional researcher, Kramer has drawn some interesting conclusions about the music: “I can hear things in melodic riffs or chords and patterns and how they use them and why things group together.”

He calls the music style Karoo blues because that’s how guitarist Tokas Lodewyk described it and while it may not be exactly like blues out of America, it does still carry the same heartache.

The music is rooted in old Afrikaans folk songs, which is how musicians like the Mouers family will do various songs by taking old music and turning them into their own stories.

While the subject matter is dark and painful – just like the traditional American blues – the music itself is African with the three-chord cyclic patterns.

“So it’s interesting to listen to the three-string blik ramkie viool, the Kammiesberge has got exactly the same sound as this guy Babsi Motlogelwa (who plays the box violin) up in the Kalahari and it’s essentially the same idea.

“What struck me is that it’s this very harsh sound that these instruments make. What’s common to it, this guy who plays the segaba has an old rusty tin can as the resonator and the ramkie and the violins these days also have tin cans as resonators, so it gives you this hard, harsh sound… it sounds like a windpomp, it’s very cyclic.

“Maybe an urban ear would find they don’t like it and dismiss it because they think of it as a crude attempt to copy something Western.

“I don’t think its that at all, it’s very much this is the sound. These guys are looking for this sound. Those buzzers, you know those botteldoppies that resonate on a calabash, it’s all part of the same thing.

“In music production, people create a certain kind of sound. We have to acknowledge that’s what happens within certain listening communities,there’s a certain sound that people like.

“So, often I think that people with an academic perspective, like when Kirby wrote about this kind of stuff, they assumed these violins were an attempt to copy the European violin. I don’t think that’s what was happening. I think it’s an evolution out of other kinds of stringed instruments.

“I’ve got a drawing of the 18th century explorer Francois le Vaillant with a three-stringed instrument that was played by the Hottentots at that time. This was before violins had arrived in Namakwaland, so there is evidence that this stuff existed.

“And that is potentially what is driving this concert; it’s about showcasing very different styles of musicianship which are indigenous and not Appalachian, or drawing on an outside influence. It’s to say there is also interesting music here and it doesn’t only come from out there.”

• Kalahari Karoo Blues is at the Baxter until January 19. R110 to R160 at Computicket.


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