Kids play football in the narrow street, teenagers hang around in groups on the corner, and from a door of the brightly painted Marion Institute in Zonnebloem spill the sounds of men singing.
It is a Sunday evening in October. The end of the year is still two months away and yet a core group of the V&A Minstrels has been practising every Sunday evening since August – in preparation for Tweede Nuwe Jaar and the minstrel competitions that follow. They are one of the more than 70 troupes active all over the city – most in the Cape Flats – who are busy rehearsing for the January celebrations.
“For some people it is rugby, for others cricket,” explains Hardy Dollie, who heads up the V&A Minstrels. “For others, this – singing – is their sport.”
Hardy, who joined in his first carnival at the age of seven, speaks of the tradition with a great fondness. He explains that the V&A Minstrels – in existence since 2007 – were established in an attempt to keep the traditions of the carnival alive.
For the V&A Minstrels, it is not just about winning competitions. Hardy is quick to point out that while the coach is paid – all coaches are – they don’t pay anyone to sing, and members of the community who can sew are employed to make the costumes. While some turn running a troupe into a profitable enterprise, Hardy explains that for those without a sponsor it can end up becoming very expensive. The basics – transport costs, practice hall and coach hire, and costumes – can set you back at least R200 000. And yet, despite this and the fact that the V&A Minstrels no longer have a sponsor, Hardy admits that they will probably give away a few costumes for free or at a discounted rate so that everyone who wants to participate can do so.
“It is about keeping the traditions going and about keeping the kids off the streets,” says Hardy. “It gets everyone together and that is the beauty of the thing.”
There is something rather beautiful about the informal, social nature of the practice session. Between songs, the men break up into smaller groups; at the back of the small hall, friends sit on plastic chairs chatting; and there is an almost constant flow of people in and out of the hall.
While there are only about thirty people at this practice session – most of them men who have long since left their youth in the past – Hardy explains that, come New Year, the troupe’s numbers will swell to 600, of which between 70 and 100 will be youths. A younger man with two small daughters walks into the hall at that moment, as if to prove Hardy’s point.
When you watch the troupes marching through Cape Town on 2 January, you might not see the months of practice that have made this carnival possible. But in this small and slightly worn hall, you see it all – the love, the dedication, the community ownership that ensures Cape Town’s carnival is passed from one generation to the next for over a century.
The rich timbre of a sentimental fills the hall, and Hardy shrugs: “Hmm… it’s a bit rough around the edges. It still needs a lot of work.”
Got goema? What music has to do with emancipation
Did you know that Tweede Nuwe Jaar is closely connected with the history of slavery in Cape Town? Under slavery, some wealthier households had their own orchestras or slave bands who would play popular European dance music of the time. These bands would also play music inherited from Indonesia (many slaves in South Africa were originally from Dutch Batavia), Angola, Mozambique and the local Khoi. These would eventually fuse into goema – the base sound of the Kaapse Klopse carnival. In the early 1800s, bands would parade in the streets and visit friends on the day after New Year’s Day (Tweede Nuwe Jaar) – the one day slaves were given off every year – playing goema music. On Emancipation Day – 1 December 1834 – freed slaves paraded through the streets of Cape Town accompanied by bands of musicians.
Your guide to the goema and the glitter
When watching the Kaapse Klopse march through town, here’s what to keep in mind:
Spirit and size matters
The troupes are made up of a core group – those who attend practice sessions throughout the year – and those who pitch up on the day, buy a uniform, and march with the troupe. Smaller troupes have between 200 and 300 members, but larger troupes can have as many as 1 000 members. Membership is open to men, women, and children.
Troupes dress for success
There is a prize for the best dressed troupe. The costumes need to change colour from one year to the next, but are always made from satin, and the style remains the same – trousers, suit jacket, and an umbrella.
Not everyone wants to be a minstrel
If you look carefully among the minstrels, you might catch sight of one or two slightly unorthodox figures – “moffie” and “atjas”. “Moffie” is a male character dressed up in women’s clothing. While some may see this as homophobic, the name “moffie” suggests a light-hearted acceptance of cross-dressing. “Atjas” – or Apache Indian – who is sometimes accompanied by devils in red costumes, wields a tomahawk, wears a scary mask and yells war cries. His role in the festival is to chase and frighten spectators, particularly children.
The parade is only part of the action
The Kaapse Klopse will parade through Cape Town, from District Six to the Bo-Kaap, at midday on 2 January 2012, starting at Keizergracht Street, moving down Darling, into Adderley and then Wale as far as Bree Street. What many Capetonians do not realise, however, is that the parade forms only a small part of the New Year’s festival, which begins with the nagtroepers (Malay Choirs) walking through central Cape Town on New Year’s Eve – usually dressed in tracksuits – singing songs. Following the Tweede Nuwe Jaar parade, the klopse will converge in stadiums for the competitions.
Where to watch
Grab your spot in the shade where Adderley turns into Wale – at the opening to the Company’s Garden and on the stairs of St George’s Cathedral. The crypt below the cathedral contains your closest coffee spot.
This article first appeared in the December/January issue of City Views: Cape Town as an unexpected city
Words: Rebekah Kendal
Image: Cape Town Tourism