David Kramer's KALAHARI KAROO BLUES is a follow up to his KAROO KITAAR BLUES concert series of a decade or so ago, which brought together on stage a group of folk musicians to play instruments and perform songs, documenting the cultural history of the marginalised peoples of the semi-desert Karoo region of South Africa. This time, Kramer extends the geographical range from which these musicians are drawn, bringing to the stage an eclectic group of folk musicians and singers who together make magic on stage simply by sharing the music that forms an integral part of their individual and collective identities.
In this edition, Kramer shares the stage with five musicians, supported onstage by a fantastic band (Gammie Lakay and Howard Links on guitars and Wildrew Maya on drums) and the Sonskynsusters (Ruth Hector and Elspeth Davids, who sing backup vocals and play percussion). The value of the band's contribution to this show cannot be underestimated. They are skilled musicians and dedicated ensemble players, as are the Sonskynsusters. And when Hector is given the opportunity to sing a Kramer original, "Calvinia", written as a tribute to Helena Nuwegeld (one of the participants of KAROO KITAAR BLUES who has sadly passed away), she delivers what may be the single most moving performance of the evening.
Kramer himself acts as a sort of emcee-cum-conductor, engaging the audience with fascinating details about the instruments onstage and anecdotes about the various performers, each of whom has their moment in the spotlight as the evening progresses.
In the first half, Hannes Coetzee displays a style of playing that Kramer calls 'optel en knyp,' singing and dancing his way into the audience's hearts with his effusive spirit and generous nature. Later in the evening, Coetzee mesmerises the audience with the technique that made him a YouTube sensation, using a teaspoon in his mouth to play slide guitar. When he gets together with Oteng Piet and and the trio jams to "Lekker Ou Jan," you truly realise the power that music has to transcend the boundaries of language and to unite people with vastly different life experiences.
Piet himself plays a unique, one-stringed one stringed known as the segaba, while Barolong's instrument of choice is a handmade fenjoro violin. It is in introducing these two musicians and their instruments that Kramer makes one of the most salient points of the evening's entertainment, that these instruments are not simply attempts to recreate instruments from Europe, but instruments that evolved as a part of cultural expressions across the Southern African region. Also appearing onstage is Ronnie Moipolai, who plays the guitar upside down, using a technique known as "katara". The press release for this show says that his playing 'has to be seen to be believed' and when he takes centre stage, Moipolai is astounding. Jaw-dropping stuff.
The last of the featured artists is Mary Kriel, a folksinger from Vredendal, who accompanies herself on a coffee tin. Whether she is singing her own songs or enjoying the others' music from the sidelines, she is delightful and enchanting, completely in her element when immersed by the music that surrounds her.
During the performance of KALAHARI KAROO BLUES, the thing that occurred to me time and again was how vulnerable the act of performance makes the performer. These musicians are sharing with the audience the thing that defines their lives. When the Piet, Barolong and Moipolai had some trouble tuning their instruments when they wanted to play together, you could sense how high the stakes were for them. It is that kind of emotional truth and depth that is at the heart of what is expressed in this concert and what makes KALAHARI KAROO BLUES a must-see. Get there before it closes next Saturday.
KALAHARI KAROO BLUES will be performed at the Baxter Theatre until 19 January. Tickets can be booked at Computicket.
Photo credit: Jesse Kate Kramer