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Desert Blooms With Music

Touring musicians play rare songs from South Africa's Karoo region


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The sound is a mix of scratch and soul once strummed on guitars made of oilcans and catgut by shepherds, washerwomen and men walking down roads in search of work.

Only now, when it is in danger of dying out, has the music of the Khoisan--indigenous people of southern Africa--come out of the nooks of South Africa's Karoo Desert and found a national stage.

In South Africa's answer to the Buena Vista Social Club, a group of aging Karoo musicians has embarked on a sold-out national tour, produced a CD and is exploring a documentary and tour abroad.

Audiences have been giving standing ovations to the group's unique tunings, chord shapes, and scratching and picking, which produce a bent, melancholy twang.

On a recent night in one of Johannesburg's premier theaters, a sampling of Karoo Blues players shuffled onto the stage. They are shepherds, retired farm laborers, men who worked on the railroad and women who cleaned homes.

Heads down and hands flying over the guitar strings, the musicians played in a vibrant style merging African cycles and European melodies, mostly borrowed from Dutch settlers, to create a sound that has been compared to Cajun music.

The music's quirky edge sprang from the players' isolation and lack of formal training.

Hans Coetzee, who gathers aloe for a living, developed his talent during the long hours spent alone waiting for aloe plants to drain. With nobody to accompany him on guitar, Coetzee, 58, decided to accompany himself using a spoon in his mouth to play slide guitar while his hands pluck and strum a complementary rhythm on the same instrument.

Another player, Helena Nuwegeld, 75, sings in a raspy, full voice about her brother-in-law, who missed the train to work and stands with a "handful of tears," trying to "raise 12 children with six slices of bread."

She garnered huge applause and laughs for another song about a man's lack of sexual prowess.

The musicians came together at the urging of David Kramer, 51, a South African singer and songwriter who toured the tiny towns that dot the wind-swept plains and low mountain ridges of the Karoo, in western South Africa.

As a young man, Kramer was inspired by the father-son team of folklorists, John and Alan Lomax, who traveled the American South collecting and recording blues and folk songs for the Library of Congress. (Alan Lomax, the son, died this month at age 87.)

Under the racist apartheid regime, the South African government had no interest in exploring nonwhite cultures. In the 1970s, Kramer feared that if he explored black shantytowns with a tape recorder, he would meet the wrath of security police.

"Ach, it was a stupid time," Kramer says, shaking his head. "You were intimidated by the regime.... [The music] has never really been acknowledged up until now. Because of the racism and oppression, it was not considered worthy."

Last year, while working on a documentary about Karoo guitarists for South African television, Kramer took to the back-country roads to find the musicians who helped shaped South Africa's folk music traditions. The result is a CD, "Karoo Kitaar Blues," distributed by JNS Music in Johannesburg. Kramer also plans to make a feature documentary.

He mourns what has been lost: the talented musicians who died without recognition, and the songs that died with them.

"We are seeing the last generation, just an echo of what the music was. It's quite sad," Kramer says.

The musicians speak of children and grandchildren more interested in pop music on the radio than in the sounds picked out on homemade instruments on store porches and in the fields.

The Karoo musicians say no one really taught them how to play. They looked on as an older brother or father played and eventually picked up instruments themselves.

Wearing a worn fedora and speaking with a soft lisp, Coetzee speaks of going to the fields with his homemade "blik" guitar and learning from a shepherd who kept one eye on the guitar, the other on a herd of goats.

Coetzee knew he was good, he says, but the tapes he sent out to the cities were all rejected.

"There was a lot of disappointment," he says. "I feel vindicated now, being able to stand before a large audience and get a good reaction.... At last there is something like real recognition."

His face breaks into a sheepish smile. "I love the attention," he says.

Nuwegeld, stout with a bright red head scarf, grew up in a musical family. She sings with her brother, sister and husband accompanying her on guitar and accordion. She writes some lyrics, improvises others. Her words speak mostly of the harsh life in the Karoo.

"I just think about my life, my parents and their life. I think about how difficult it has been. I think about it and the words just come out of me," Nuwegeld says.

At this recent concert, the audience, made up mostly of white South Africans, responds with wild applause, standing ovations and even some tears.

"They are hungry for it," Kramer says.

The price of neglecting a culture for so many years cuts deep.

"It touches something quite deep inside yourself, the loss of opportunity through oppression," Kramer says. "You think, how could this happen? How could we be part of a process of denial?"

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