As a white child growing up in South Africa, the rigours of Apartheid were an intricate part of life that went unquestioned. Such acceptance of things as they were allowed me to enjoy the diversity of cultures. My country’s immense beauty and contrast sat within a political framework I would later find too burdensome to live under; but until that awakening I was a part of every vibe and surge of the land; it pulsed in my veins and throbbed with a truculent energy.
The canvas of an African childhood is colour-splashed with hues of wild game at waterholes; burnt summers that arrived on heat waves from across the deserts; the choking sensation of air so thick, dry and hot one could barely breathe. Reminiscences of summer holidays, white sandy beaches, trips to the bioskoop (cinema), the Boswell and Wilkie circus, giving and receiving Christmas gifts, relaxed discipline, even more relaxed rules, late nights, and then there was Coon Carnival.
When I was a child the minstrel festival, which still takes place in Cape Town, South Africa, was known as the Coon Carnival and takes place on 2 January. It is also known as Die Kaapse Klopse – translated literally as The Cape Clubs – and Tweede Nuwe Jaar (Second New Year). American Coon songs were introduced to the Cape by sailors and musicians in the early 19th century and the Cape Coloureds were quick to change the style and make it their own. In time the flavours of their culture became creolised as their music included African American, Mexican and West Indian inspirations.
In recent times the Cape authorities have renamed the festival the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival as tourists find the term ‘coon’ derogatory.
Sitting with the audience of thousands we could hear, above spectator noise, the sounds of minstrel bands as they practiced their repertoires of music and dance. Decked out in brightly-coloured silk suits, hats and white face paint – wielding colourful parasols while singing, they plucked on banjos and played an array of other instruments. The Cape Coloured minstrel bands took to the streets of Cape Town on their way to Green Point Stadium each year.
I felt the privilege of being entertained by and celebrating with the Cape Coloured communities of Cape Town in their annual festival. We sat ready to witness this battle.
Seated under a cloudless African sky the hullabaloo from behind the scenes was audible but soon silenced as the sound system pounced into action, screeching so we had to cover our ears.
“Testing, testing,” said the compere into the microphone.
The compere’s voice boomed over the speakers inviting the audience to welcome in the first troupe of minstrels. We cheered but it was not enough to entice the first group out of the gates. We cheered and clapped – still not enough said the minstrels. We cheered, clapped and stamped our feet, the noise was deafening, but it wasn’t enough.
‘You’re going to have to do better than that to get the first group out into the arena,” said the compere. “They have worked hard this year and their costumes are the most spectacular we’ve seen yet. They deserve the best you’ve got.”
We cheered, clapped, stood and stomped our feet – pandemonium. We gave them the best of what we had and were rewarded when the first troupe exploded into the stadium led by the band leader. He strode into the arena swinging and throwing his baton high in the air. Dixie music filled the air and the crowd clapped out the beat. With each skyward fling of the baton the agile troupe leader cart-wheeled and somersaulted before catching the plummeting missile and moving his troupe forward. The crowd erupted in appreciation.
As each group was announced they made their entrance with more fanfare than the last. We sat spellbound as one group after another entered the stadium with athletic antics, music and humorous audience interaction. People were called out from the crowd to become a member of a troupe for a round of the stadium. I longed to be chosen but every time I jumped from my seat, my mother’s restraining elbow sat me down again.
The romantic band names hinted at the faraway places I had read about. The Dixies, the Young Tycoons, the Beverley Hills, the District Six Black and White Minstrels, the Troubadours. The teams or ‘Klopse’ (Clubs) were here to compete against each other. The judging was rigourous and covered all aspects of the bands: team spirit, music compilation, humour, dress and crowd interaction. The generous prize money ensured the winning troupe a healthy starting budget for next year.
Each band wore colourful uniforms from which no gold or silver flourish had been omitted. Clutching banjos, ukuleles and guitars they sang Afrikaans songs as they made their way around the grounds to the cheers of onlookers. My senses feasted on the dynamic parade of colours, I laughed at the humour and sang along to well known Afrikaans songs that invited audience participation.
Unlike American minstrels who blackened their white faces, the Cape Coloureds reversed this and whitened their dark skinned faces stamping their individuality on the international minstrel theme.
Across the stadium from our seats sat communities of Black Africans, Coloureds and Indians, segregated from us Whities. Those communities were equally absorbed in the festivities; they too had come to celebrate a section of their community which, while there might have been animosity during the year, on this one day they were prepared to enjoy the entertainment.
I sat mesmerized as the pageant folded and a culture loaded with colour and life passed before me. The laws of the land may have kept us separated but my inexpressible joy was twined with these revellers. While my mother was alive we attended Coon Carnival each year we holidayed in the Cape where her family lived.
We might have been segregated by colour and class as we sat in the stadium but we were united in spirit.