Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Three Batswana charm in Cape Town’s Kalahari Karoo Blues

A YouTube clip of Batswana musicians lit the spark for Kalahari Karoo Blues, a variation of Kalahari Kitaar Blues, a show by David Kramer that ran at the Baxter, Cape Town, from January 15 to 19.

The original show, Kalahari Kitaar Blues, was an offshoot of a documentary TV series about South Africa’s indigenous music.

The clip, mistakenly titled ‘Botswana woman playing guitar’, featured Ronnie Moipolai, a musician known for an upside-down left-hand guitar styling and a unique bass-string technique.

“Like millions of people around the world, I was fascinated by this man’s playing style,” Kramer told the Cape Argus. “He’s not a woman, he’s just got a doek on his head and they just mistook him.”

Kramer tracked down Moipolai through ceaseless efforts, including contact with John Vollebrecht, the Dutch man who posted the YouTube clip. What followed was an invitation of three musicians from Botswana ÔÇô Moipolai, Bapsi Barolong who is a box violin player, and Oteng Piet, a bow player (a segaba), to perform with Kramer at Baxter.

This performance harked back to Karoo Kitaar Blues in the sense that “in the three-stringed violin and the tin can violin, the sound of those instruments is all the same,” says Kramer.

Most of the musicians who performed in Kalahari Kitaar Blues have died. In their place, the three Batswana lit up Baxter with their performances on Kalahari Karoo Blues.

This story was picked up by The Telegraph when Vollebrecht, who posted the YouTube clip, came to the newspaper to tell the story and provide pictures of the show.

The tradition of riel dancing which accompanies the Karoo blues style, has not been lost on Botswana which has a strong folklore tradition, Kramer says.

“Ronnie is part of the troubadour tradition,” says Kramer. “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.”

Kramer has dubbed the music style Karoo blues because that’s how guitarist Tokas Lodewyk described it. While not exactly the blues of America, he reckons it carries the same heartache. Like traditional American blues, the subject matter is dark and echoes pain but the music itself is essentially African with three-chord cyclic patterns.

“I can hear things in melodic riffs or chords and patterns and how they use them and why things group together,” Kramer says. “What struck me is the harsh sound the instruments make.”

He picks a thread of commonality between Oteng Piet’s playing of the segaba, which has an old rusty tin can as a resonator, and the ramkie and the violins which also have tin cans as resonators.

Fondling the segaba like a lover, Piet sings in rhythmic Setswana, harmonizing effortlessly with the quivering notes.  The song modulates into a quaint chat as he converses with his segaba, which responds fluently beneath his plying fingers.

Piet joined Moipolai, Hannes Coetzee, Babsi Barolong, Mary Kriel and The Sonskkyn Susters on stage at the Baxter.

A first-time performer in Cape Town, Piet hopes that through Kalahari Karoo Blues, word of his music prowess will spread.

An urban ear would probably dismiss the music, finding it crude and an attempt to ape something Western, Kramer says. But it is an entertaining blend of beautiful music and peculiar humour that is a delight to watch.


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