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Study shows how Afrikaans music recordings reflect the country’s history
Author: Lynne Rippenaar-Moses
Published: 26/07/2016

"While many researchers who write about South Africa's history view history from a political perspective, my research is an attempt to look at the history from an entirely different perspective. Music offers that other lens. Many people listen to music, and my research shows that there is a link between the music we listen to and the values we hold."

This is the view of Dr Schalk van der Merwe, who is not only a lecturer but also a freelance bass guitar player, on his research on the history of Afrikaans music in South Africa that he did as part of his doctoral thesis in the History Department. Van der Merwe obtained his PhD degree from Stellenbosch University in December last year.

"It was my attempt to look at ordinary people," says Van der Merwe.

His thesis analyses the interaction between political events and popular music, with specific reference to recorded Afrikaans music over the last 115 years. It started with the first recordings of the national folk songs of the Boer republics during the Anglo-Boer War and concluded with expressions of racial exclusivity in post-apartheid Afrikaans pop music. His research provides examples of the support of, and resistance against, the master narrative of Afrikaner nationalism as it existed for large parts of the twentieth century, and also provides examples of how these values still are manifested in the present.

"By using popular music as a lens, a clearer idea could be obtained of the lives of ordinary people, viewed against the background of fundamental social and political change. By creating an overview of popular music over a long historical period, certain noticeable themes in the development of Afrikaner culture over this period – for example class tension and the repeated attempts of cultural nationalistic entrepreneurs to co-opt popular Afrikaans music for the Afrikaner nationalistic project – are exposed," he explains.

The first Afrikaans music recordings, says Van der Merwe, were recorded by musicians who lived in London in the early 1900s. By studying that music he could look at how these artists depicted their identity at that time.

"It was clear from music and correspondence that some of them were stalwart nationalists and also supporters of Hertzog. In my investigation I therefore did not concentrate on what the music sounded like, but at how the political history is reflected across the various decades of recordings. For example, in the thirties there was conflict between record companies that released country music (boeremusiek) records and the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge (FAK; Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Associations) – basically the FAK did not like the country music of the time because they regarded it as inferior. Afrikaners outside the FAK, however, thought very differently of their culture and Afrikaner music," says Van der Merwe.

His research also highlights the power struggle and elitism that developed between Dutch Afrikaners and other Afrikaners in the first decades of the 20th century.

"To make recordings therefore also was a form of nationalism," he says. "For example, there were very strong class elements in the music – there was your country music and then you had the FAK, which had strong nationalistic links to the Broederbond. The only capital that they had as journalists, ministers of religion and teachers was their culture. The FAK therefore was strongly opposed to this other Afrikaans culture of listening to music and dancing and partying. There are even articles on how poor Afrikaners spent their money on records and music!"

Although Van der Merwe's research focuses specifically on Afrikaans music that was recorded by white artists, he explains that Afrikaans music has strong influences from all sides.

"Just as Afrikaans is a fluid and multiracial language with many cultures that influence it, so also is Afrikaans music. The roots of boeremusiek, which has now become such a big white symbol, are not nearly exclusively white. It was just that the coloured artists at the time were not given many chances to record their music.

"Some of the important fathers of country music, such as Hendrik Susan, performed with black jazz musicians such as the Jazz Maniacs in the thirties and he is known as the father of light Afrikaans music," says Van der Merwe.

He adds that kwêla music, for example, became very popular among white musicians after they heard the music style from young, black boys who played their penny whistles to while away the time while they waited for their mothers in the afternoons – women who usually worked as domestic workers in white communities.

In the sixties, Afrikaans music developed a strong European flavour with recordings such as Gé Korsten's Erika. "There was a positioning of Afrikaner culture as something European, as something that was not from Africa."

At the same time very little was sung about the political climate in South Africa, and especially about apartheid, but, says Van der Merwe, "that apparent hegemony had started to unravel, especially after events such as the Soweto uprising in 1976, as well as the arrival of TV in South Africa the same year."

"The border war also had a very big impact on the psyche of white men, and therefore the music of the seventies and eighties started to focus more on such issues."

During the eighties, artists started talking more about the border experience and the deconstruction of the male protector through cabaret and literature, and one also started seeing more of these sentiments in Afrikaans music.

"I think the Voëlvry movement in 1989 was the most acute outburst of this. Before this, David Kramer started projecting a clear message by means of his work, among others also with the late Taliep Petersen."

At the onset of the post-apartheid years in the 1990s there again was a resurgence of Afrikaans music and a growth in music festivals.

Besides playing bass guitar for groups such as Delta Blue and, more recently, Bed on Bricks, Van der Merwe also performs with Karen Zoid on a regular basis (and can be seen in her award-winning TV series Republiek van Zoid-Afrika), and he has also worked with some of South Africa's best-known Afrikaans artists, such as Anton Goosen, Laurika Rauch and Valiant Swart.

"Because I am a musician myself I have worked with many artists in the Afrikaans music industry and therefore know it quite well. The irony is that politics and Afrikaans music now is something that is more prominent among some mainstream artists, and no longer alternatives as in the eighties. The political content also differs completely. Artists such as Steve Hofmeyr, for example, appear regularly in the media in relation to political remarks on Afrikaner identity. His concerts function as culturally homogenous – and exclusive – platforms where people of a particular conviction feel safe to say what they want to say and that cannot necessarily be said in a public space – and that naturally can be problematic."

On his own research and the contribution that it has made to research on the history of Afrikaans music, as well as the impact of his research on current debates on the development of Afrikaans within university environments, Van der Merwe says: "My research offers a critical view on, and is a deconstruction of, the white verstalting of Afrikaans. It is an attempt to show how Afrikaans culture was subjected to a system that wanted to send it in a specific direction.

"I hope it is a history that shows how wide the boundaries are of what it means to be Afrikaans."