Historian and professional photographer Professor John Edwin Mason (University of Virginia/Charlottesville, USA) visited Cape Town in March 2012 to give a historically revealing pictorial presentation of his experience delving inside the Cape Town Carnival bands. Carol Martin interviews him.
Carol Martin (CM): John, you are an American historian who specializes in African History. What made you so interested in the Cape klopse music?
Professor John Edwin Masters (JM): I’ve been coming to South Africa for about 20 years now, and was always particularly interested in how the jazz genre evolved here. But in Cape Town, there was a different tradition of jazz influenced by the ghoema sound. I had no idea what this sound was until Zane Ibrahim at Bush Radio tuned me onto some live rehearsals of a klopse band, the Pennsylvanians. They invited me to play with them, which I did. But that didn’t last long because I simply couldn’t get that beat! So I brought my camera on subsequent trips! This was fun, I discovered. My hobby as a photographer came to light.
CM: You mean it wasn’t just the Ghoema beat, but the fanfare?
JM: yes. as a french horn player in the classical tradition, the klopse stomp was too much for me! But I loved it! Then I met Mac McKensie who took me off to see rehearsals in the klopskamers of the klopse bands which were preparing for the January Carnival events. The color and pageantry of these marching bands became a photographic delight!
CM: Did you see any connections of ghoema with the African American musical traditions?
JM: Oh yes! I heard in ghoema many notable poly-rhythms from Africa, the Caribbean, and the American slave traditions. Remember, various commercial and even military ships from North America carried African American seamen as early as the late 1890s and early 1900s, many who `jumped ship’ and chose to stay in the Cape, rather than return home. As more came in later decades, they helped to influence the local `Coloured’ and Malay music of the day, with vinyl albums they had brought with them.
CM: Weren’t there Black American church bands that came to South Africa, too?
JM: In the US, it was the Fisk Jubilee Singers that toured Europe. Then, Orpheus Macadoo was the first Minister with the Virginia Jubilee band in the late 1890s that came to South Africa. This band picked up and influenced rhythms and melodies from the local klopse.
As John says in his book, “Ghoema is a drum, a pulse and, some would say, a way of life”. As long as it sustains its heritage, it will continue to live and thrive with young and old!