A brief overview of concertina music in South Africa
Notes from Stephaan van Zyl, Country Correspondent for South Africa
Attached are some brief notes explaining the ‘lay of the land’ for the concertina today in South Africa, along with some key contacts for visitors to South Africa interested in seeing and hearing Boere music and dance. Boere music is the main setting today for concertina music in the country, and large numbers of South Africans enjoy playing it, both in its traditional and in its more modernized forms.
Traditional Boere Music
Concertinas are traditionally used in so-called “Boere music” (Boeremusiek). The word Boere means “Farmers” and it is a somewhat paternalistic name applied to Afrikaans speaking people of European descent, especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries. So what exactly is this Boere music? It is a question which cannot be answered without a measure of controversy. It could be regarded as accompaniment for social dancing, particularly 19th and early 20th century ballroom dancing. Other kinds of Afrikaans music, like ballads, serenades and other music generally aimed at a passive audience, are typically excluded.
The earliest Boere music was directly imported from Europe, and some of it made a sojourn through the USA. It would be wrong to suggest that the music was brought to this country by the early settlers. Most of it was imported fairly recently, was popular all over the world at the time, but acquired a distinct flavour of its own and remained in vogue locally long after it went out of fashion in the rest of the world. Having said that, one must also bear in mind that a large volume of Boere music was, and still is, being composed, albeit in the same style, by a number of very talented local musicians.
How did it get here? During the heyday of the British Empire, various military bands were stationed all over the then Cape colony, and whenever they were off duty, they hired themselves out for parties, weddings, etc. It didn’t take long for any new popular dance, after it became popular in another part of the Empire, to find its way to the Cape. There the local dance masters were quick to teach the new dance to the locals. From there it would be carried into the hinterland, mutating as it went.
The dances of Boere get-togethers today mostly originated in European ballrooms.
The Waltz. No introduction is needed for this one and it must be the most popular dance of all time all over the world.
Example: Hans Bodenstein and Die Vyf Vastrappers playing Die Fluister Wals (The Whisper Waltz, recorded for Regal/Columbia UK in 1930).
The Schottische (Settees). This particular dance originated in Germany and has nothing to do with Scotland or the Scots. Experts disagree about what the name schottische actually means. Some say that it is an old Northern European word that means “Farmer.” Nevertheless, the schottische remains the second most popular dance after the waltz at every Boere get together.
Example: Faan Harris and Die Vier Transvalers playing the Anna Pop Settees (Anna Pop Schottische, recorded for HMV in 1932).
The Mazourka. Like the waltz, it is in 3/4 time, but slower and with a double beat at the beginning of the bar, at least during the main theme. One has to be very fit to do this dance properly, so most people today merely treat it as another waltz.
The Pas de Quarte. This is a slow dance in 4/4 time in the form of a square dance. This particular dance is not seen any more in these parts, but the music is still being played and it is danced as just another schottische.
Quadrille, Lancers, Cotillion. These so called Set dances have also largely died out but some of the music is still being played for twosteps and polkas.
“Vastrap” Foxtrot, Twostep and Onestep. These dances represent the most “modern” additions to the Boere Dance repertoire. No rules apply and everybody seems to do his or her own thing on the dance floor, regardless of the music.
Example: Hans Bodenstein and Die Vyf Vastrappers playing Barndans met Twee Konsertinas (Barndance with Two Concertinas, recorded for Regal/Columbia UK in 1930).
The Polka. This dance, Bohemian in origin, took the world by storm during the early 19th century. Still quite popular under the more energetic dancers, it is otherwise treated as just another twostep.
Other dances. Many short lived dances, like the Charleston, have come and gone over the years, and are not popular today.
The traditional Boere orchestra (band) today
The concertina was and still is nearly always used within some sort of dance ensemble. The instruments used in Boere dance bands were light and compact so that they could easily transported. It should be borne in mind that musicians sometimes had to traverse vast distances between performances, and more often than not on horseback. That would explain, for example, why the cello instead of the double bass is often heard in older recordings.
The Concertina and other free reed instruments. The concertina is the indispensable lead instrument in almost all Boere groups today. Just about any kind of concertina has been used in Boere Music world at some time or other, from the humble 20-key Anglo to the 81-key duet. Not that other lead instruments were never used! The violin, button accordion and harmonium often had to do the job. The piano accordion has never been very popular, except for the more modern bands; perhaps this had a lot to do with its bulkiness.
Perhaps the most typical concertina played in South Africa today is a 40 button Wheatstone Anglo pitched in C/G. In recent years, however, there has been a small movement back toward the two-row German-style double reeded concertina with its old-style sound, thanks largely to the excellent instruments built today by Danie Labuscagne. Here is an example of its sound; the concertina is pitched in G/D (Stephaan van Zyl and the Oudag Boereorkes (Old Time Boer Orchestra), Oupa se Wals (Grandfather’s Waltz)), recorded 1996.
The Rhythm Guitar. The guitar is perhaps the most important of all accompaniment instruments for the concertina, and a Boere band is almost unimaginable without one. As a matter of fact, many music events were and are made perfectly successful with only a concertina and a guitar.
The Banjo. The banjo is an accompaniment instrument perfected in the USA, and was brought to South Africa by 19th century minstrel groups. A Boere band is seldom without one. It is also very effective as a lead instrument.
The Harmonium. The second most important contribution from the USA after the banjo, few homesteads were without a harmonium during the 19th and early 20th centuries. There were also portable ones available for easy transport and many Boere bands use them to this day.
The Ukelele. Also from the USA, the ukulele was once very popular but is rarely heard today.
The Pianoforte. The piano was used both as accompaniment for the concertina and as a lead instrument, provided, of course, that it was available.
Other instruments. Wind instruments like the clarinet and saxophone were popular for a while. Novelty instruments like the musical saw, Swannee whistle and the Hawaiian guitar also made brief appearances. Percussion instruments have never really caught on. From time to time one heard the washboard, the bones the tamborine, etc. The modern drum set only came in to use with the branching out of the modernised Boere bands. That, of course, is a totally different story into which I shall not venture!
The situation today. In the last couple of decades Boere music has progressively been watered down to 3 basic rhythms, namely a slow twostep, a quick twostep and a waltz. Many an accomplished musician will tell you confidently that he is playing a mazourka without having the foggiest idea what a mazourka sounds like. We in the Traditional Boere Music Club are trying to reverse the trend.
Concertina organizations in South Africa today
There are currently two main movements regarding concertina music in the country.
The first one is the Traditional Boere Music club, or TBK, of which I have been a member for more than 35 years. The TBK concerns itself with the preservation of the particular style and sound of concertina bands from the colonial period approximately up to World War II – before electronics took over, changing the sound, style and atmosphere and just about everything else. The main objectives of the TBK are to republish classic old recordings of Boere music, to encourage and record contemporary Boere music bands, and to organize get-togethers and dances. The club currently consists of about 540 active members locally and abroad. Members are found in the USA, Canada, Australia and Zimbabwe. Members receive a biannual newsletter in which they are kept abreast of activities.
The official webpage of the club is www.boeremusiek.org. It is written in both Afrikaans and English, and has tons of information about the history of Boere music.
An extensive collection of CDs, recordings dating from 1933 to the present day, is available. The person responsible for its care and distribution is Sias Erasmus, email address: email@example.com. His phone number is part of the e mail address.
Some of my favorite concertina players, who appear in these classic recordings, include Faan Harris [leader of the band Die Vier Transvalers] and Hans Bodenstein [Die Vyf Vastrappers] on the 30-key Anglo; Joe Hooneberg [Die Baanbrekers] and Hans la Grange on the English concertina; Tony Waterloo on the duet, and Kerrie Bornman on the 20-key Anglo. This year the club published a 35 year jubilee compilation of everything recorded since the founding of the club. I would strongly recommend acquiring this one, as it is a good sampling of the recordings that the TBK has to offer.
To find out more about current activities, I suggest that people visiting the country who are interested in this music should email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or simply phone me at 082 7770124. Here is the TBKs calendar for countrywide music and dance events for 2017:
The first event in the New Year is on 28 January by the Vaal Triangle branch of the TBK. Address: Eligwa Primary School, in Conan Doyle str, Vanderbijlpark. They will also be getting together on 1 April, 26 August and 28 October.
The West Rand branch will be hosting their events on 4 February, 22 April, 2 September and 4 November. Address: Witpoortjie centre, Roodepoort.
Events for the East Rand branch: 25 February, 30 September and 25 November. Address: Centenary Hall, corner of Trichardt and 4th Street.
Events for the Pretoria branch will occur on 4 March, 25 May, 5 August, and 9 December.
The Boere Music Guild (Boeremusiekgilde)
The second group of concertina enthusiasts is that of the Boere Music Guild, founded some years after the TBK. They operate pretty much without any restrictions, embracing all trends and genres. Their website, www.boeremusiekgilde.co.za, states
“It is our mission as a cultural organization to preserve, promote and manage our cultural music with a national identity in the true Boeremusic idiom and to develop dynamically, in order to keep up with changing times and to modernise without jeopardising the historic flavour or basis thereof.”
The Boere Music Guild’s national chairman is Willie Mynhardt, who can be contacted at Willie.Mynhardt@telkomsa.net. The Guild, like the TBK, has branches all over the country. As far as I know, their program for 2017 isn’t available yet. I will keep the Concertina Journal up to date as soon as these events become known.
Other Boere music events
Apart from the TBK and the Guild, there will also be private events during the year and they will also be mentioned as I find out about them.