Less than twenty-four hours after arriving in Cape Town, South Africa, I was hanging out with the Pennsylvanian Crooning Minstrels, one of the city's best known carnival troupes. The Pennsylvanians are one of the troupes I've gotten to know best, while working on my book One Love, Ghoema Beat: Inside the Cape Town Carnival (to be published in May 2010 by Random House Struik and the University of Virginia Press). It was January 1st, the day the marks the official beginning of the New Year's Carnival.
(All photos copyright John Edwin Mason, 2010. Click directly on any of the images to see larger versions.)
Even though preparations have been underway for months, Carnival doesn't begin until the members of Cape Town's more than 60 minstrel troupes put on their new uniforms -- and display their new colors -- for the first time. And that doesn't happen until the first day of the new year.
There's both excitement and warmth in the Pennsylvanians' klopskamer [clubhouse]. The excitement comes from the fact that Carnival -- several weeks of fun, frenzy, and intense inter-troupe competitions -- is about to begin. The warmth comes from the joy of being in the presence of old .
Especially on January 1st, when the uniforms are fresh and dazzling, troupe members look awfully sharp.
Most troupes have their own band (a few hire one to play for them). The Pennsylvanians' band is one of the best. A few members are professional musicians. Many are local youth who play instruments that the troupe furnishes and receive instruction free of charge.
Carnival music is ghoema, and it sounds like nothing you've ever heard before (unless, of course, you're from Cape Town). It's a musical stew that draws on a variety of influences, all connected to Cape Town's history.
One of the influences on the sound of ghoema was American blackface minstrelsy. In the late nineteenth century, American minstrels, both black and white, visited South Africa and were hugely popular. The banjos that are a traditional part of the troupes' bands, and which give help to give them their distinctive sound, come directly from minstrelsy.
It's the rhythms of ghoema that are its most distinctive element. They're an amalgamation of beats from Asia, Africa, Europe, and America, as well as those invented in Cape Town.
The Asian and African rhythms came to Cape Town via slavery. During the Dutch and British colonial eras, slaves from those regions worked on farms and in cities and towns for white settlers. Most troupe members are the descendants of the slaves. In fact, Carnival is rooted in nineteenth-century commemorations of the end of slavery.
Nobody sits still, once the ghoema begins.
On this day, the troupe was on its way to a stadium for the first of several inter-troupe competitions.
But, first, they marched through Hanover Park. It's a long standing tradition for troupes to "to give the folks a show," as the members say, on their way to the buses that will take them to the stadiums.
You can find out more about Carnival by clicking here or on the Cape Town New Year's Carnival FAQ over on the right, near the top of the page.
You can see more of my Carnival photos here or by clicking on the gallery link at the very top of the page.