Update, 12 May 2010: My new book, One Love, Ghoema Beat: Inside the Cape Town Carnival, is now available in South Africa (where it's published by Random House Struik). Ask for it at any bookstore. It will soon be available in North America, as well (where the University of Virginia Press is the publisher). It's a bright, colorful, and informative look behind the scenes of the Cape Town New Year's Carnival. You can see an audio/video preview, here.
Q1. What is the Cape Town New Year’s Carnival?
The New Year’s Carnival is a multifaceted celebration of life, rite of renewal, and festival of music, involving minstrel troupes, Malay choirs, and Christmas bands.
The most visible aspects of the Carnival are (1) the night march by Malay choirs [nagtroepeor night troupes] through central Cape Town, on New Year’s Eve; (2) the minstrel troupes’ parade along the same route, on the 2nd of January [die Tweede Nuwe Jaar or the Second New Year]; and (3) the competitions between troupes, choirs, and bands that draw many thousands of spectators to stadiums and auditoriums during the months of January, February, and March.
Many outsiders think that the minstrel troupes’ Tweede Nuwe Jaar parade through the city is the only major Carnival event. It’s not. But it is by far the largest and most spectacular.
The Carnival also has a less public side that involves street marches through the neighborhoods from which the troupes, choirs, and bands draw their members.
In many ways, the Cape Town New Year’s Carnival is similar to Carnivale, in Rio de Janeiro, and Mardi Gras, in New Orleans. Unlike those events, however, it’s not tied to the Christian calendar. It isn’t, that is, a pre-Lenten festival. As I explain below, it owes its timing to Emancipation Day–the day on which the slaves were freed in South Africa, in the 1830s--and, of course, to the birth of the New Year.
Minstrel troupes are clubs [klopse] created by people who love Carnival and its traditions. Troupe members participate in various ways–in the bands and choirs, as part of the marching teams, as dancers, and as ordinary members, carrying umbrellas and jolling through the streets. Membership is open to men and women and boys and girls. Members of the various troupes wear colorful uniforms that are specific to each troupe.
Malay choirs are also clubs of a sort. They take their name from a eighteenth-century colonial term, "Malay," that was applied to one segment of the Cape Town population--slaves and political exiles brought to South Africa from what is now Malaysia and Indonesia by the Dutch East India Company. Male descendants of "Malays" make up a substantial proportion of the choirs’ membership. The choirs perform a variety of songs that range from old Dutch folk songs to comic songs [moppies] to American pop songs. The sound of the choirs reveals the influence of Asian and Islamic singing styles. The choirs are accompanied by instrumentalists playing guitars, mandolins, banjos, the traditional ghoema drum, and sometimes other stringed instruments. When the choirs march through central Cape Town on New Year’s Eve, wearing track suits, they’re referred to as nagtroepeor night troupes. When they appear on stage in competition, wearing sober suits and ties, they resume their identity as Malay choirs. Many members of the minstrel troupe choirs are also members of Malay choirs.
Christmas bands (sometimes called Christmas choirs) are composed of brass and wind instruments and perform a repertoire that’s based on hymns, marches, and Christmas carols. On Christmas Eve, they march through the neighborhoods in which they’re based, stopping to play at homes to which they’ve been invited. These Christmas Eve marches can be seen as the opening of each year’s Carnival. Early in the new year, they compete against each other in stadiums scattered across the Cape Town region. Membership is open to both sexes and all ages. Like the Malay choirs, they dress in suits and ties. Members of minstrel troupe bands often join Christmas bands as well.
Q3. What other names is the Cape Town New Year’s Carnival known by?
It’s sometimes called the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival and the Cape Town Coon Carnival.
Objections can be raised to both of these alternative names. While the term "Coon" has long been commonly used in South Africa by members of the minstrel troupes and by outsiders, it was borrowed from the United States, where it is a derogatory term for African-American. Even though the word does not carry racist implications in South Africa, many people associated with the Carnival avoid its use, preferring to use "minstrel" or the Afrikaans term "klops" instead.
In addition, both "Coon Carnival" and "Minstrel Carnival" refer only to the minstrel troupes. Using these names for the Carnival as a whole ignores the important contribution of Malay choirs and Christmas bands.
Q4. When does each year’s Carnival begin?
Despite the Christmas Eve performances of the Christmas bands, most people believe that Carnival begins when the Malay choirs [known on this occasion as nagtroepe] march through downtown Cape Town, late on New Year’s Eve.
Members of the minstrel troupes, Malay choirs, and Christmas bands will tell you, however, the Carnival season actually opens months earlier, when members gather in clubhouses [klopskamer], homes, and rented spaces to plan, rehearse, and hang out, renewing old friendships and eagerly awaiting the coming frenzy of Carnival activity.
Q5. Who takes part in the Carnival?
Overwhelmingly, the members of the minstrel troupes, Malay choirs, and Christmas bands come from the working-class "Coloured" community in and around Cape Town. In smaller numbers, the Coloured middle class participates as well, especially in the Malay choirs and Christmas bands. Whites and Africans are rare.
The Coloured community is descended primarily from (1) slaves and political exiles that the Dutch and British colonizers brought to South Africa in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries Asia and East Africa, (2) indigenous African peoples, and (3) white settlers. They’re the largest segment of the Cape Town population, outnumbering both whites and Africans.
Members of the troupes, choirs, and bands are often economically poor, but culturally they’re the richest of all Capetonians.
(It’s worth noting that there is much controversy attached to the very idea of a "Coloured" identity. The category was created by the British colonial government, in the early nineteenth century, in order to deny people who were free, but not of solely European descent, the rights and privileges of whiteness. As such, it’s a construct that's both artificial and racist. Despite the category’s unseemly origins, the existence of a recognizable Coloured community is, and has long been, a social fact. It's impossible to discuss the Carnival without using the term and acknowledging the community to which it refers.)
Q6. Why doesn’t the entire city of Cape Town celebrate the Carnival? Why don’t whites and Africans take part in larger numbers?
To some extent, the entire city does participate in the Carnival. Today, as in the past, spectators represent virtually every sector of Cape Town society.
It’s true, however, that few whites and Africans participate actively in the Carnival. There are at least two reasons for this. First, as I explain below, the Carnival grew out of the particular history of the Coloured community. Second, South Africa was a deeply racist society for much of its history. Racial prejudice was strong and racial divisions were deep. Whites found the Carnival amusing, but generally didn’t want to get too close to its creators. Africans saw Carnival as something that had nothing to do with them.
The end of white supremacy and the dawn of democracy in 1994 marked a new beginning for South Africa. As racial barriers slowly fall, it’s likely that more and more Capetonians of all colors will embrace the Carnival.
Q7. What's the history of the New Year's Carnival?
The Carnival’s roots reach back more into the colonial era. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the New Year was by far the most important holiday for everyone, slave and free. Coming during the southern summer, it was a time when slave-owning whites took time off to visit their friends and family. They commonly allowed their slaves to do the same thing; it was their only holiday. This was a relaxed and lively time of the year, with the warm weather bringing people of all sorts out into the streets to enjoy the festive mood.
Slaves were an important part of Cape Town’s musical life. Wealthy slave owners often gloried in small orchestras composed of their slaves, and accounts from the era tell us that the slaves performed European classical and popular music at a high level. Slaves also played for themselves, drawing on Asian and African musical traditions. These enslaved musicians were in the process of creating a unique musical culture that borrowed from, reconfigured, and improvised on the music of Asia, Africa, and Europe. The only ingredients missing from what will become Cape Town’s own musical gumbo were those from the United States.
In the 1830s, slaves celebrated freedom--Emancipation Day--with street processions that were accompanied by bands of musicians. It’s possible that this was an extension of an already existing tradition of parading through the streets at the New Year. In any case, former slaves and their Coloured descendants continued to commemorate Emancipation Day with music throughout the nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, informal groups of Coloured musicians and singers routinely promenaded through the streets of Cape Town in celebrations that blended the commemoration of Emancipation Day with the birth of the New Year.
At about the same time, American blackface minstrelsy reached South Africa thanks to visits by troupes such as the Christy Minstrels. Despite the strong element of racial mockery in blackface performances, the Yankee minstrels were embraced by Capetonians of all colors, and their songs, costumes, and performance styles had a lasting influence on the musical culture of the city. Their impact can still be seen in the painted faces of minstrel troupe members, in the names of many of the troupes, and in the use of the banjo, the most important instrument in a blackface minstrel’s bag. (For instance, the troupe that I joined in 2006 is called the Pennsylvania Crooning Minstrels.)
In 1887, Cape Town’s Dantu brothers founded the first formally organized Carnival troupe, the Cape of Good Hope Sports Club. It was a athletic and singing society composed of members of the Coloured community who found inspiration in both local traditions and American minstrelsy. On New Year’s Eve of that year, they put on blackface makeup, donned minstrel costumes, and marched through the streets of the city.
The Virginia Jubilee Singers, an African-American singing group led by Orpheus McAdoo, a graduate of the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), were another powerful influence on Carnival traditions. They visited South Africa in the 1890s and deeply impressed audiences with the beauty of their music, the dignity of their performances, and the richness of the history and culture that they represented. Coloured people--descendants of slaves, just like African-Americans--especially identified with the singers and their music.
By the end of the nineteenth century, all the ingredients of Cape Town’s musical gumbo were in the pot. Coloured musicians had incorporated music influences from all over the world to create a unique style that was called ghoema (after the local drum that sets the rhythm). It’s the foundation of the on which the music of the minstrel troupes and Malay choirs rests.
The all-white Green Point Cricket Club held the first Carnival competition at Cape Town’s Green Point Track, on 1 January 1907. This "Coloured Carnival," as the organizers called it, provided the model that minstrel troupe competitions follow to this day. The Cricket Club’s competitions soon came to an end but, in 1920, the African Political Organization, a mostly Coloured group dedicated to fighting discrimination against Coloureds and Africans, revived them. They’ve been held annually ever since. The New Year’s Carnival as we know it, with its parades, neighborhood marches, and competitions, had been born.
Q8. How many minstrel troupes are there?
Over 60 minstrel troupes took part in 2009's Tweede Nuwe Jaarparade through downtown Cape Town. (The 2009 parade was actually held on January 3rd, because the 2nd fell on Friday, the Muslim holy day. Many troupe members are Muslims and attend religious services on Fridays.)
Q9. How big are the minstrel troupes?
The largest of them have 800 to 1,000 members. Some troupes might have as few as 200 or 300 members. The core membership of any troupe--those members who sing in the choir or play in the band, who march in competitions, attend rehearsals, and support each of the troupe’s activities--is smaller.
The sewing of uniforms, which the members call their "gear," is a cottage industry in the Coloured community. Most troupes hire tailors to make them. About 12 tailors scattered throughout the Coloured community specialize in making the uniforms. They hire cutters and seamstresses to help with the work. In some troupes, however, the wives of troupe members make the uniforms. While the color of the uniforms usually changes from year to year, the style in which the material is cut remains the same.
Troupe members will spend from R200.00 to R300.00 [roughly $25.00 to $35.00] on their gear, which includes the uniform, the hat, and the umbrella.
Q11. How much does it cost to run a minstrel troupe, and who pays for it?
A large troupe will easily spend several hundred thousand South African Rands [tens of thousands of dollars] each year on its activities. Major expenses include transportation for members to rehearsals, parades, and competition, rental for rehearsal halls and clubhouses, hiring choir and band directors, vocal soloists, and marching instructors, and supplying food and drink to members at rehearsals and after parades and competitions.
The troupe owner (sometimes called the "Captain") and leading troupe members (the "Committee") pay for these expenses out of their own pockets. The Western Cape provincial government and the Cape Town municipal government provide small subsidies. A few of the largest and most successful troupes have corporate sponsorship.
Q12. How many Malay choirs are there and how big are they?
There are roughly 150 Malay choirs in the Cape Town region (some of which don’t take part in the competitions). Each choir has about 75 members.
Q13. How many Christmas bands are there and how many members do they have?
There are 50 to 60 Christmas bands in Cape Town and vicinity. Membership ranges between 40 to over 100 musicians.
Q14. Why has the Carnival been so controversial?
As with similar festivals all over the world, Carnival is a time when authorities allow, or at least tolerate, a certain amount of frivolity and rowdiness. Those who hold middle-class decorum and respectability in high regard should probably stay home during Carnival. Because this often isn’t possible, inevitable tension arises between the righteous and the revelers.
Class and color prejudice also play a role. Like middle classes everywhere, the Cape Town middle class, both Coloured and white, has been easily offended by working-class hijinks. Middle-class Coloured people have also been feared that they would be tainted by the behavior of working-class minstrels, which has sometimes seemed to confirm the negative stereotypes that many whites hold about Coloureds--that they are clownish, simple-minded, and given to drink.
Q15. Where can I learn more about the Cape Town New Year's Carnival?
By far and away the best book ever written on the Carnival is Coon Carnival: New Year in Cape Town, Past and Present, by Denis-Constant Martin. It was published in both South Africa and the United States in 1999. It’s a terrific book and well worth tracking down. Any good used bookstore should be able to locate a copy for you. Amazon usually has used copies available as well.
Q16. Where can I see photos of the Cape Town New Year's Carnival?
Click on this link or at the top of the page to see a selection of photos from my documentary photography project on the Carnival. Or wait until 2010 to buy my book, One Love, Ghoema Beat,which will be published in South Africa by Random House Struik and in the United States by the University of Virginia Press.
Text and photos copyright John Edwin Mason, 2009