Friday, 4 June 2010
Carnival time in South Africa
And so it has been with South Africa’s “Coon Carnivals” (more about this terminology below) with opportunities for music, merriment, mockery, and excess - which even the apartheid government tried to co-opt rather than suppress. As with much South African music, influences come from afar and have roots that go deep. Wealthy slave owners in the Cape had their own slave orchestras. Emancipation in the 1830s and visits by American blackface minstrels added to the mix. More on this fascinating history can be found here
Founded by Majiet Omar in the early 1950s, “The Golden City Dixies” became a launching pad for some successful South African musical careers – including Jonathan Butler, Sammy Hartman and Danny Williams (see picture) who later became known as Britain’s Johnny Mathis.
While “Coon Carnival” Performances have become synonymous with Cape Town, this band has its origins in Johannesburg as “The Dixie Merrrymakers”. The name-change to the “Golden City Dixies” came about in Durban after local promoter Maurice Smith got them out of a spot of bother (see the back-cover picture for the story).
The title of the album being shared today belies some South African complexities. “Coon carnival” was for decades in common use by members of the minstrel troupes. According to African History Professor and Photographer John Edwin Mason “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. Read much more about the history and see picutres of the carnivals here and here and here.
From the back cover of this record: “The New Year at Cape Town is Coon Carnival time when the Coloured and Malay people parade the streets in their brilliant multi-coloured costumes and compete for the floating trophies which are awarded annually for the various competitions. …. The Festival is so an integral part of Cape life that its origins are forgotten but it may have been started during the last century at the time when the slaves were emancipated. … Although the Carnival is associated particularly with the Cape Province, an enterprising singer of Malay original, Majiet Omar, decided to spread the idea further afield, and it was he who thought of forming a Coon Carnivcal troupe in “The Golden City”. At that time Coon competitions were held annually in Johannesburg.. …
“While most songs collected here are the “Moppies” and “Lietjies” that have been handed down by tradition and which are the feature of the Cape Town Carnival. There will also be found some of the American songs which are more frequently heard in present-day Carnivals. …The troupe have made a feature of mimicry, and their impersonations of Amercian signers are so lifelike that they have often been accused of moming their songs to the accompaniment of gramophone records”.