Friday 4 June 2010

Carnival time in South Africa

"Carnival" is a global tradition thousands of years old in which social rules and sensibilities become suspended or even reversed during a time of merriment and excess. Perhaps Fifa is stronger on the rules, but there is certainly a party of proportion looming in South Africa. Traditionally, Carnivals embrace conditions which enable marginalised groups to mock regular convention, rules and rulers with everyone still having a good time - time will tell with the football.

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).

This ten-inch LP was most likely recorded in 1956 with Danny Williams aged 14. Repeated promises of overseas tours eventually materialised in April 1959 when the troupe became the first South African performing ensemble to tour internationally. It was on this tour that Ned Newell spotted Williams and signed him for HMV. Williams’ recording of Moon River hit number one in the UK charts in 1961 and became the first album to sell over a million copies in Britain.

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”.
The song Darling Nelly Gray is a 19th century song about a male slave in Kentucky mourning his beloved who was sold South to Georgia – the song ends in an embrace of death after a life of loss and sorrow.

RS Link
MF Link


  1. An amazing historical document, and while the music is a very odd mix (to say the least!), it's just bursting with vitality. From the Bing Crosby-style take on Nelly Gray to the Satchmoesque dialogue on Gone Fishing, it's all such great fun. And that banjolele!

    Thanks again - I can't imagine how rare this item must be, and not the kind of thing any record company would ever think of reissuing!

  2. I love the diversity of South African music you present. Like gracenotes said, much of it will never be re-released, so we are all in your debt.
    I had a problem unpacking two files using two different programs - is anybody else having an issue with this, or just me?

  3. Thanks Gracenotes and Sun Ira for the encouragement. Only one other query unpacking a file from the Niuck Lotay Jive compilation - we re-upped on mediafire and have not heard anything further. If problem persists, let us know which files and we will re-up from this side (not certain it will solve problem, but all angles must be tried in problem-solving :-)

  4. Thanks so much for posting this.

  5. Thanks for this unique representation of klopse music - certainly not what you'd normaly hear during carnival time down here but fun none the less - "Die Ali-Dixies" indeed...

    I also can't unpack two tracks "Kossies" and "Boontjies" which would be nice to hear too...


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