Monday 11 May 2015

Die Vier Tranvalers led by Faan Harris (1932)

Over the past couple of years we have featured a number of posts on accordion jive and often we receive requests in the comments section to includes examples of boeremusiek, a rural (mostly Afrikaans) South African folk genre that has close historical links to the former style. To be fair, I am no expert on this material. And part of the reason it is so rarely covered on EJ is that a number of websites already do a far better job of documenting this music. Notably, Sean Minnie’s Boeremusiekklub, is densely populated with well-research information and images, albeit fragmented over various iterations of the site. I have provided below links to particular pages that will help with navigation. Also much of the research appears in Afrikaans but Google will do a more-or-less adequate job at translation.

Boeremusiek generally is performed by a group with accordion or concertina, guitar/s, banjo, and sometimes even a cello. This folk music has its roots in European, mostly German and Dutch traditions (take note of the many waltzes and polkas) but there are aspects of the style such as the upbeat vastrap that retain elements of goema as Alex Van Heerden points out in a presentation titled: The Khoi Roots of Vastrap Music. He goes on to say that this gives the music a “kind of a creolized” flavor, making it a uniquely African style, albeit one that is relatively conservative. If one listens closely to the music, it can take you from a German beer garden to a dry, dusty fishing village up the Cape west coast, to rural farmlands on the high-veld and maybe… perhaps… even an obscure mellow bar in Louisiana. The style is closely linked with white Afrikaner traditions but one can clearly hear its influences on early black styles such as the precursors of maskanda, kwela and accordion jive.

Recorded in 1932, today’s offering features ten tracks by Die Vier Transvalers (The Four Transvalers) issued on EMI’s His Master's Voice (HMV) label. As there were no recording studios in South Africa before the 1930s masters had to be made one of two ways. Artists routinely traveled by boat to England or were visited by portable recording units operated by recording engineers employed by various European record companies. Masters would be shipped back to Europe for pressing and then the records would be marketed in the country of origin.

The UK based Gramophone Company sent the first mobile unit to South Africa in 1912 for its Zonophone label. This was followed by their competitor the Columbia Graphophone Company, also UK-based, in July 1929, seeking materials for its Columbia and Regal labels. After the two companies merged to become EMI in March 1931 each branch of the company continued to send recording units to cut tracks under their respective labels (notably HMV and Columbia).

In 1932 EMI sent William Laybourne Ewing Dickson, an Englishman and recording engineer to South Africa where he remained for five months cutting over 500 masters. (Recording Pioneers) Dickson primarily recorded Scandinavian material for HMV; his previous recording before coming to South Africa (matrix 0T 702) was made in Copenhagen. His first cut in Johannesburg, (matrix 0T 703) was made on October 1st, 1932 while his last (0T 1205) was produced on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 1933 before he returned to England in April.

Die Vier Tranvalers debut disc (GX 5) included the track Soutpansberg Se Setees with the matrix 0T 714. The matrix number suggests this was one of the first groups that Dickson recorded when he arrived in Johannesburg. He cut at least twenty tracks with the group on October 3rd and 10th, 1932. (Boeremusiekklub)

Die Vier Transvalers were led by Stephen Emil “Faan” Harris, an icon of the concertina, and included Josephus Daniël “Sewes” van Rensburg, on guitar, Frans Hendrik Ebersohn, also on guitar, and Hendry Frederick “Bossie” Bosman, on cello.

Sean Minnie has extensive notes about the group at his website and he describes them as such: “The original Vier Tranvalers can certainly be considered one of the best and most popular Boeremusiek bands ever recorded. The concertina sounds of Faan Harris and his men remain after all these years one of the most popular and beautiful. Literally hundreds of groups have covered their tunes, but none can match the soulful performances conjured up by them. Although Faan [Harris] could play several instruments, he was eminently a very good and popular concertina player and played this instrument throughout all their recordings.” (translated from Boerkemusiekklub)

According to Minnie the group practiced for these first recordings at Sewes van Rensburg’s house. He was on lead guitar while Harris played a small three-row, high-tone, Lachenal concertina. If my translation is correct, an additional member called Steenberg played a babatoni, or home-made single-string upright base using a broom stick and tea-chest.

Die Vier Transvalers recorded another eight tracks with HMV around September 1939. They practiced for this session at Frans Ebersohn’s home and it is likely that the famous photograph of the group above was taken during this time. From left to right is Frans Ebersohn, Faan Harris, Bossie Bosman and Piet Bosman (Bossie’s father who substituted for Sewes van Rensburg while he was away at the time). Alas the recordings were never issued. Apparently the masters where destroyed when the ship transporting them to England was sunk by a German U-Boat. Even at that time record pressings were still made in England and shipped back to South Africa. After that the group slowly disbanded with each member going their own way. (Orkeste en Karakters)

Faan Harris did record with several other groups. Though little information about these is known. Minnie points out that Harris was still under contract with HMV and often artists names would be omitted to avoid contractual conflicts. It is only from Harris’ unique style that he is often identified on other tracks. For example it is believed that he plays concertina with Die Vyf Voortrekkers on some of the earliest Gallo releases. (Orkeste en Karakters)

Faan Harris was born in 1886 and lived for many years in Krugersdorp. According to Minnie he had a great humor and was meticulous with his work. He was also a painter by profession and had a glass eye from an early accident. He died in 1950. A biography of Faan Harris can be viewed here.

By popular request, we feature today some classic boeremusiek by Die Vier Transvalers led by Faan Harris. The twenty tracks originally issued on HMV were reissued on the Skatkis label as two volumes in 1982. Here we feature volume one with the first ten tracks.

01) Soutpansberg se Polka (HMV, GX 5)

02) Soutpansberg se Setees (HMV, GX 5)
03) Wals van Tant Sannie (HMV, GX 6)
04) Rooidag-Toe - Polka (HMV, GX 6)
05) Hartseer - Wals (HMV, GX 10)
06) Plattoon - Polka (HMV, GX 10)
07) Eileen Alannah - Wals (HMV, GX 16)
08) Moenie, Oom Kool - Settees (HMV, GX 16)
09) Kromdraai - Mazurka (HMV, GX 23)
10) Anna Pop-Setees (HMV, GX 23)

Die Oorspronlike Vier Transvalers Volume 1
Skatkis (SLS 1)
Reissue: Sep 1982
Sourced from original HMV 78 rpms (GX series, 1932)


  1. Dank U Wel.....Thank you many, many thanks for all of this. Now you give me enough to go through and explore for myself. I have asked a few times and can hardly express how thankful I am for getting this much info. I write this before I start downloading, listening so I might get back to you



  2. a valuable addition in terms of considerations of the accoustic climate and contemporay influences, as you point out. Downloading it to listen to now, thank you!

  3. Apologies for posting OT - but is the South African Music Archive Project (SAMAP) site now at a different address? I can't get any of the links previously posted on this blog (or elsewhere) to open. Googling has not helped. Hoping somebody here can. Thanks.

    1. Not sure, Owen. Access does appear to be sporadic. It would be a real shame if this project dies. I'll contact UKZN and DISA and find out.

    2. Thanks, Siemon. Much appreciated. I'll keep an eye out for an update from you. Cheers!

    3. I emailed Chris Ballantine about the SAMAP tonight and he advises "The short answer is that SAMAP will be up and running again in the near future."

      Good news, I'd say!

      Watch this space.

  4. ...and the SAMAP is back online!


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