vrijdag 2 november 2007

Koos Kombuis' Swart September

A song which I find myself listening to again and again currently is the South African singer/songwriter Koos Kombuis' Swart September (Black September). The song (lyrics, translation and helpful comments here) is fascinating on a number of levels. First, there's the language. Which is Afrikaans, but shot through with anglicisms. This in a way ties in wonderfully with one of the main themes of the song (written in the final years of the Apartheid regime), which is problematizing national and ethnic identity in South Africa, and problematizing place, the ownership of land, and the dispossessedness of large groups of people.

In one verse, Koos Kombuis comments on precisely the linguistically heterogenous nature of the language:

Van Tafelbaai tot in Transvaal
loop hensoppers weer deesdae kaal
Maar is jy wit, bruin, swart of geel
kak almaal in die symste taal
Sou jy haar nog liefhe, die ongerymde moedertaal
besef jy sy's met clones en pidins landwyd op die paal

In the linked comments, "StrawberryFrog" points to the usage of the word "symste" (< English same but with an Afrikaans superlative suffix).

One of the main concerns of the lyric is the connection between people and their land, their home, the place they live in. This is evident right in the first lines:

Plant vir my 'n Namibsroos, verafgelee Welwitschia
harvestig hom in Hillbrow en doop hom Khayelitsha

But also in the way the lyric describes the disenfranchised, dispossessed Blacks, who "shuffle along the walls" (skuifel langs die mure) "without passes" (sonder pas). But most strongly, and ingeniously, in the final two verses, which use the melody of the then-national hymn of South Africa, die stem van Suid-Afrika. A national hymn, of course, functions as proclaiming one's belonging to a nation, and that of a nation to a piece of land, but Koos Kombuis' lyrics shatter all that, pointing out the divisions among South Africans right in the first line (uit die blou van ons twee skole), the disconnect between people and place in the following ones (uit die diepte van ons huimwe, uit ons ver-verlate homelands). Kombuis notes how the forced racial divisions, the reservation of homelands for the blacks, etc. reduce that population to squatters - but are the dispossessed blacks the only squatters Kombuis means? What about the coloureds, the whites, with their own differing ethnic origins far away?

Uit die blou van ons twee skole
Uit die diepte van ons huimwe
Uit ons ver-verlate homelands
Waar die tsotsies antwoord gee
Oor ons afgebrande skole
Met die kreun van honger kinders
ruis die stem van al die squatters
van ons land, Azania.
Ons sal traangas, ons sal Treurnicht,
ons sal klipgooi als jy vra,
ons sal dobbel in Sun City
ons vir jou, Suid-Afrika

The theme is highlighted by the use of the two toponyms in the final lines: Azania, the name for South-Africa in usage among the black radical left, which is associated with the voice of the dispossessed "squatters", the defying of teargas and "Treurnicht" (a wonderful dual reference to an ultra-conservative white politician and the verb for to "not cry, not mourn", cf. the teargas), and the throwing of stones. Then, Suid-Afrika, associated with gambling in Sun City. Which, as StrawberryFrog remarks, is an activity associated with the privileged, the well-to do - not the black kids throwing rocks in the previous lines.

There's a fascinating layeredness here. There's first the dissonance between the melody and its associations (the national hymn) and the lyrics, and then the tension between the two voices speaking in the final lines, both of which proclaiming their loyalty to their country (als jy vra, ons vir jou).

There's a way in which I think central to art, poetry, aesthetics, is the tension between contrasts, or as Whitehead wrote: "All aesthetic experience is feeling arising out of the realization of contrast under identity". That's how language works: the contrasts between sounds, the marked and the unmarked - but also the contrast between codes, exhibited throughout Kombuis' lyric, the unmarked Afrikaans and the marked English words with which the former is interspersed. But the lyric offers a host of other opportunities to study the usage of linguistic and semantic contrasts and their employment to build the lyric. Take the lines:

Die aand was vrolik om die vure
Gatiep was olik by die bure

which sketch an apparently merry, carefree scene. But then the following line:

Die tyres het gebrand
daar aan Mannenberg se kant

Note how first of all Mannenberg is there, the other place, not here. And then the ambiguous die tyres het gebrand which could, as StrawberryFrog points out, refer to the usage of burning tyres in roadblocks, or to necklacing. With the latter possibility, the usage of a passive clause is all the more shocking because it is so euphemistic. The "tyres" are mentioned to burn, rather than people; and the subject who set the tyres alight is not mentioned. There is a very disconcerting (and effective) tension here between linguistic form and meaning.

(And why here the English tyres, instead of Afrikaans die bande? Is the usage of an English verb here another way to dissociate the "we" in the verse from the Other, the events "over there", in Mannenberg? But perhaps this is too far-sought).

The following two lines repeat this tension:

Al die volk was hoenderkop
die Caspers het vol guns gestop

Depicting the drunkenness of the merry crowd and the presence of Caspir armoured cars full of guns. Note again the passive: whoever owns and controls the armoured cars and the guns is not mentioned. They seem to be mentioned as just being there in an almost offhand manner.

Then, the lyric radically and shockingly shifts perspective (which is, in the song, accompanied by a change in melody):

En die vroue by die draad
het eerste die gedruis gehoor
Tjank maar Ragel oor jou kind
die boere het hom doodgemoer

The sudden usage of the active clause here - Die boere het hom doodgemoer - is very brutal, in-your-face, compared to the hints towards such events in the earlier lines. Where the armoured police cars, the burning tyres possibly indicating a necklacing, and all that were "far away" and subjectless before, the depiction of the anguished women at the wire, the murder of one of their children by very much named and present agents, is a slap in the face.

The text is full of such counterpositions: the one, for example, between the petty complaints of the man in the main singer's perspective, who has to wait a long time to get his fries after a night out (In Langstraat, waar die cafes nog oop is / tot laat in die angry nag / het ek myn dolla slap tsjips gaan koop / ek moes half an hour staan en wag) and the worries of the passless blacks, consigned to the third class in public transport, in the lines before (die swarte sonder pas / skuifel langs die mure / verlustig hom in derde klas).

I'm not getting tired of this song anytime soon.

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