Getting to Know “Everyone’s Pal”, Getting to Know Ourselves: David Kramer & South African Identity
A couple of months ago I did my first festival show called Gemengde Oorsprong: Hemel in Aardse Kruike (Mixed Heritage: Heaven in Earthen Vessels) at Woordfees (Word Festival) in Stellenbosch. Many of the audience members drew a parallel between my work and that of legendary South African singer/songwriter/playwright David Kramer.
One of my songs called Meer as Bruin (More than Brown) – a social commentary on what it means to be of mixed ethnicity and what it means to be South African was oddly reminiscent of something Kramer would do, both lyrically and stylistically speaking. The correlation was inadvertent though, as I would never at that stage consider myself a massive fan of his musical style. After reading his biography, I’m sure that I can now say that I am very fond of his work.
Meer as Bruin:
In response to the audience’s comparisions, I went to the nearest book store and got a copy of David Kramer’s biography as written by Mathilda Slabbert and Dawid De Villiers (who also happened to be one of my lecturers in university).
I was interested in uncovering a little more about the man often referred to as Almal se Pêl (Everyone’s Pal) and why many saw such a strong link between what came out in my show and his body of work.
I’ve known about David Kramer since I was very young, since he was the face of Volkswagen’s TV advertisements for many years.
Later I was introduced to him by my mom after she forced me to watch a recording of his multi-award winning play Kat & the Kings, which toured to London’s West End as well as Broadway. In 2002, my Afrikaans teacher would make us listen and sing along to Kramer’s Meisie Sonder Sokkies (Sockless Girl) to help us get a grip on Afrikaans in a very English school environment.
The biography is 400 pages long and details Kramer’s artistic journey from his humble beginnings in the small town of Worcester, his time as a textile design student in Leeds (where he attended many live rock and theatre shows – and where he was exposed to the work of theatre music giant Andrew Lloyd-Webber), his first live shows of his own music (which often took place in the homes of his friends), his first record deal and long-lasting partnership with Volkswagen (and his subsequent nationwide success), the development of his public persona as ‘Everyone’s Pal’ – a persona that would later become detrimental to his emotional health, his musical relationship with the late Taliep Petersen, and then later his contribution to the awareness and preservation of the indigenous music of the Northern Cape.
What resounded the most in me was Kramer’s affinity for pushing artistic boundaries. What I’m most appreciative of is his knack for being sardonic without being blatantly critical – a trait that for me, marks the work of great intelligent art works. In addition, Kramer’s contribution to musical theatre in South Africa is probably without parallel. His partnership with Taliep Petersen irrevocably revolutionised the face of musical theatre and in so doing, continues to inspire and revitalise the genre today.
What also struck me was his stance on South African music. During the apartheid years, Kramer felt disgruntled with local musicians who would copy-cat international music trends (as is much the case today as ever) and became increasing disillusioned with the narrow-mindedness of the then predominantly “white” owned and controlled music industry – which was like the long arm of the racist apartheid regime. In fact, his first album was banned by the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation). As time passed his music took on more of a political perspective and became very critical of the heated South African socioeconomic state.
What David Kramer Taught Me About Myself and Others
I was inspired by Kramer’s unbending approach to cultivating the indigenous music of Africa, always searching for more by aligning himself with musicians who had the lifeblood of African music coursing through their veins. I recall one moment in the book, where Kramer as a young musician entered a ‘coloured’ neighbourhood (something most unheard of for a white person under the authoritarian and heavily segregated apartheid government) in search of indigenous music; only to discover that many coloured musicians were much like the whites during that period – simply regurgitating American and European music trends.
Kramer again encountered a similar state of affairs when trekking through the Northern Cape searching for musicians for a TV documentary on indigenous guitar music – young people in contrast to their parents and grandparents were more concerned with appropriating genres like hip hop and RnB as opposed to the music of their heritage. I don’t specifically think the aforementioned genres are any less worthy of exploration than indigenous music – it’s just that they are most strongly associated with American sensibilities – and are in their current incarnation (as most heard on radio and on TV) a staple of American pop culture – and have less to do with finding a truly South African musical voice than anything else.
I have often thought about this paradigm and have come to the conclusion not much has changed in the 40 years since Kramer’s first encounter with our national identity crisis – we still are of the mindset that West is best. I hear it everyday when listening to South African music on the airwaves, when most of it sounds like some second rate imitation of American superstars and where young rappers and singers alike adopt American accents in their songs while touting cliches from a culture they’ll never grasp – because they were not born there! I had a chat to a 14 year old about his American accent on a track he wanted me to listen to and he could’nt understand what I was trying to tell him. One could assume that he would one day outgrow that phase of unabashed appropriation, but then when turning on the radio – a 30 year old South African rapper in a hoody and sneakers bombards me with poor lyrical content about parties and drinking, ‘swag’, an American accent, a formulaic music video and something he clearly stole from some or other American superstar while overdosing on MTV-Base and dreaming about how he’s gonna “change the game”. Puhleeaase! South Africans need to get a fat wake up call and stop making excuses for why we unwittingly absorb all this garbage.
“As enslaved peoples are separated from their religion, the lyrics of the song change. The cry is for sense pleasures: more sex, money, alcohol. How many blues and rock and roll songs speak about that? Desire for “my God” is supplanted by the desire for “my man.” Mankind’s vision decays, entangled by the search for temporary relief from its subjugation to false gods. But the cry is still there, even if man no longer knows for what. It is the yearning for unity, for oneness as experienced in the mother’s womb, attuned to the rhythm of her heartbeat.” – Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery
In short, Kramer’s biography has been very resourceful and his artistic integrity is beyond motivational. I hope that someday I’ll get to a point where my work makes such a lasting impact both culturally and collectively; and that I’ll endeavour to cultivate the South African voice in my work to a much larger extent than at present.