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Culture, Music

The Bard

by Timothy Gabb / Images by Karen Wieffering / 15.05.2013

Last Sunday I had a dream. In a place that reminded me of another place: a place off a road, that runs off a bigger road, in a Rosey suburb in a city at the bottom of Africa. It involved an ecstatic truth. It involved good food. And it involved one of my South African heroes, Gert Vlok Nel.

The place was the Alma Café, a live-music venue off Liesbeek Parkway. It’s run by Richard Tait, a muso himself, who looks the part perfectly: long wild grey hair and spectacles that sit at the end of his nose as he stands in the corner of the stage working the PA levels like a magician mastering invisible shapes. Sitting inside the little venue, I’m transported to the karoo. Dismembered from my original context, I undergo a change in being; dislocated yet at home. I relax.

Gert does not perform often. It’s been 12 years since his first album, the unsurpassable Beaufort-Wes se Beautiful Woorde, which has charged through countless car stereos, and electrified unimaginable toe-tapping on innumerable stoeps from the Platteland to the Hague. He launched a new album last year, Onherroeplik, and played two gigs at the Alma Café last weekend, treating his fans to a singular experience of the bard in person. He does not disappoint.

Gert Vlok Nel

Rewind to the beginning.

I discovered Gert Vlok Nel some five years ago whilst studying in Grahamstown. A journalist friend, now at the Argus, played that first album to me, and it’s been the default score to the wild cinema that has proceeded to flow past my windows in myriad meanderings through the karoo and the world. I missed him performing in PE four years ago, and so made damn sure I’d be able to see him now.

Waiting at the Alma Café, I went for a quick smoke just after the opening act, Johno Tait, had blasted some earthy human-blues through the audiences’ vibrating antennas. Gert was standing outside, and I greeted him nervously as I moved past. Him and the band, Schalk Joubert and AJ Nel, were hanging out, waiting to make their appearance. I crept off to the side to have my smoke, and sat watching. Gert had pulled up in a Mazda Rustler, 1300, with a painted number plate in the front. CW something something something. Richard Tait came out and asked for Gert’s guitar, which Gert hurriedly passed over to him, expressing sincere gratitude in a very quiet, humble, nervous voice. He was wearing all black – a shirt, a waistcoat, a scarf and a jacket – layered.

The performance was amazing. He was soft spoken between songs, as he chatted as best he could to the crowd. Jonathan Tait mixed the audio gently and majestically, and added some ghost back-up every now and then, layering the vocals in just the right places. The band was good, building sound-sediments of ancient rock and fertile young soil all in one earthy Karoo sound that has become synonymous with the GVL experience. It’s earthy. It’s dusty. It’s sad. But it’s beautiful, in it’s simplicity. In it’s reflexivity. In it’s banal language which get’s mutated at times in a language game which comes from the earth over which the shrieking trains charge – of which Gert so frequently sings.

Gert Vlok Nel

He grew up in Beaufort-Wes. His dad worked on the railway, and thus he grew up with an imagination fuelled by movement and the rhythms of steel as it glides through open space singing and whistling as it collides with the warm dusty wind of the interior. It’s no surprise then, to learn that amongst those sad nostalgic and sensitive South African lyrics, one can find the subtlest traces of intertextual references to others who married their art to the endless nature of the road…

After the show, which went down sublime, hence my resistance in attempting to describe the music, cos you have to hear it for yourself, and after most of the crowd had left, I found myself hanging out, having a few dops on the pavement outside, chatting to Gert. I had one main question for him. It was about his epic ballad to Koos du Plessis, the South African singer-songwriter and poet who died in a car crash in 1984, in which he references another bard, Allen Ginsberg.

“Gert, there’s a line in “waarom ek roep na jou vanaand”, that goes “jumped on a train on the impulse of winter midnight streetlight smalltown rain”. I was reading through “Howl” the other day, and saw that the line references Ginsberg’s epic…”

And before I could even pose any type of question, for it was more of an observation than anything else, he started laughing.

Gert Vlok Nel

“Yes! That entire song is one long trudging train of plagiarism,” he laughs, his face smiling and swelling, his eyes disappearing in the expression. “You know, I’ve been singing that song for more than 12 years, and you’re the first person to ask me about that! I wrote that song in 1997, the same year Ginsberg and Burroughs died. I reference Burroughs too, as well as Dylan Thomas, and obviously Koos du Plessis.”

It was a special night that. Drinking brandy and beer with the bard on a pavement in Rosebank.

As my girlfriend and I were leaving, and she went to give him a big hug, because he’s that kind of guy, he asked if we had a copy of his new album. We hadn’t been able to get one unfortunately, since they were sold out instantly after the show. Shaking our heads to his question, he reached into his small leather satchel that hung on his side, and pulled out a copy of Onherroeplik and gave it to us.

I’ve been listening to it nonstop since. And it’s just as good as that first mystical mindjolting album.

Gert Vlok Nel

* All images © Karen Wieffering

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