Van Soloby Thomas Okes / 02.12.2009
Fokof’s story – of five boys who decided to forego routine mediocrity and make the reckless lunge into something exceptional – might be both well-known and adequately documented, but it remains, somehow, a little understated. At the time, a scheme like that was laughably terrifying, an almost suicidal ideal impossible to anyone but the most bloody-mindedly irresponsible.
Today, in a post-Lugsteuring, mid-Forgive Them context, it seems a well-considered career move, and the evidence of this achievement is in everything from the burgeoning successes of the Straatligkinders and Thieve to the strange attractiveness of Jack Parow. That last example is a very appropriate one: we live in a South Africa, now, where we have the opportunity to become a successful white Afrikaans rapper. And that is as new and cool as it is thoroughly messed up.
Anyone looking for an indication of how this industry has changed needs only to speak to any of those original five boys. They are living illustrations of everything they have done, building and opening all of those mythological ‘doors’ – markets, industries and careers in music – we all assumed were available only elsewhere, in the non-South African, non-Afrikaans realm of the distantly romantic, creative, innovative ‘overseas’. Those boys delivered this scene, they turned it upside down and smacked it on the bottom and made it cry, and its growing health is their own: they manage to speak for tens of thousands while trying to speak for themselves, and in so doing are watching an army build around them.
And they are doing very well. When Francois van Coke rocked up at &Union on Saturday night for a solo acoustic show it was with the relaxed assurance of a man who’s made a happy livelihood from living a dream. The enjoyment he takes in his continued free expression remains untainted, and if there’s any disillusionment or burnout to come, it seems a long way off. Maybe it’s difficult to become disenchanted with a lifestyle that grows as it goes – and it’s certainly impossible to imagine him doing anything other than this – or maybe it’s just that when Francois gets in front of a microphone, he’s able to stay himself. Maybe he’s doing it this way, in other words, because he can’t not.
The ‘show’ is more of an extended conversation between an expanded group of people; there’s no pretentious drama or showman theatrics, just the impression of a musician who is most comfortable at his most human. He sings his own (Van Coke Kartel) songs in an unrushed, plainly-stated earnestness, as though sure of their logic and accustomed to exploring it; similarly, he presents the Fokof material of his set with neither fatigue nor bluster but a kind of careful, honest sobriety. Between songs he jokes, laughs and drinks; afterwards he talks to everyone, asks you how you’re doing and thanks you for coming out. This is the posture of a rock ’n roll icon without the posturing, without the posed challenge of an ill-considered, counterfeit argument. That combination – of a likeable, approachable figure singing lines like, “die hel is hier en die hemel in jou hande; dit bly ‘n donker land” – makes him as relevant as anyone. Francois van Coke never dares you to defy who he is, and that realness, in an idolised rock star, makes him rare.
&Union itself is on the verge of being too trendy to function. Two mulletted okes beside me in the 3cm2 ‘bar’ area were stunned into slack-jawed speechlessness when told that brandy was not only not available, but not even on the menu, or anywhere in the building, for any price at all. Francois expressed cheery astonishment at the R120 it costs to get a bottle of (admittedly imported, and awesome) beer, before offering of his own hoard to anyone who felt like feeling fancy.
If these sort of shows are the venue’s way of sludging up a bit of street cred, then in a way, it might just work: a stripped-down aesthetic of bums on the floor manages to offset the place’s glued-on gloss, and might leave the experience hovering somewhere between sparkly-preppy and gritty-bohemian. I say ‘might’ only because it doesn’t really matter; on a Saturday night, Francois van Coke’s solo poetry, anywhere, is all the vibe his followers are looking for.
Images © Thomas Okes