[Hannes Coetzee playing guitar in the Karoo]
Hannes Coetzee is making his first-ever trip outside of South Africa in order to play at the Port Townsend Slide and Steel Festival. He will perform June 28 at the Joseph F. Wheeler Theater and June 30 in a major show at McCurdy Pavilion.
Hannes Coetzee grew up in a typical South African town. Black people lived on one side; white people lived on the other.
This was in Herbertsdale, in South Africa’s Klein Karoo—a vast area of semi-desert where black shepherds, sheep shearers, and fruit pickers lived, and continue to live, in subsistence-level poverty.
Saturday evenings were the highlight of the week. Everyone had been paid their weekly wages, and they gathered together to eat, drink, talk, and dance.
As a child, Hannes Coetzee watched his father play the guitar, but didn’t participate. “When my father and his friends played, you didn’t make the mistake of trying to join in the party because you were still a child,” Coetzee said, in an Afrikaans interview. “If I couldn’t see the chords they were playing, then I hid under the table to watch.”
After his father’s jam sessions were over, Coetzee would hold the three-stringed guitar—built from an oil can with catgut strings—and sound out by himself the chords he had just heard.
As he got older, he went to work as an aloe-tapper, selling the juice from the aloe plants to the local cooperative. He often worked alone. Spending so much of the day without the company of other musicians, he devised a technique to accompany himself while playing the guitar.
With his left hand he would play the chords. With his right hand he played in optel-en-knyp fingerpicking style. (In Afrikaans, optel, or “thumb” refers to the bass line; knyp, or “pinch” refers to the technique of playing the higher strings.) He held a teaspoon in his mouth. With the teaspoon, he slid out the melodic line.
What Coetzee discovered was a lively, danceable guitar style that creates the sound of two guitars playing at the same time. This is the same style he uses today, in playing to sold-out crowds.
Reaching a Wider Audience
During the year 2000, David Kramer, one of South Africa’s most well-known and beloved musicians, heard of the Coetzee legend—that there was a man in the Karoo who played the guitar with a teaspoon.
Kramer’s own music features gritty, realistic songs about small-town South Africa. His first album, Bakgat!, was banned by the South African Broadcasting Company for its political satire, its use of coarse language, and its mixing of languages. Although it was the apartheid era, Kramer refused to change his style. He had several hits throughout the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties, including the hugely popular “So Long Skipskop,” which tells the story of forced removal of black fishermen from a village in the Cape.
Most of Kramer’s releases have gone gold. So when he saw video footage of Hannes Coetzee playing guitar with the teaspoon slide technique, he was in a position to give Coetzee a national platform.
“[The music] was absolutely fascinating,” Kramer says. “The footage made such an impression on me that I went to meet him, and invited him onto the stage with me to present him to the audiences that I performed to.”
The concerts that Coetzee played were part of Kramer’s Karoo Kitaar Blues project, which often included at least four other traditional musicians from the Karoo. Through these shows, Hannes Coetzee was able to play for audiences in all of South Africa’s major cities.
His style of guitar made him a sensation almost overnight. Coetzee performed to sold-out crowds, appeared on television and radio, and released CDs of his music. His songs got covered by other musicians. He was able to buy a car and enlarge his house in Herbertsdale. Video footage of his playing became a phenomenon on the YouTube website, getting hundreds of thousands of views.
South African youth hear the work of Hannes Coetzee and other Karoo players on television, in record stores, and on the radio. Traditional music has been elevated within the community and given much higher status. In a country where the remnants of the apartheid framework are still in existence it is Coetzee, a soft-spoken black man in his sixties, who has fired a passion for traditional music. “Interest has been rekindled in what we perhaps almost lost,” Kramer says.