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Cape Minstrel Festival: A Cultural Explosion in Cape Town

By Shaldon Ferris

The Southernmost part of Africa comes alive every year on the 2nd of January, and 2017 was certainly no exception. The Cape Minstrel Festival is an annual celebration that takes place in the mother city of South Africa, Cape Town.

An explosion of color hits the streets of the city centre and regular trading shuts down because everyone comes out to see the Cape Minstrels or Die Kaapse Klopse as it is known in Afrikaans.

Easily comparable to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or the Rio Carnival in Brazil, the Cape Minstrel festival has been around for about 130 years, with the first band of troupes estimated to have started in 1887.

The Cape of Good Hope was originally inhabited by Khoi and San people.  Dutch settlers had children with Indigenous people, and also brought in many slaves from all over the world from places such as Madagascar, Batavia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The French Huguenots and British settlers also came to the Cape.

As people came together from different regions, the music started fusing, and it is this sound that can be heard in a typical minstrel street parade.

What drives the festive mood is the fact that  Jan 2nd was a day in which the slaves were given time off to celebrate. The descendants of the slaves still hold fast to the idea that their ancestors were once oppressed, and even in the oppression, they could find time for jollification.

The festival in the city has as many as 13000 minstrels, with the procession moving through the inner city and ending off in grand style at the world class Green Point stadium, which was upgraded before the 2010 soccer world cup in South Africa.

What does the future hold for this age old festival? If the band TopdogSA have anything to say about it, the legacy of Khoi and San Music will live on forever. Their New Year’s Eve performance at Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre to a sold out audience was a cultural masterpiece, to say the least. Aptly entitled “Nama Jazz,” this live performance drew on age old Khoi and San instruments fused with modern jazz, while telling the stories of Khoi and San heroes.

Clearly influenced by the Cape Minstrel sound, this pre new year theatre piece got the audience in the mood for the festivities, while at the same time telling heart warming stories of fallen Khoi and San heroes such as Dawid Kruiper, Herrie die strandloper and Krotoa – the Khoi woman who got married to a Dutch settler, who was disowned by her family and his, after her husband died.

Performing several songs from the album, Griqua DNA, this new generation of musicians combined entertainment along with cultural consciousness.

As long as there will be new beginnings, and the 2nd of January, there will be a Cape Minstrel Festival – a reminder of the painful past, while at the same time a celebration of the beautiful present and the possibility of a better future.