'Coons' who sing of old times at new year: John Carlin meets the performing minstrels in Cape Town whose history and songs date to the era of slavery

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THE OLD teacher of Muslim religion put on a passing show of repentance but failed to dispel the impression that there was more to savour than to regret in the sins of his youth.

All of 88 years old, Armien Kamalie, who has had nine wives, reminisced about his adolescence, about the days when he was a 'Coon', a performing minstrel on the streets of Cape Town. Wearing a pink and white fez and a long, blue tunic, he sat in his front room in Mannenberg township, outside Cape Town, gesticulating, exclaiming, singing, talking, chuckling with delight. He sang and he sang, his voice soft and melodic, the lyrics as engraved in his mind as they were in 1918, the year his troupe, the Diamond Eyes, cleaned up the prizes at the new year Coon Carnival.

'I wonder why I should leave you alone,

It breaks my heart in two.

Some day your heart will be broken too,

So why should I cry over you?'

'You can't beat the old songs]' he laughed, switching irresistibly from tune to tune, and playing the drums on his chest of drawers, mesmerically fast, with his fingers and palms. 'God gave me this voice,' he said. 'If I have this voice now, how was I when I was 18 years old?'

Then he paused, abruptly serious. God would not be pleased with this sort of talk. 'Aaah]' he lamented. 'I must spend many hours tonight saying prayers of forgivenness for all this nonsense. I'm telling you now.' He stopped singing, he explained, in 1930, when he discovered religion. 'No more Coons after that, no more nothing.' But soon enough he was at it again, crooning away about the ocean waves and a dear love left behind in a distant land. 'Ah yes, you can't beat the old songs . . . '

It is a sentiment shared by the present generation of Coons who, in time-honoured ritual and with no hint of shame at the name no one knows why they adopted, paraded around Cape Town on new year's eve and again last night with their banjos, whistles and drums, satin suits, straw boaters and umbrellas. The practitioners are all, in the apartheid definition, 'Coloureds' - which does not stop many from polishing their faces black and painting their lips white. The band leaders belong always, like Mr Kamalie, to the Coloured sub-group known as the Cape Malays, the inspiration historically behind a cultural phenomenon as characteristic of Cape Town as the Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, the carnival in Rio.

Each Coon troupe, some of which have as many as 400 members, spends at least three months preparing for the new year revels, the culmination of which is a competition in a sports stadium at which prizes are awarded for marching, costumes and songs. On Wednesday night 'the Multimillionaires' - who collected pounds 8,000 to put their show on the road - held their last practice in the backyard of a house in Mitchell's Plain, another township inhabited by Coloureds, who are half the population of greater Cape Town.

While the women toiled in a backroom, cutting and sewing the troupe's individually tailored red and orange suits, the men, about 40 of them, sang 'Danny Boy'. It was an unlikely spectacle. Most Coons belong to gangs which trade in drugs and illegal liquor in these the most criminally violent townships in all South Africa. Cherubs now, all eyes turned heavenwards.

They sang some of Mr Kamalie's old ballads, they sang an Abba song, and jerky, jolly locally composed 'comic songs' in Afrikaans, the Coloureds' mother tongue. The common denominator in the origin of their music is the port, where the Cape Malays started arriving as early as the 17th century, shortly after the first Dutch colonists, either as slaves or political prisoners from Indonesia.

Nurul Erefaan Rakiep's great-great-great-grandfather was an Indonesian prince delivered to Cape Town in 1780 and consigned for 10 years to Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela later spent much of his life.

Mr Rakiep, 71, a retired tailor, chronicles his people's history. 'The songs we sing today first came to us from the soldiers and sailors who arrived at the harbour. In the early 19th century they would go to the slave lodge to visit the girls and there they taught them their songs. That's why even today we sing at the carnivals about Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo, the Spanish Armada and the Prince of Orange.'

A number of explanations exist as to how the Coon phenomenon came about but one, Mr Rakiep said, was that it took off in 1863 after the Alabama, an American Confederate battleship with black crew members aboard, docked in the Cape. The Coons still blacken their faces today, a peculiarity which became institutionalised, with the Dixie style of dress, after a troupe of American minstrels visited Cape Town in 1887.

If so much has been borrowed, what is unique about the Coons? Mr Kamalie explained that it was the blend of East and West. 'If you listen closely you'll see how the Muslim spiritual rhythms have been adapted to the European and American songs. We have that quivering Eastern scale you hear from the priest at the mosque when he calls the faithful to prayer.'

That, indeed, was what came through in Mr Kamalie's English music-hall renditions, in 'Sweet Angeline' and 'Why call me sweetheart?' To the gaiety and cheerful sentimentalism was added a sense of longing for something lost, far away, which binds all the Cape Malays but, in the old Muslim teacher's case, carried a sharper note of melancholy.

(Photographs omitted)