Cape Town's Colorful Minstrels Sing-in the New Year

01 January 2009

The New Year in South Africa brings thousands of residents to the streets for a colorful minstrel parade. Brightly-costumed marching choral groups commemorate a unique aspect of South Africa's multiracial history.

Members of Cape Coon Minstrel Troupe march to Malay music in front of thousands of Capetonians at a local stadium (2001 file photo)
Members of Cape Coon Minstrel Troupe march to Malay music in front of thousands of Capetonians at a local stadium (2001 file photo)
Cape Town's musical New Year's tradition dates back more than a century, to the days when Dutch colonists brought slaves here from Southeast Asia. The slaves served as dockworkers, farm laborers and household servants. And, they were given one day off per year. Ethnomusicologist Sylvia Bruinders at the University of Cape Town says the slaves took to the streets. 

"This music emerges out of the slave culture. And the tradition started when the slaves were given off on the second of New Year. So on the second of January every year that was the free day for slaves. And they would go around in the streets and march and play instruments," said Bruinders.

The slaves copied European and American minstrels who visited the Cape. Eventually, a distinctive South African sound developed.

"We call it the goema rhythm. This is the rhythm that people recognize here as a Cape rhythm," says Bruinders.

Bruinders explains that the beat and harmonies still reflect where the music originated.

"It's a poor community. They don't have new shiny instruments. It's not perfect, they were not taught. They were all handed down from father to son," she said.  
Today the minstrels are a holiday tradition among Cape Town's mixed-race or "colored" residents, many of whom are descendants of slaves. A downtown parade involves thousands of participants. Dozens of minstrel troupes practice throughout the year.

This troupe is called The Pennsylvanians, named after American singers from the state of Pennsylvania who influenced the Cape minstrel tradition.

The choirs take their music seriously. Many have corporate sponsors, and they compete for trophies in a multiday competition at local stadiums. The Pennsylvanians' musical director is Ahmed Ismail.

"Well, it may look like neighborhood choral groups, but you will be amazed to see the academically qualified people - music instructors, marching instructors, people from the navy - that are behind the scenes," said Ahmed Ismail, The Pennsylvanians' musical director.

The minstrels dress up in face paint and colorful satin costumes with fancy hats and parasols. One elder, Zane Ibrahim, says it is a moment for members of Cape Town's colored community to honor their roots.

"There is a time where you have to celebrate the very fact of being alive. And when you see these people, when they're wearing satin, you see a totally different human being. You see a spirit that is us," he said.

The minstrel carnival remains an annual social high point primarily for the working class, who continue to celebrate their heritage by singing-in the New Year.