Bittereinder's Reconciliation With Afrikaans Culture

The Afrikaans hip-hop trio collaborate their way to award-winning highs

By Diane Coetzer
Thursday, 06 June 2013 10:28
Trigger-happy collaborators: Jaco, Peach and Louis (from left)
Trigger-happy collaborators: Jaco, Peach and Louis (from left)

On the face of it, Bittereinder should not work.

The Pretoria-based trio is made up of three non-vocalists (their description) who all have their own thing going on, which makes getting together to make music a feat akin to plugging the potholes that litter South Africa's roads. They're also plying a form of Afrikaans rap dance music that, in spite of what pundits might tell you, sounds nothing like what's blasting through the speakers when drinking games are going down at fresher's week.

Yet somehow, in 2012, Bittereinder released a record that was one of the year's best, yielding something thrilling with each listen and making good on the promise of the group's debut, 'n Ware Verhaal (2010).

Called Die Dinkdansmasjien, the album's title is a neat summation of why, just two albums in, Jaco van der Merwe, Louis Minnaar and Peach van Pletzen can summon a crowd and a weighty list of collaborators while winning awards ('n Ware Verhaal won the SAMA for Best Alternative Afrikaans Album in 2011 and earned the group several Tempo and MK nominations).

"We realised that is what Bittereinder has become," Van der Merwe says of the title of the band's second album.

"People come to party at our live shows – they like the hard beats. But at the same time good con- scious rap is rap that makes you hear something new every single time. It's like every time I hear Tumi (Molekane who collaborated on "A Tale of Three Cities", off 'n Ware Verhaal), I hear a new line. That is what we are trying to do – conscious rap that is playful, that doesn't take itself too seriously, over big banging beats."

Bittereinder's music might not take it too seriously, but Van der Merwe will be the first to admit that when the trio formed in 2009, it was driven by the need to confront an apartheid-created division that still lives behind fluttering suburban curtains.

"In 2007, I started writing in Afrikaans, something I had never done before," the lyricist recalls.

"I had been writing English rap since 1998 but growing up we never imagined you could do anything like that in Afrikaans. The truth is we thought being Afrikaans was very lame – we were very embarrassed about our very Afrikaansness. We were 100 percent Anglicised. Maybe we would speak Afrikaans to our parents and very close friends, but that was it."

Bittereinder is, then, a reconciliation with Afrikaans culture, language and people – for all three Bittereinder members, but most potently for Van der Merwe.

"I think I was the most deeply wounded of the three of us," he says. "In primary school, the 'Dutchman' and 'Boertjie' labels were something that I became ashamed of and I rejected everything Afrikaans for a long time. Bittereinder was the first time I said, 'This is my mother tongue. I love hip-hop, I love spoken word, I love poetry and I'm going to do it in Afrikaans.'"

At a time when the Bellville scene was spawning lukewarm copyists, this three-man think- dance machine caused a commotion, turning in an award-winning, single-yielding debut and a live show that allowed Minnaar to give full vent to the visual genius that regularly turns up in his music video work for the likes of ISO, Jack Parow, Reason and MiNNAAR (with his opera-singer sister, Magdalene). "It's so abstract to try and explain, but when I'm thinking about or listening to music, landscapes form in my head and I see it visually," Minnaar says of this important aspect of Bittereinder's appeal.

"One of the strengths of Bittereinder is that each of the three of us understands our role very well," Van der Merwe says. "We knew Louis was going to be the visual guy, we knew Peach was going to be head of the department of music and that I was covering the lyrics and rapping."

That said, there's a bleeding through between the members, with Minnaar – who first hooked up with Van der Merwe at school when he was asked to play cello in the latter's grunge band – evolving into monster beat-maker while all three "non-vocalists" figured they could sing pretty well.

Perhaps because of all three members' involvement in the broader South African music scene (Van Pletzen has his own project, Yesterday's Pupil, and is an in-demand producer, having just wrapped work on Tamara Dey's new solo record), Die Dinkdansmasjien features collaborations on most of its 10 tracks.

"I'm very trigger-happy on collaborations," Van der Merwe admits with a laugh. "Sometimes I get carried away. If I dig what someone is doing, I phone them and say 'let's make a song'. Afterwards, I give Peach a list of 12 people and say we're doing something with all of them. It can get to a point when Peach says 'don't you want to collaborate with me and Louis?'."

The most ambitious example of Bittereinder's fondness for collaboration are the eight (that's eight!) featured artists – Toast Coetzer, Hunter Kennedy, Ilze Ontong, M.J. du Preez, Andries Bezuidenhout, Mavis Vermaak and Tom Gouws – on "Regstreeks". Others include Freddie Bruno of Deepspace5 ("My favourite hip-hop group in the world," says Van der Merwe), Hemelbesem ("one of the best rappers on the S.A. scene"), Dutch rapper Tim Beumers, Chris Chameleon and Magdalene Minnaar.

In an album of stand-outs (like "Jakkals Trou", which stunningly spotlights Van der Merwe's gift for poetry against Kraftwerk-inspired techno pop), Bittereinder's collaboration with Desmond and The Tutus' Shane Durrant, "Kwaad Naas", is possibly the best example of the band's intention to create playful, conscious rap set over banging beats. A hilarious take on how English people sound when they speak Afrikaans ("I'm so f l double a on the m double a c," Durrant raps in his self-penned verse, playing off the pronunciation of "quite nice" in the song's title), it came with an equally hilarious ping-pong-themed video.

Die Dinkdansmasjien sounds surprisingly cohesive for an album that Van Pletzen describes as having been a struggle because of the stop- start, work-and-rework nature of the recording process.

"I'm very keen for the next album to take a very clean, simplistic and minimalist approach. Make it big and robust with less layers," the producer reveals. "And we must record it in two weeks. I want that window. I've seen what can be done when you get into the studio in one state of mind and I'm pretty sure we can do something amazing by doing that with our third record."

This article is from the May 2013 issue of Rolling Stone South Africa. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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