In the small town of Tulbagh, Rolling Stone witnesses the first rehearsal of a very unlikely collaboration between two guitar heroes from two different worlds A week after attending David Kramer’s Kalahari Karoo Blues show at the Baxter, I get an email from Chris Kreef, Kreef Hotel festival tenting chief and Franschhoek Oesfees Hilltop project manager: “Come
In the small town of Tulbagh, Rolling Stone witnesses the first rehearsal of a very unlikely collaboration between two guitar heroes from two different worlds
A week after attending David Kramer’s Kalahari Karoo Blues show at the Baxter, I get an email from Chris Kreef, Kreef Hotel festival tenting chief and Franschhoek Oesfees Hilltop project manager: “Come to Tulbagh, I’ve got Hannes Coetzee here at my house for two weeks and he’ll be rehearsing with Albert Frost for an Oesfees show on March 23.”
I distinctly remember how 69-year-old Hannes Coetzee, an aloe tapper from Herbertsdale, captivated the sold-out Baxter Theatre with his ability to master two different guitar parts with both hands, while playing a third slide-melody with a teaspoon in his mouth. During the show, David Kramer told tales of how Coetzee’s YouTube fame (two poor-quality cellphone videos with 1.5 million combined hits) got them invited to Seattle and Nashville, where they performed and presented workshops in “teaspoon-slide guitar” back in 2007. [That’s why I had to shoot this HD clip for YouTube.]
Kramer also noted that the Grammy Award-winning folk band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, covered Coetzee’s original composition, “Mahalla”, on their 2012 album, Leaving Eden, which received a Grammy Nomination for Best Folk album. Who would’ve thought? A little bit of mahala magic from Herbertsdale’s veld made it all the way to the Grammys.
Kalahari Karoo Blues ran for a week at the Baxter. It took the mainstream media two weeks to realise a small-town success story in the making. Before leaving for Tulbagh, Kreef phones me and asks that I keep my visit quiet. The media is suddenly all over the Hannes Coetzee phenomenon. Kreef was under strict instructions from his booking agent and manager, Renaye Kramer (David’s wife), to keep his whereabouts on the down-low.
It’s Thursday afternoon and I arrive at Kreef ‘s beautiful, rustic home in Tulbagh to find the small-framed Coetzee sitting comfortably in the shade on the stoep in his back yard. He’s picking a waltz on his no-name steel string acoustic guitar. “That’s all he does all day long,” says Kreef before introducing us. Before I know it, Kreef sticks another acoustic guitar in my hand and I start jamming with Coetzee while the sun sets in the distance.
I follow him on all the songs – mostly three-chord progressions in a major key with 3/4 waltz rhythms. It’s easy enough to follow, but the real magic happens when Coetzee starts fingering the melody while simultaneously picking the rhythm parts. He refers to this as the “optel-en-knyp” (“pickup-and-pinch”) technique. I secretly hit record on my iPod and capture about seven bootleg tracks of our jam session.
Then, out of his breast pocket, he pulls his signature teaspoon and starts playing a languid Virginia Lee cover called “Darling, It’s Wonderful”. He’s playing three parts simultaneously, with the spoon in his mouth sliding on the top E string along the guitar’s neck, which voices the vocal melody. His execution on the slide melody is hauntingly beautiful and sends jolts of nostalgia down the spine.
While Coetzee tunes his guitar, Kreef tells us that he’s just got an SMS from boere musiek maestro Ollie Viljoen: “Chris, ek is so lus vir ‘n gig saam met oom Hannes, reël dit asb. – Ollie” (Chris, I am so keen for a gig with Oom Hannes, arrange it please – Ollie).
I ask Coetzee where he learned to play guitar like that. In a very soft-spoken, Karoo-Afrikaans vernacular he tells me stories of how he used to dodge house chores and farm tasks to go and practice his guitar in the veld while pretending to herd the bokke.
Early the next morning, Kreef loads Oom Hannes and I into his Toyota Cressida and we take a drive on a scenic country route to guitarist Albert Frost’s farmhouse for their scheduled rehearsal.
Frost deserves no introduction. As South Africa’s hardest working blues/rock virtuoso, he averages about four live shows a week. His CV is impressive: he’s played alongside The Blues Broers, Anton Goosen, Arno Carstens and New Porn, Karen Zoid, Koos Kombuis, Valiant Swart, Southern Gypsey Queen as well as with Dorp, Frosted Orange, in Mel Botes’ Riders From The Storm production and his own three-piece band, The Albert Frost Trio, to name a few. Then there’s also the more recent solo shows he performs with the help of a loop-station, an insane amount of guitar effects pedals (imagine a Boeing 747’s cockpit) and five guitars on stage. The first time I visited Frost’s home was in 2008 when he still lived in Mellville. I entered the house from the kitchen and the first thing I saw was a large framed photograph of Albert Frost and Arno Carstens together with The Rolling Stones.
Frost’s Tulbagh home has a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains. He greets us at the front door and warns us that he recently got back from a vicious two-week tour and that he’s still recovering from a serious case of food poisoning. The dining room is stacked with paraphernalia: guitar cases tagged with layers of flight stickers, PA systems, speakers and microphone stands.
On the dining table are a few gig posters and two magic markers. On the left side of one wall hangs a framed gold-album – Arno Carstens’ 2003 album, Another Universe (on which Frost shares writing and producing credits), and on the right side hangs a framed case with his 2002 solo album, Catfish.
An old coloured Oom of Khoisan descent, with a teaspoon in his breast pocket and a no-name guitar makes himself comfortable in the lounge next to an Afrikaans white man with an English name holding a R25 000 Martin & Co. acoustic guitar that he tunes with an iPhone app.
This is an excerpt from the March 2013 issue of Rolling Stone South Africa, to read the full story you can subscribe to the magazine.