Today in Cape Town: The Kaapse Klopse

Today (January 2) in Cape Town, South Africa, residents will be celebrating the Tweede Nuwe jaar, or Second New Year. In the Malay Quarter known as the Bo-Kaape, up to 13,000 people will be participating in something called the Kaapse Klopse, or the Kaapse Klopse Karnival, a fascinating window into South African culture, as well as a mirror on our own.

Formerly known as the “Coon Carnival” (name changed for obvious reasons) this parade and festival grew out of a traditional day of rest for slaves (the country abolished slavery in 1834 although apartheid grew up to replace it). “Klopse” are clubs, roughly analogous to the “Krewes” of Mardi Gras. Basically, they are volunteer performing units, choirs, marching bands, and dance troupes, who work up special costumes and musical numbers to present in competitions. What makes it especially interesting to me is the strong influence upon the celebration of American minstrelsy. Back in the 19th century, American minstrel troupes like the Christy MInstrels and Orpheus McAdoo’s Virginia Jubilee Singers visited the country and made such an impression that the performing styles were adopted. (This is how I first learned about it). The major difference being that in the Kaapse Klopse, the South African minstrels are people of color. They adopted these performance styles (the songs, the costumes, etc), they took it over, and now they own it. And from the very beginning indigenous performance styles have been a major component, making it a unique cultural hybrid. I imagine that, as with America’s black minstrel companies, there was an unspoken “subversive” layer to it during apartheid times.

I’ve much to learn about this complex event, not just factually, but culturally, emotionally, and ethically. What do people of color FEEL about it? Is is a throwback? A regeneration? A Revolution? A way forward? It’s fascinating to contemplate this phenomenon, especially at a time when an ethnically black South African, Trevor Noah, has become a major American comedian, a sort of opposite cultural development. I love such interactions, such interminglings as these. Bridges among cultures, not walls, are the only hope we have.

To learn more about American minstrelsy, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,