Henry Trotter in front of Yale stained glass windows

Cape Town Minstrel Carnival

© Joel Pollak

Classic minstrel poseAs the southeast breeze kicks up outside Cape Town's Greenpoint Stadium, the sound of strumming banjos and banging drums reaches a crescendo, and thousands of merry minstrels hold onto their multicolored hats. It's the final day of the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival, known more colloquially among "coloured" or mixed-race Capetonians as the "Coon Carnival," and the excitement generated by weeks of parades and months of preparation is building to a climax. Dressed in a dazzling array of shining colors, the "coons"—mostly men but also some women and children--burst spontaneously into song and dance. They croon in the local Afrikaans dialect of "Kaapse taal" (literally, "Cape language"), jump into little Chaplinesque jigs, and pump their parasols to and fro. And in their midst, looking dapper in his sky-blue jacket and with neon-green polka dots painted across his cheeks, is the festival's only white participant: Henry Trotter, age 28, of New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A.

"Henry!" shouts a coloured woman wearing a press badge. "There you are!" She gives him a hug and motions to a cameraman, who starts filming. Mr. Trotter strikes a pose and is immediately surrounded by camera-happy comrades from his troupe, most in blackface or in some version thereof, who flash toothless grins and victory signs. Then the troupe's band rumbles past and Mr. Trotter falls into formation with the rest of the minstrels, who gaily shimmy and shuffle their way into the stadium to the rhythm of drums and the flutter of tambourines.

Henry Trotter with Charlotte & Edward JonesMr. Trotter, a graduate student in Yale University's African Studies program, first came to Cape Town in 1997, at the end of extensive travels in the eastern and southern regions of the continent. "I was curious about the coloured community here, because it's quite different than what I'd seen in the rest of Africa. Here you have a community basically predicated on the idea that they're mixed, that they're not 'pure' whites or Africans. And even though you have, of course, mixed people everywhere else, you don't find any [mixed] communities necessarily...and you would never find a majority mixed community. But here in Cape Town, you have that. So I wanted to look into it, and see what it was all about."

Three years after his first visit, Mr. Trotter has returned to Cape Town, this time not as just a traveler but as a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholar working on an M.A. thesis. He took up residence in the coloured township of Bonteheuwel (bon-teh-HEE-vel) on the Cape Flats and decided to study the ways in which the coloured community remembers the forced removals of the apartheid era. While conducting interviews throughout Cape Town's coloured townships, he began to learn more about the Coon Carnival and was eventually invited to observe a troupe rehearsing. Soon, he found himself becoming more than just an observer.

Edward Jones paints the face of a Lentegeur Entertainer"They said, 'Well, why don't you just run with us?'" he recalls. Mr. Trotter could not play or sing the Kaapse songs in the troupe's repertoire, but he found a role as a "runner"—one of the dancers who marches behind the band and the main chorus. So after attending a few rehearsals and paying 250 Rand (about $35) for his outfit, Mr. Trotter was officially a member of the Lentegeur Entertainers, named after the Cape Flats neighborhood where most of its members live.

In joining the "coons," Mr. Trotter created a minor sensation throughout this city, which is still deeply divided along racial lines. Few whites, and few blacks for that matter, participate in or attend the Coon Carnival; it is largely a coloured affair. And although a handful of foreign tourists come to watch the troupes parade through the streets, there have been no other foreigners in recent memory who have actually participated. Mr. Trotter also discovered that his participation exposed class divisions within the coloured community itself. Henry's girlfriend, for example, a coloured woman who works for the municipal department of land affairs and aspires to be a lawyer, was mortified when he joined. "She was so against it," laughs Mr. Trotter. "She had never seen the coons in her life. Part of the way to set yourself apart from the working class is to deny interest and participation in the 'coons,' which [are] a celebration of working-class existence, basically. She had a strong aversion to it, and she said, 'it's so local, it's just a bunch of skollies, just a bunch of riff-raff, getting together and jumping up and down."

Mr. Trotter's neighbors in Bonteheuwel, however, and his new friends in the Lentegeur Entertainers, were enthusiastic and encouraging. Of course, the young man had to endure his share of good-natured ribbing. "'Hey, whitey, stay in formation,' they used to say," he recalls with a smile. But his involvement was welcomed and even celebrated by his new friends and neighbors. They were thrilled that someone outside the coloured community had taken an interest in the carnival. The Cape Argus, one of Cape Town's local dailies, was also exultant: "Uncle Sam marches with the minstrels," it declared in a bold headline.

Blackface is still popular in the carnival

The carnival has its roots in the creole culture that formed at the Cape over hundreds of years from the interaction and intermingling of indigenous African groups, European settlers, Muslim slaves from the Indonesian archipelago, and people from a variety of other backgrounds. Freed slaves in Cape Town developed their own cycle of festivals in December and January, among them the Tweede Nuwe Jaar ("Second New Year"), which is celebrated on January 2nd and is a kind of independence day for the coloured community. When American minstrels arrived at the Cape in the mid-nineteenth century, the styles and sounds of vaudeville were incorporated into local celebrations, and the Coon Carnival was born. The word "coon" was borrowed but its pejorative and racial connotations were ignored, so that it came to refer to a member of a minstrel troupe and nothing more.

Today, the minstrels continue to borrow from a variety of cultural sources. One of this year's favorite troupes, for example, is called the Pennsylvanians; another is known as the Fabulous Mardi Gras. And while the minstrels' repertoire largely consists of folk songs, they also perform Broadway show tunes and dance to hip-hop and Latin tracks as they parade through the streets of the city.

The Lentegeur Entertainers march around Greenpoint StadiumIt is perhaps ironic that a festival formed from so many varied and cosmopolitan influences should remain so local in character. Yet this is part of the charm of the Coon Carnival. Each troupe is made up of members from a particular neighborhood of the city, and each is expected to parade and perform for its local community in exchange for booze and tables full of delicious Cape cuisine. Of course, the local character of the carnival also means that the carnival reflects some local problems. Many of the city's gangsters join the minstrel troupes, for instance, and tensions sometimes spill over into violence at the stadium. But rather than exacerbating the problem, the Coon Carnival often provides an opportunity for peace and co-existence within the community. "Look," said one elderly minstrel in the green, yellow, and red of the Elsies River Community Entertainers, waving his arms over a dancing sea of colorful umbrellas. "All the gangsters from the Cape Flats in one place. And no guns. Everybody's happy. It just goes to show you."

Under apartheid, the Coon Carnival faced enormous challenges. Segregation, forced removals, and discrimination made the troupes and their performances more difficult to organize. The government often placed the best stadiums off-limits to the coloured community, and where the carnival was able to perform it had to do so in front of segregated audiences. Now, in the "New South Africa," the government is lending its support to the carnival, and Nelson Mandela himself presided over the carnival's opening in 1996. Academics have begun taking notice as well, with a groundbreaking study of the Coon Carnival being published in 1999 by the French academic Denis-Constant Martin. And with tourism quickly becoming a pillar of the local economy, city officials talk about turning the "Minstrel Carnival" into a celebration that will rival festivals in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro.

The Lentegeur Entertainers strut their stuffAs exciting and ambitious as that may sound, some of the minstrels themselves are apprehensive about opening up the festival to the world. There is a widespread fear that organizing the Coon Carnival to appeal to foreign tourists and commercial sponsors would mean taking it away from the local communities that have kept it alive for over a hundred years, in effect reserving the best seats for tourists just as they were once reserved for whites at the segregated stadiums. And there is an enduring ambivalence in Cape Town about coloured identity and whether it is something that can or should be embraced and celebrated. If Capetonians are unsure about how to respond to a parade of blackface minstrels, the feeling goes, how might the rest of the world react?

Mr. Trotter, for one, has made up his mind: the Coon Carnival is a lot of fun, even if wearing blackface might be seen back home as a provocative act. "I think it would be challenging to explain this to Americans, because we have abandoned these things," he says. "But one group's cultural taboos are another's celebration." In Cape Town, as in other creole cities around the world, it seems that pushing cultural boundaries is what the party's all about after all.

Henry Trotter with his troupe, the Lentegeur Entertainers : photo by Joel Pollak
Henry Trotter (middle, back) with members of his troupe, the Lentegeur Entertainers

Joel PollakAbout the author: Joel Pollak graduated from Harvard University and served as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in Cape Town in 1999-2000. He stayed in South Africa for many years: as a University of Cape Town student, a freelance journalist, and the head speech writer for South Africa's Democratic Alliance political party. He is now a student at Harvard Law School.