Henry Trotter in front of Yale stained glass windows

Yankee Minstrel

Thoughts On My Participation in the Cape Town Minstrel "Coon" Carnival

According to newspapers and carnival participants in 2001, I was the first white person to ever run with the "coons." Considering that the Coon Carnival has been going on for over a century, I find this hard to believe. In fact, Denis-Constant Martin's wonderful book Coon Carnival, which traces the history of the carnival back to the 19th Century, shows that many whites have participated in the past. So while I'm sure I was not the first white person ever, I may have been the first one in living memory.

The carnival was a fantastic learning experience for me. Before joining, it had never really occurred to me to participate until I went to watch a troupe practice in Mitchell's Plain. The Jones family that I was living with in Bonteheuwel had a connection to the troupe because Mr. Jones used to live in the same block of flats (Bloemhof Flats) in District Six as the troupe Captain, Aubrey Arendse. Since most of the people living in Lentegeur have a connection to District Six, for Mr. Jones, it was like introducing me to his long-lost family. After watching the guys practice, they asked me if I wanted to "run" with them. I jumped at the chance. Thus I joined the Lentegeur Entertainers of Lentegeur, Mitchell's Plain.

Like other international carnivals (in Rio de Janeiro, Trinidad & Tobago, New Orleans, etc.), this one comes out of a racially and culturally mixed post-slavery community. In South Africa, that group is called the Cape coloureds. While coloureds comprise a complex and diverse group, the bulk boast a working-class background and live in the Cape Flats, the massive township complex built by the apartheid government for coloureds and Africans. The carnival is essentially a coloured working-class amusement, catering to an annual boom/bust rhythmical cycle in which they work hard for the most of the year, and party just as hard at the end of it. The minstrel carnival is but one of a number of events on the summer festive season calendar for this community. In addition to the coon carnival, there are also the Malay Choir competitions, Christmas Band parades to enjoy and nagtroupes. Many coloureds participate in more than one of these events.

African groups, like the Xhosa or Zulu do not have an organic historical connection to the Cape carnival cycle, though a handful do participate in various troupes. The long-standing Langa township has almost always put forth a dance troupe of youngsters for downtown street parade, though they do not compete for prizes at the stadium because they do not actually perform as "minstrels." They wear outfits that conform to a more rural and "traditional" cultural aesthetic. But just like the "Apache Indians" (whose job it is to run around with plastic hatchets and scare the children in the audience) and the "Bits & Pieces" (made up of stragglers who also want to parade, but don't have troupe uniforms), the African youth dancers from Langa have made a memorable impact on the carnival for a long time.

The carnival itself lasts four days as thousands of "coons" march in dozens of troupes. (In 2001, there were 13,000 members in over twenty troops. The numbers are greater now.) On New Year's Day, they gather at their troupe Captain's house in the townships and sing and dance for the township audiences. They march up and down the streets, giving all the on-lookers a free show. They also head directly for certain houses where they can expect a tafel ("table") of food and drink for their efforts. Usually watermelon and local-brand soft drinks (like "Jive" and "Bashews") are available. Older men often get some alcohol as well. Then from that house they continue to some more. This last a number of hours. Then they head to one of a few stadia (Greenpoint, Athlone, Vygieskraal, and others) to compete for prizes in categories like: best uniform, best English comic song, best Afrikaans comic song, best juvenile song, etc. This will last until after midnight, after which they'll head to Bo-Kaap and finish the evening singing and dancing for the locals there.

On "Tweede Nuwe Jaar," January 2nd, the troupes continue the celebration by giving the township folks lots of free entertainment, taking tafels, and going to the stadium again for the competitions. But most importantly, at some time during the day, they will go to District Six and march through town, taking back the streets of the city which had been there's for generations. This is the highlight of the carnival for most spectators and performers as thousands throng the streets to watch all of the troupes dance by. It is an awesome and colorful sight. After this big day, the troupes will meet again on the following two Saturdays to perform in the townships, compete at the stadia, and croon away in Bo-Kaap. For most troupes, these four days will be the extent of their performance, but some of the prize-winning troupes will be asked to compete at a regional competition brining in the best teams from the different stadia. It all lasts months and months. And just when they're about to hang up their satins, it's time yet again to start planning for the next year!

In retrospect, the media attention surrounding my participation (in radio, TV, and newspapers) shows just how far South Africa still has to go in promoting positive interracial interaction. The carnival does grow out of a particular racial community, yes, but all people should feel free to join. Apparently, since my participation, white South Africans have also gotten involved, as they should. As the carnival becomes more of an official attraction of the city, advertised by travel agencies to international carnival-hoppers, the celebration will be able to do two things: highlight some of the artistic and cultural achievements of working class coloureds, and offer an opportunity for interracial rapprochement.



Terminology: Coons

For Americans and Britons, the term "coons" rankles the senses. It is an offensive word, conjuring up degrading images of either whites putting on "blackface" or blacks doing the same, all for the sake of entertaining racist crowds some decades back. For a variety of reasons, the term "coon" does not lead to such associations for the coloured working-class participants in the carnival. This different understanding points to a fascinating history of cultural appropriation and refashioning.

Though the carnival traces its legacy back to the emancipation of slaves in the 1830s, the minstrel aesthetic derives from white and black American entertainers who brought the style to South Africa. Black Americans were already considered cultural heroes for black and coloured South Africans, so whatever new styles or music that they brought were often rapidly appropriated and remade to local conditions. This happened with "sprituals" (gospel music) back then and continues with R&B and hip-hop today. And the minstrel aesthetic was taken up in Cape Town as a suitable way to jazz up the annual procession celebrating the end of slavery. (In Natal and Johannesburg, the aesthetic fed into all-male isicathamiya singing groups in various labor settings. The popular acapella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo come out of that tradition.)

Over time, while the minstrel style became deeply entwined with the carnival cycle, it lost its appeal in America and Britain. It came to stand for oppression and humiliation by whites against blacks. But in Cape Town, because it was appropriated by and performed for local coloured amusement, it never took on such negative meanings. Rather, the idea of the "coon" remained rather apoliticized, a symbol of New Years revelry and jolling.

Today, overseas visitors (and middle-class South Africans) often express shock and horror at the idea that there is a cultural tradition that still identifies with the "coon" image. From their background, disgust can be the only response. That was certainly my response when I first heard about it in the 1990s. But the danger of such a reaction is that it universalizes one's own moral disposition without first understanding the history or meaning of the idea locally. Words do not have the same meaning in all places, nor do rites, practices, or gestures. Rather than imposing our own "foreign" understanding of the coon onto Capetonians, perhaps we should seek to understand how they use it, mean it, celebrate it.

For really, it marks a rather simple historical fact: that black Americans have always been the "coolest" blacks in the world, the ones that coloureds have long looked up to, and have always taken seriously. Even over a hundred years ago, when the coon character was first performed in Cape Town, coloureds were excited by the cultural products that black Americans were disseminating. Like so many other cultural ideas from America, coloureds appropriated it and re-fashioned it according to their own sensibilities. The fact that the term "coon" never took on negative associations amongst working-class coloureds bears testimony to the fact that, by the time that Americans started to re-evaluate their understanding of the "coon," it had already become something "local," something that did not need to continue to refer to American tastes. The term "coon" is a historical reminder that the globalization of ideas has been going on for a very long time. In Cape Town, the "coon" is just one of many of those historical cultural artifacts.



Amerikaner ook lid van klopse

van JANICE OHLSON

MetroBurger article : 18 January 2001

WANNEER hulle dans, dans hy saam. Hy het sy eie uitrusting. En vra jy hom om te sing, trek hy lustig los in 'n swaar Amerikaanse aksent "Ouma wil gaan dans vanaand".

Hy is Henry Trotter (27) van Los Angeles, Amerika, wat reeds 'n paar optredes saam met die klopsegroep Lentegeur Entertainers van Mitchells Plain agter die rug het.

Vir getroue klopse-aanhangers is Trotter al 'n ou bekende. Hulle het hom dan ook diť naweek aan die eindronde van die Kaapse Minstrelkarnavalkompetisie in die Groenpuntstadion sien deelneem.

Trotter werk aan 'n meestersgraad in geskiedenis aan die Yale-Universiteit in Connecticut. Vir sy tesis doen hy navorsing oor "Bruin mense se herinneringe aan gedwonge uitsettings in die apartheidsjare". Hy bly by Charlotte en Edward Jones in Bluegumweg in Bonteheuwel.

Hy vertel: "Ek was in 1997 die eerste keer in die Kaap en het Bonteheuwel tóé leer ken. Die mense het my gefassineer en ek het toe al geweet as ek terugkom, wil ek hier kom bly."

Dit was terwyl hy 'n onderhoud met een van die kapteins van die Lentegeur Entertainers, Aubrey Arendse, gevoer het, dat dié hom na 'n oefening van die Lentegeur Entertainers genooi het. Kort daarna het hy sy aansluitingsgeld betaal en sedertdien loop sy beker oor van plesier.

"Toe ek in 1997 hier was, het ek in Portlands, Mitchells Plain, gebly en is aangegryp deur die stories van mense oor hul lewe in Distrik Ses. Ek het ook op my vroeöre besoek mense in Bonteheuwel leer ken. Hulle het vir my verblyf by die gesin Jones gereël. Ek is baie gelukkig hier," het hy vertel.

Trotter is gefassineer deur dié jare lange, Kaapse tradisie, maar is verbaas dat geen wittes of swartes daaraan deelneem nie. "Die troepe word in Kaapstad as 'n soort 'reënboognasie'-gebeurtenis uitgebeeld, terwyl dit eintlik glad nie so is nie," meen hy.

Hy vertel sy vriendin, Marge Bingham, 'n regstudent aan die Universiteit van Wes-Kaapland wat in Factreton bly, was aanvanklik baie gekant teen sy betrokkenheid by die klopse, maar is sedertdien baie trots op hom.

Trotter, wat deur Rotariërs Internasionaal geborg word, keer in Augustus na Amerika terug.