Dutch songs from the Cape Town "Malay" community

Cape Malay” music, or Malay music from Cape Town, which is so particular to that region, appeared more than three hundred years ago, at the end of the seventeenth century. Its origins are closely linked to the trade of slaves  brought from the Indonesian archipelago - hence the label “Malay” - from the Malabar coast in India, and from Eastern Africa. Indeed, the “Cape Malay” repertoire makes it possible to retrace most of the history of slavery in South Africa. The musical influence of European settlers is also an important ingredient, as is that of the black inhabitants of the region - they too have contributed, mainly in the form of slave songs. These slaves were notably “free Blacks” of the nguni tongue from the eastern territories of South Africa, populations collectively referred to as bushmen, who lived at the Cape, in the Karoo basin and in the Kalahari desert.

The term “Malay” is, however, incorrect, just as it is inaccurate to say that the groups of musicians are made up of Malay descendants. While the general public usually attributes oriental and Asian influences to this music, it must be recognized that it is not in itself intrinsically “Malay”. Group members moreover, are both Muslim and Christian (1).

Slaves of Malay origin were acknowledged to be skilled craftsmen and excellent musicians, and their talents were appropriated to entertain the Dutch. Their music combine religious themes and rhythmic variations, while the lyrics are a mixture of Dutch, Malay and Khoi San. That is how Afrikaans, as it is spoken today in South Africa, developed.

It is said that in 1834 at the time of their liberation, small groups of slaves descended into the streets of Cape Town, singing songs to celebrate their freedom. This tradition persists today during the “negro” carnaval (Coon carnival), which is held there each New Year. On that day, the “Cape Malay” choirs, grouped into ‘nagtroepe’, or night troupes, play music and parade through the city until the small hours. Participants are decked out in coloured clothing and their faces are painted. The costumes and make-up are said to have been inspired by an American music-hall artist who visited the region at the beginning of the 20th century. After the celebrations, the various “Cape Malay” choir groups take part in an annual competition. This is a tradition which goes back to the thirties.

The songs of “Cape Malay” choirs are often given the general description of “Hollandse liedjies”, or Dutch ditties. The words are a mixture of Malay, African and Dutch, and some of the gentler airs are often sung in the old Malayo-Dutch language. The secular tradition of the “Cape Malay” choirs with their “Nederlandsliedere” (Dutch songs), but also their “Moppies” and “Ghommaliedtjies” - humourous songs - owes a lot to Eastern European musical folklore. Finally, there also exists, although it is not represented on this record, a religous music with a strong rhythmic aspect, which is also labelled Malay and which is known as “Ratiep” (2).

The instruments used are the ghoema, a small wine barrel over which a calf skin is stretched and which forms a round drum; the four-stringed hand-crafted banjo; the guitar and, in some cases, the mandolin. The more rapid rhythms accompany the comic songs (moppies), whose lyrics originally helped to alleviate, through humour, the slaves’ burdens.

The “Malay” musical culture has also spread through the townships in the wake of the forced movements of black and half-caste populations towards the Cape Flats - the sandy plain surrounding the Cape. It must not be forgotten that under apartheid there was a clear distinction made between “Blacks” and “Half-castes”. People with very dark skin and frizzy hair were “Blacks”, whilst those with a lighter shade of skin were labelled “Coloured”. This designation, hastily translated by “Half-caste” included Indians, Malay, Arabs, etc. that is to say all those who were neither “Whites” nor “Blacks”. Black and half-cast communities were forced to live separately in distinct townships. The tradition of “Cape Malay” choirs, and with it, a musical culture which goes back to the age of slavery, still exists today in the old “Coloured” townships, and in certain areas (half-caste) of the Cape such as Bo-Kaap.

Kanala” a word derived from the Malay language, imported to South Africa by the slaves and used in many idiomatic expressions, is both a call for help and an invocation of each person’s duty towards his fellow humans.

(1). See Valmont Layne, «Music», in Townships, from segregation to citizenship, (Book-CD) Colophon Records, 1999, pp. 53-55.
(2). Ibidem.
(3). Crain Soudien, «District Six and the townships», in Townships, pp. 58-59 

CD tracks

  1.  Moffie
    A comic song mocking the township transvestite (his way of dressing, the bag he is carrying, ...). The song describes the contents of the bag, the hair rollers, the lipstick, the face powder. It is generally interpreted by a solo singer and accompanied by comic gesticulations.

  2. Bruilof (1) Wedding song describing the festivities, celebration, dishes, delicacies, cakes and table decorations.

  3. Boemstraat
    A mixture of verses and chorus of different traditional songs, interpreted to a rapid rhythm and in comical style. “Boemstraat” describes a street where the prostitutes ply their trade. The song calls out to people and asks them why they are out so late in Boemstraat. The other verses are drawn from various traditional songs.

  4. Boer, Boer
    This slave song gives a comic description of how the Master gets dressed (dealing in this case with an Afrikaner farmer). He starts by pulling on his socks, then his shoes, trousers, shirt, hat and tie.

  5. Ou Lammadie
    In this slave song women are wondering whose is the child they are carrying. It evokes the cruel fate of women reduced to slavery, who are considered as child-bearing machines to produce more workers. Traditionally, the song is accompanied by a “cushion dance” during which a cushion is passed from one woman to another to symbolize the baby.

  6. Waar groei di druiwe
    Description of a winemaking farm and of the surrounding vines.

  7. Bo-Kaap
    Repetitive song accompanying the “Malay” choirs as they parade through the streets on New Year’s Eve, to celebrate that event and the liberation of the slaves. Bo-Kaap designates the “Malay quarter” where the first freed slaves established themselves. The choirs gather at Bo-Kaap to sing before the houses of parents and friends. This song evokes the joy of seeing people arrive from all over to party together.

  8. Alibama
    Comic song describing a ship called “Alibama” which apparantly arrived from America.

  9. Batavia
    This song evokes the slaves’ desire to return to their native land, Batavia (Indonesia). It describes the beauty of this country, their faraway homeland.

  10. Salie Eikebeen
    Comic song describing the local grocer and making fun of his Indian accent.

  11. Diekie Boy
    Evocation of a  young boy who is dying. It is a song which comes from a show. The story is based on a novel.

  12. Rosa
    Traditional “Dutch” song describing a young 16 year old girl called Rosa.

  13. Instrumental

  14. Pappariepap
    This song humorously recounts the tale of a man who is terrified of making his wife pregnant.

  15. Bruilof (2)
    Another wedding song which also describes the wedding festivities.

  16. Spoek
    Comic song telling the adventures of a couple who believe they have seen a ghost.