Afrique Mon Désir, both an album and a live show to be presented at this year’s Klein Karoo National Arts Festival following their amazing debut in Stellenbosch at the Woordfees, is the culmination of many different desires but more than that, the right people at the right time for performer/composer Laurinda Hofmeyr to stretch herself and broaden her scope. She talks to DIANE DE BEER about this latest venture, which can be seen at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival in the next few days but watch out for further sightings as well as a trip to France:
It began with a meeting with Nico McLachlan of the Cape Town Music Academy who sponsored the project and was the initial driver. He introduced her to the then director of the Alliance in Cape Town, Christian Pizafy, who organised a few concerts at the Alliance through 2015 and 2016.
Hofmeyr’s magic has always been setting Afrikaans poetry to music with strong African rhythms inherent in the music. “The crowd at the Alliance was very multicultural and quite a few French people also attended. So I made a point of throwing in a sentence or two in French into the English presentation (where I sang Afrikaans songs). I liked the context; it was as if I heard the Afrikaans poems as pearls when I sang to a multicultural audience.”
It was also McLachlan that suggested she branch out with the same art but in a new direction. “He suggested I take French poetry from Africa (actually English was initially also included in the mix) and put it to music. I was hesitant because I thought Afrikaans was the only language where every word had a special colour and texture for me.
“I think the longing poems, the French that I could speak as well as the French African people far from their homes in Cape Town, were probably the elements that ignited the project,” she explains.
The thing that finally convinced her was that McLachlan said the newly founded Cape Town Music Academy would sponsor her and fund the new CD, also titled Afrique Mon Désir.
This was a new world for this lone musician, who in the past had to battle her way through the artistic world just to get herself heard. She has always had her followers (myself included), but not the audience that her extraordinary work deserved. While she is a niche performer, it was as if her audience had not yet found her – and perhaps the language was limiting.
Another theme in her life has been French, as both school and University French had opened doors in her head and in real life. “Important people in my life also had a French African connection (like Breyten Breytenbach). The only connection to French I had for a long time though, was speaking to the car guards, all people longing for home.”
The fact that McLachlan was aware of French-speaking people far from home (maybe through the Alliance) made him suggest that they bring musicians from French-speaking countries into the project. Here Pizafy from the Alliance assisted in a huge way. “He listened to over 70 West African musicians and chose 10 for a workshop in December 2016. From these, we chose the three fantastic singers and the one guitarist that forms part of the Afrique mon Désir Ensemble,” she says.
During the workshop Hofmeyr realised that the theme of ‘world music’ being an inspiration for her, was also taken to new heights with this project. Another musician, Régis Gizavo (a Madagascan accordion player), was also brought on board, someone she describes as one of the most amazing musos she has ever met. “He took just one take with most of the songs and that is without even listening once to a song before he started playing along.” (Sadly, he died unexpectedly only a few weeks after the recording.) “I feel very blessed to have shared some of his last musical moments on this planet.”
The poetry was selected from countries like Madagascar, Senegal, Mauritania and Chad and she was assisted by Catherine du Toit, head of foreign languages at the University of Stellenbosch, suggested by Breytenbach. “All French departments at different SA universities were busy with a project where a famous poet from Madagascar was translated into Afrikaans and English. That was the first poet that Catherine introduced me to. With each poet, she chose a few poems herself that she thought would be workable; not too long, and then I translated every word for myself with a French dictionary.
“Before actually trying to set the poem to music, I made sure that the words had a colour and texture for me and that I was convinced of my interpretation. Only then did I choose a poem or two from a specific poet.
“I also did some research of the countries where the poets were born (most live in non-African countries now). I tried to listen and read about different musical traditions and how the musical elements are used in those traditions which I used as inspiration. A good example is Mon pays and the suggestion of a Modus that I heard in Mauritanian music. I tried to let my picture of how the landscape would look, where the poet grew up, correspond with the feel of the music.”
Combining these new French-African poems with some of her Afrikaans poems already set to music, her selections were determined by those that had specific themes of longing and of course, Africa.
“Working with the four musicians made me aware of all the borders drawn between people through language, a different culture but also through socio-economic status. The little bit that I have learned about their lives here in South Africa as well as their excellent musical ability has been an eye opener.” As always, her musical collaboration when working on the poems was genius guitarist and composer in his own right Schalk Joubert. “Where I explored the poems, Schalk did a lot of the crossover/fusion work. I explained the theme of a poem and then he often suggested a ‘chorus’ and the singers would come up with words that would fit.”
Anyone who can catch any of these concerts should try to do so but there’s also the album which might not be live, but captures some of the magical coming together on the continent from musicians who all feel the heartbeat.