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In search of Rian Malan

Vincent Pienaar

I confess that I had never heard of Rian Malan before I had worshipped at the shrine of Radio Kalahari Orkes’s Stoomradio – an album of such texture that many replays still allow me discoveries of new dimensions: an instrument that I hadn’t heard before or a moment of brilliant comedic timing delivered by Ian Roberts or the incomparable Norman Anstey; all of it underscored and enhanced by the production work of the legendary Lloyd Ross and Dan Roberts.

The lyrics on that album are nothing short of staggering, with “Kaptein, Kaptein”, “Renaissance” and “Crying Shame” unparalleled as tongue-in-cheek, social commentary and “Kwagga” and “Die Held” defining the Afrikaans language and the boerevolk in a “don’t take me too seriously” way. The composer, and indeed the writer of most of the songs, the notes reveal, is a person by the name of Rooi Jan.


The album revealed that the musician on acoustic guitar is a person named Rian Malan. When I spoke to Dan Roberts at Back 2 Basix one evening, he confirmed that it was, in fact, the same person. “Was he at the theatre?” I asked. “No he’s in Cape Town,” said Dan. Pity; I would have liked to have met him.

I had only vaguely heard of a book published in the early 90s by some deserter who had moved overseas because he didn’t want to go to the army. There was nothing special about people not going to the army, but the book was acclaimed by people such as Salman Rushdie, which was indeed remarkable.

I Googled the composer, Rian Malan, and ended up at Amazon.com, and there it was: My Traitor’s Heart. I borrowed the book from a friend and got an insight into a remarkable soul. Not only did he define my own feelings about serving in the army and the border war, but he did so in a way that was very different from the “tormented-soul” anecdotal publications that seem to have been top of the pops for so long. While I went to the border, and Malan went to the USA, it is still as balanced a perspective as I have ever read on being a male of military age in the South Africa of the seventies and eighties. The intense and honest biographical aspects of the book told me a great deal about the man (and explained a great many of the songs on the album), but also left me with an immense respect for the journalistic capabilities of the author, as evidenced, for example, by his superb account of a man named Alcock who paid with his life when he tried to engineer peace between feuding Zulu factions (worthy of any Hillbilly lunacy) in the Natal Midlands. This account was a thirty-page example of what research combined with writing skill can do, the report made more poignant in its understated exposition of real tragedy.

Further searches on the internet revealed a well-written article by somebody (probably James Whyle) who knows him well. It confirmed what I had come to suspect. The author (of the article) writes: “… how Rian became a writer. How he wrote the book. It emerged, he told me, out of a psychic battle which offered him an impossible choice: he must fight, either for Apartheid, or against it. In the eighties there was no longer any middle ground. I understood.” The picture of Rian Malan that was emerging was of a man who was seeking the truth and coming up confused.

Talking about confusion, I found an interview that Rian did with Frank Zappa (of Mothers of Invention fame). Zappa was known for his reluctance to do interviews and it is interesting to try and work out how the journalist in Malan had found a way to get the appointment. It is no surprise that the article is convoluted and tiresome with the neurotic Zappa predicting endlessly how Malan would distort what he had said and that he was already sorry that he had granted the interview – same old boring stuff. But then the interesting bit: Malan ended up talking, it seems, more about himself and South Africa, than Frank Zappa. Was that ego or was it a desire to speak about these things? Given my love of musicians and poets I was willing to settle for the latter, but maybe …

Towards the end of last year a very good friend (good because she knew what I really wanted, because she had the money to pay for it and because she went to a lot of trouble to get it) gave me, for my birthday, an album that I had heard was on the cards but didn’t know was available: Alien/Inboorling, Rian Malan’s solo album.

Clutching my prize in my sweaty little paw I raced off to find a CD player (I still have the proof of my anxiety: a broken CD case) and listened … mesmerised. The first track (more poem than song), “Trekboer”, tells about South Africans huddled around the braai in a freezing Canada, and an argument with his rightwing friend, Piet Basson, whom he describes as follows: “Ek was lekker getrek, so ek sê vir hom: Haai, Piet ou maat, jy’s my vriend, maar eisch, dis bog wat jy praat: ons is net bang om te erken ons het fout gemaak en Suid-Afrika verniet verlaat. En ja, hy’t my gedonner.”

And so the songs tumbled out:

“Bloekomboom.” The unwanted alien: “Afgesaag, afgemaai. Hulle sê die boom moet waai. Hy’s 'n alien, hy’s 'n nare uitheemse ding; kap hom af van Harare tot Tafelbaai. Maar ek sê, alien, ook inboorling, hy’s nes ek, my bloekomboom.”

“Coenraad Buys”: I guess inspired by the Malan in early South African history (chronicled in My Traitor’s Heart) who ran off into the dreaded, dry, dismal Overberg region with the coloured love of his life.

“Slenter”: The story of Johnny who sells snake-oil-type pills that will turn you black in a matter of weeks so that you can have the inside track: get government contracts, get close to the guys who hand out big money, and: “na slegs drie weke is jy daartoe in staat om vir die wêreld te sê: ‘fok jou, ek’s swart!’”

“Jerusalemganger”: A song about a long, hard journey, perhaps to nowhere, in a broken-down ossewa. But people are talking about a bright rainbow that may or may not exist: “Maar agter brand die brûe, en voor lê moeilikheid. So, ek vat vir my 'n stywe dop, en trek tot anderkant uit.”

And perhaps the most insightful (also a story out of the book), “Boer sê nie jammer nie”: Oubaas Malan loses everything and is forced to work for a Cape Malay, Ismael. He swallows his pride and takes the job. “Maar oubaas en die bruines kom goed klaar. Hulle noem hom Oom, praat sy taal.” But the old man listens to a seven single that he buys at the CNA that makes him sad – but he refuses to say why: want 'n boer sê nie jammer nie.

So off I go to Back 2 Basix to see Malan on stage. I go early and have a chat with him. We talk about his music. He is easy to talk to: his passion for his country, his work, and his people – tangible, in spite of his casual style. The years have taken their toll and he is not a young man (only about ten years younger than me), but I believe the sex appeal that all my lady friends (superficial bunch that they are) want to know about, is still there. He tells me that he stopped smoking in January and his taste buds have recovered to such an extent that he now realises that the Namaqua white wine that he has been drinking for years is, in fact, awful. (I’m surprised that there is anything that can disguise the taste of that plonk – perhaps a good reason to start smoking again.)

I ask him about “Bosfontein”: Did he write the song about the prayer for rain facetiously? Certainly not. He likes the idea that I find the image of the stone in the dry dam (“dam is leeg, sy bodem gekraak. Ek gooi 'n klip, sien stof opslaat”) wonderfully descriptive.

(Amusing little aside: I was talking about the rain in the song and said: “Nou, reën, wat van …” and he interrupted: “It’s Rian.” I tried again: “Nou, reën. I …”. “My name is Rian,” he insisted.)

Would I like to join his table? No thanks. The last time I had made a fool of myself doting over a musician was when I met Cliff Richard on an early visit to South Africa and I was running the risk of doing it now.

So, to the show.

How much of a musician is Rian Malan? After all, in the article mentioned above, he describes himself as “… a kak writer and a bad human being, man, but I’m a really good rhythm guitarist. I’m really, really, really good. For a white man I’ve got a truly astonishing sense of rhythm.” I was a little sceptical. He has access to a string of people who make up the cream of South African acoustic musicians. Is the artist with the acoustic guitar and the steel strings on the album really him? Yes it is.

They open with “Bloekomboom”, complete with a lead break – and yes, he is a good muso. The brass is replaced by a lovely female with a lovely female voice that I haven’t, as yet, met (but I’m working on it). Somebody shouts for “Coenraad Buys” and they oblige. I’ve seen some weird-looking shakers in my life, but this percussionist has the ultimate: a plastic Energade bottle that sounds amazingly good.

I get the feeling that the band is good, but after three numbers I decide to leave.

In 1972, in one of those breathtakingly bad moves that the entertainment world can contrive, the great Stan Getz was the opening act for Tony Christie – he of Amarillo fame – at the Johannesburg Civic Theatre. After three minutes the teenyboppers who had come to see the miniature Tom Jones look-alike had tired of the music of perhaps the greatest jazz saxophonist the world has ever known and started whistling and cat-calling. While not quite that bad, the Back 2 Basix crowd have important things that they have to discuss – loudly between songs and shouting during songs. As I looked around me I was reminded of something PJ O’Rourke, acerbic observer of human nature, had written about a disco: “I was trapped in a room with a thousand people who could all lip read.”

I figured that if Stan Getz had to suffer that kind of humiliation, then Rian Malan would have to take what’s coming to him. It’s one of those weirdest of all ironies that musicians, good and bad alike, are treated like the bottom feeders of society, and even Frank Sinatra had his New York, New York, where “if he could make it there, he’d make it anywhere”, but I certainly didn’t have to be a witness to it. In 1972 I walked out of the Stan Getz performance and I did the same at Rian’s show. I look forward to seeing him in an environment where artists are treated with just a little respect.

LitNet: 14 March 2006

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