O Captain! My Captain! An Interview with Bittereinder

In the battle of reconciliation with heritage, and through their intellectual lyricism, the work of Bittereinder has strongly resonated with me. On a personal level, this answers my initial question that I put forward: what is it about them that people respond or relate to? As Jaco van der Merwe, the man behind the lyrics and rapping, asserts, “You’re definitely asking the wrong people…We’re the three guys ‘in’ the band mos.” Rounding off the ‘three guys’ are Peach van Pletzen and Louis Minnaar, handling the production and visuals that have become a stalwart of their success, while lending their vocals as well. Bittereinder formed in 2009 and have since released two albums, n’ Ware Verhaal and Die Dinkdansmasjien. They have performed all over South Africa, as well as the Netherlands, Mozambique and Namibia. Bittereinder’s ability to make you ‘bons’ on the dance floor is another reason to get excited. Their live act is an innovative performance, constantly and consistently delivered with slick deliberation to provide an audio-visual experience filled with an energy which pulsates across the dance floor.

If anyone had told me, growing up, that I would be listening to rap one day, I would have vehemently denied it; and it is only in the past decade that I have started listening to Afrikaans music. Today, I find myself listening to both genres, and together nogal! Nevertheless, the dichotomy of white/rock and black/rap still exists, so I am intrigued to know: why rap? “I’ve been writing rap lyrics since 1998 when I was 15 years old and started my first band, a Rage Against The Machine/Pixies-influenced project,” Jaco explains. “Saul Williams’ movie SLAM made a huge impact on my writing style around the turn of the century. Black Star, The Roots, Jurassic 5, early Goodie Mob left similar deep impressions in terms of rap being Rhythm And Poetry, a rhythmic poetic vehicle to project layered words and rhymes. In some ways, associating with rap, basketball, FUBU caps, skateboarding, beatboxing, marijuana, and such in high school were my own ways of rebelling against Afrikaner culture, my own people, who I felt had ‘betrayed’ me. But rap was much more than that. Rap wasn’t just a phase for me, as it was for many of my friends at the time. As a writer, rap was and still is my platform, my stage, my blank page, my beat, especially during my very personal and painful reconciliation with my mother tongue.” In the scramble to find a place in today’s global village, we are left with experiences that continuously look, sound and feel the same. Bittereinder are here to release us from this vicious cycle by creating something which is steadfast, sincere, challenging and fun; something which anyone can enjoy, yet at times only some can understand through the experience of being South African.

A Greek friend living in South Africa once made an observation that she could find no common aspect – whether it was culture, language, heritage or religion – that linked all South Africans. As we continue to search for some semblance of unity in this nation, a song like A Tale of Three Cities finds a way to connect us. Bittereinder brought together artists from diverse backgrounds – namely Jaco, Tumi Molekane and Jack Parow – to share a collection of experiences as they rap about Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town, respectively, a song which echoes through the hearts of those who reminisce to the lyrics. As Jaco explains: “Hip-hop essentially has a lot to do with ‘where you’re from’, you know? I had this idea to do a proper Afrikaans rap verse about Pretoria, Bittereinder’s ‘geboortestad’. At the time, Peach was working with Tumi and Parow on some other projects, and the idea for including two other major cities into the song was really quite organic…Many South Africans who’ve spent some time in two or all three cities described in the song have written about their connections/appreciation of the lyrics and images.” Maybe we don’t have a song about South Africa as a whole, maybe we never will – even our national anthem is divided into five languages – but if Frank Sinatra could “make a brand new start of it in old New York” and Tony Bennett could lose his heart in San Francisco, then why not pay tribute to three of the major cities of South Africa? If I am ever again asked what unites this country, I would merely play this song. It is one of numerous examples in Bittereinder’s body of work which refutes any superficial claim that art’s purpose is merely to entertain. Their music challenges listeners to think and, most significantly, gain perspective. There’s a reason they’ve dubbed themselves ‘Die Dinkdansmasjien,’ as they reach beyond the ordinary to encourage thought and action.

The tension between languages and their inherent culture is further addressed in the song Kwaad Naas. Rapping about Afrikaners and English-speaking South Africans, and the way both speak the respective languages, the song highlights an age-old conflict. But as with A Tale of Three Cities, the pure act of the collaboration (in this case with Shane Durrant from Desmond and the Tutus) showcases a willingness to accept differences and overcome the past, while having a bit of a ‘lag’ about it. Yet I have to know whom Jaco is referring to when he refers to ‘the only white tribe in Africa’ and whether this term is fair or accurate. “I think it’s a phrase coined by a BBC documentary in the 70s or 80s, and it stuck with me, even after Koos Kombuis mocked it in one of his books (I think Suidpunt-jazz). By the use of the phrase in our song Penworstel, on the first album, I’m referring to white South Africans, specifically those known as ‘Afrikaners’ (although the precise definition of that word has been an ongoing intellectual fistfight for more than a few decades). ‘Fair’ and ‘accurate’ are two very different things, and require fairly complex answers to do them justice, but suffice it to say that I think the Afrikaners, as a group of people, are very unique in terms of their heritage and current social identity, and yes, if the word ‘only’ is what you’re asking about, I can’t think of any other proper ‘white African tribes’, can you?”

While their backgrounds clearly inform their work, what are the other influences behind the poetry, visuals and production? “In terms of production,” Louis says, “I think we all have very diverse tastes and this becomes very apparent in our work and gives it a bit of an edge. I personally like ‘dusty’ sounding production where you can still hear little bits of static in a synth. I am also a fan of synths that growl at you. In terms of visuals: the great thing about our duo has always been that we are simply having fun with what we do. We have this platform on which we can truly express ourselves creatively without really having to cater to anyone specific. So, I draw inspiration from wherever I want on any given day – and this changes every day. If I feel like making something clean and sterile – then I do it. If I feel like cutting up papers to form letters on a poster then I do it. No one to answer to – and that is key to our visuals – I am expressing myself and having fun.”

When it comes to the poetry, Jaco responds, “Off the top of my head, some of my favourite writers of poetry, prose and lyrics include Toast Coetzer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Talib Kweli, Hemingway, Vonnegut, T.S. Eliot, H.G. Wells, Dostoevsky, J.M. Coetzee, Gordimer, Antjie Krog, Tom Gouws, Koos Kombuis, Hunter Kennedy, Tumi Molekane, Mos Def, Sintax the Terrific, Hemel Besem, Arthur C. Clarke amongst others.” Questions and revelations continue to tumble through my mind as I delve into their work. Does this mean I’m taking it too seriously? But it’s poetry after all and invites interpretation. As Jaco states, “Poetry is open-ended, multilayered, lovely, endless, accessible (but you have to work for it), playful, deadly, sincere, self-obsessed, universal, free, brimming with contradiction, heavily armed, prepared for take-off and landing, true, false, in ceaseless dialogue with marginalia, satirical, jovial, celebratory, hidden, exposed, dead, alive, poetry is.” Through their work, Bittereinder open up a plethora of possibilities for those who experience their music. Whether you want to ‘dink’, ‘dans,’ or do both, they give you those options. While I love bouncing off the walls at their shows and connecting with a renewed sense of pride in my own mother tongue, it is the intellectual challenge that stays with me the most, because I still believe that “no matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

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Originally published on Fortress of Solitude.

Photo credits: Louis Minnaar and Christo Jansen Niemandt

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