Singer/songwriter David Kramer, the troubadour of the Karoo, took his show “Kramer se Karoo” to the Jam Street Amphitheatre at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) in March this year. And he’s singing out against fracking.
Some years ago, David Kramer went walkabout in the Karoo listening to and learning from the music and the people who made it. Kramer’s music has always sung of people on the margins, physically and socially; of people who are like geologic seams within our country’s landscape—enduring, fragile and essential. From his travels and meetings with musicians who played the “ou liedjies van die Karoo” (old songs of the Karoo) emerged the brilliant Karoo Kitaar Blues. It showcased the slide guitarist Hannes Coetzee and many others, including Helena Nuwegeld.
The story of Helena Nuwegeld is the story of the Karoo. Kramer met Helena while exploring the rich vein of musical history that is as vital to these parts as water. She was a guitarist and singer and her songs were about her place in the land. She was murdered a few years ago. The man who killed her was down on his luck and had been offered a roof over his head on a farm near where Helena lived. Kramer says it’s a particular South African tragedy, shaped by the violence that has rung through our history, and which has made cries of the violated as common prayers for rain.
“This man [her murderer] couldn’t deal with her so-called disrespect,” says Kramer. The man said in court that she had not called him “sir”. Helena was 85-years-old at the time of her death. “More importantly,”says Kramer, “He couldn’t respect her. She’d had a tough life and she wasn’t about to play that subservient role. She was hard, like the land she lived in. And she was badly treated and was suspicious of other people’s motives. But, she had more than he had, and he couldn’t handle it.”
Helena had more, says Kramer, because “she was that kind of person”. She had her life—rough hewn and sparse as it was—and she had her family and her songs. The murderer did not respect that; he wanted part of it—and ended up shooting her. He was sentenced to life in jail.
This is the essential story of the Karoo. It has more than it will yield yet gives more than any one person can grasp. For the oil companies to come in and want a part of it, shows a similar disrespect and they will end up killing it. Kramer is almost speechless when he talks about the prospect of fracking in the Karoo.
“This is short-term. They [the oil companies] say they will replace what is damaged. But we’ve heard all that before and we’ve seen what’s happened in the Niger Delta. When there’s a disaster, you destroy the ecology for centuries. If we contaminate the water underground, we can’t flush it out because don’t have the water in the first place to do so.”
And he’s not speaking from a point of ignorance. He has read up on the issue, watched the documentary “Gaslands” and he is constantly asking questions. “Life is on this planet because of water. I don’t understand how—in an arid place like the Karoo—they want to use so much water to get gas,” he says, referring to the technology of hydraulic fracturing which entails pumping millions of litres of chemical-laden water into the shale rock to split it and release natural gas.
“Are we going to take that chance? Are we going to pump in millions of toxic chemicals in these underground areas, crank the rocks, leave it there and then think it doesn’t really do any damage because we can’t see it? And what then, when in a hundred years time it [the toxins] start to ooze out?”
Someone commented that if shell was a person and you looked at their criminal record, it would not be the kind of person you’d want in your neighbourhood. “It’s like saying, ‘Oh, that guy is fine—he’s a paedophile—but he gives the kids sweets and feeds them.’ It’s a kind of suspension of logic and rationality,” says Kramer
On his CD, “Huistoe”, there’s a song called “Dans mettie dood” (Dance with the dead) that describes the harsh, tenuous lifeline of the Karoo.
Ek staan heel maand en wag virrie reen se reuk/Want sonner water sallie veld’ie bloomie/Sonner blomme sallie geld’ie kommie/Sonner geld wil almal vir almal neuk
[I stand for months awaiting the smell of rain/’Cos without water, the flowers won’t bloom/Without flowers, the money won’t come/And without money, we’ll tear each other apart.]
If fracking goes ahead in the Karoo, the oil companies will be handing out their dance cards.
At the show, he introduced his song “Onnerwater”—a song about the ancient Karoo, and from his recent CD “Huistoe”—by telling people of the dangers of fracking. His is the essential story of the Karoo as much as the Karoo is an essential story in South Africa’s history. A couple of the band members wore T-shirts that read: “Stop fracking our Karoo!”
Postscript: Since this was written, the South African government has placed a moratorium on all shale gas prospecting that will utilise hydraulic fracturing technology.
Kramer’s new show featured his favourite songs of the Karoo, spanning some 30 years and he was joined by Hannes Coetzee and the Sonskyn Susters (the Sunshine Sisters) and local jig dancers (rieldansers).
Photo courtesy of Hans van der Veen.