Saturday, January 29, 2011
The Kaapse Klopse is a minstrel festival that takes place annually on January 2nd, in Cape Town, South Africa. Up to 13,000 minstrels, many in blackface, take to the streets garbed in bright colors, either carrying colorful umbrellas or playing an array of musical instruments. The minstrels are grouped in klopse ("clubs" in Cape Dutch, but more accurately translated as troupes in English). Participants are typically from Afrikaans-speaking working class "colored" families who have preserved the custom since the mid 19th century.
Although it is called the Coon Carnival by Capetonians, local authorities have renamed the festival the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival as foreign tourist find the term "coon" derogatory.
One story goes that the carnival was inspired by a group of African-American minstrels who docked in Cape Town in the late 1800's and entertained the sailors with their spontaneous musical performances. The popular song Hier kom die Alabama (Here comes the Alabama) refers to the ship that is believed to have brought them. Another story goes that the traveling minstrels were actually white and painted their face black...hence the painted faces seen today.
The source of the parade and the festival are the horrors of slavery, as was blackface minstrels in the United States. As Denis-Constant Martin's book Coon Carnival informs us, several forms given to physical torture, including the burning of effigies on Guy Fawkes day, evolved into the present day commemoration. Some would remind us, however, that American style slavery has more influence in America than Southern Africa. Guy Fawkes day is a British custom, and is not connected as such with American slavery. Even American blackface minstrels are more connected with celebrations of the people that came out of slavery than with the institution itself.
The majority of the troupes (approximately 169) are represented by the Kaapse Karnaval ("Cape Carnival") Association. In addition, two breakaway organisations (the Kaapse Karnaval Association and the Mitchell's Plain Youth Development Minstrel Board) represent a minority of troupes.
The Carnival Today
The festival begins on New Year's Day and continues into January. Traditionally, it has been a site for grievances against white supremacy. Festivities include street parades with singing and dancing, costume competitions and marches through the streets. While many troupes now are supported by corporate sponsors, many refuse and remain sticklers for tradition. The 2005 carnival was nearly cancelled due to an alleged lack of funding, while the 2006 carnival was officially called off for the same reason. However, the troupe organisations subsequently decided to go ahead with the parade despite continued unhappiness over funding, and the festivities, were opened by Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rascool on January 2nd, 2006.