The music on this album is by no means groundbreaking stuff. Malan employs various combinations of familiar sounds - mainly from the drunken blues, the spoken word, and the Afrikaans blues / rock idiom. Think one bottle of Johnny Cash, a sniff of Nick Cave, a few shots of early Tom Waits, liberal lashings of Afrikaans rock a la Kerkorrel, Koos Kombuis and co, and a bit of Lou Reed. Then fill the melting pot right to the top with the relentless rhythms and ominous melodies that make Valiant Swart's blues so addictive. Rian Malan (part soutie that he is) calls this style "Blougras" (Bluegrass, sort of). A concept album is a difficult thing to get right. It can wind up being more of an experimental art piece than an album - think The Who's much-overrated Tommy... leaving you to thank your deity of choice for iPods, and the ability to edit the playlist to remove atmospheric nonsense.
What makes a good concept work is the passion for storytelling or characterisation - a passion controversy-courting writer and journalist Rian Malan has aplenty. The album explores a bitter and ultimately tragic personality through the stories of its speakers - various Afrikaans men. The album title Alien Inboorling (which translates as "Alien Native") encapsulates the theme: the struggle between helpless kinship with the Africa we were born to, and a sense of impermanence - a feared failure to really belong.
But despite the familiar themes, Malan's portrait is not a one dimensional one, and is full of unexpected twists. The songs seamlessly blend the personal and the existential as life does.
"Trekboer" (the opening song, wrongly listed on the CD sleeve) is sung as a love letter to a woman left behind. "Bloekomboom" rather cheaply appears to compare the alien vegetation to human "alien". "Coenraad Buys" is the heady but disturbing story of a boer 'going native'. "Eens" is so traditional it could be a song for kiddies TV. "Boer Se Nie Jammer Nie" sketches strange cultural comings together. "Alleen" is a heart rending story of a desperately lonely, polite man who joins a dance club to try to meet a woman and finds freedom in Tango. Though there's a glowing vein of pain running through the album, there's plenty of hope and bravery too.
If you loved David Kramer's brilliant Die Verhaal Van Blokkies Joubert, this is essential listening for you. It's an honest, touching, occasionally funny and often disturbing exploration of our changing culture.
- Jean Barker
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