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Chris Cameleon - We Interview Chris Chameleon

2006-03-29 11:05

- Download his MP3, Die Onverkrygbare, free! (MWEB Members only)

Chris Chameleon, who began his career as an actor, then fronted the massively popular Monki-punk pop group Boo, has just released a wonderful album - Ek Herhaal Jou - on which he sets the poetry of Afrikaans literary icon Ingrid Jonker to uncharacteristically plain pop songs.

Jean Barker for MWEB: The first time I saw you was at a gig at the Grahamstown festival. You were headlining, and there was a bomb scare. Most people didn't come back after an hour of standing in the cold. What other dramatic events do you remember from your live career?

Chris Chameleon: Well we had that bomb scare in Grahamstown... but also once we were filming something live for satellite television in the M-Net studios in Johannesburg when 9/11 happened. And of course the whole production came to a standstill and we watched the drama unfold on these massive screens.

A drama that more touched me more closely would be the one where I had my nurse's uniform on and forgot that I was only wearing a G-String that day, not the normal undies that I wore with that uniform. So it was basically all ass. I spent the whole gig trying to avoid the peering eyes.

MWEB: Have the diverse range of projects you're involved in, enabled you to stick around on the music scene for so long.

Chris Chameleon: Ya, ag, you know I"ve got quite a simple view on this. I think if you give up it means that you weren't cut out for it. In Boo we made massive sacrifices to be able to do what we did and our profile was certainly a lot higher than our financial status. But we were committed to it and willing to make these sacrifices. I think with most artists it becomes a thing: my art versus my bank account. And they go for the bank account. But if you're a true artist you don't even think of that as an option. I never have, for one.

MWEB: Your album, Ek Herhaal Jou, is a collection of Ingrid Jonker poems set to music. Is this an attempt to bring her work to an audience that wouldn't care for it if it were just spoken or read words?

Chris Chameleon: No. Absolutely not. As is the case with all the stuff that i do, i didn't have any intentions. I'm not a very systematic planner kind of person. I just do things as they occur to me and try to serve the art. But I must tell you that once I'd completed the job, I thought "Wouldn't it be wonderful if it does open up a new generation to poetry." So post production, it's certainly a wish that I've been indulging.

MWEB: Your record company press release says this album is partly about exploring your Afrikaans roots. So how do your parents and other family feel about the project?

Chris Chameleon: Ja, the thing is I am a boere seuntjie and I've never really been accepted by the Afrikaans fraternity or the Afrikaans audience. I think I maybe was a bit weird. Nobody's really responded well from the Afrikaans side, including my family. But now that I've done this, suddenly my mom likes some of my songs. And I get a lot of Afrikaans people in my gigs. And I play venues that I didn't even know existed before, like The Centurion Theatre. It's a whole other world that's opened up to me, and I'd like to think not at the expense of where I've come from. But for now, I'm servicing that world. I've also started working on my next English album.

MWEB: And what's that going to be?

Chris Chameleon:
Well, I wrote all the music in Boo. So it's not going to be any different from that. But it will be different in the sense that my two colleagues who resigned, Ampie Omo and Princess Leonie, won't be there to put their stamp on it. But I think there'll be something very recognisable about it.

MWEB: Back to the Jonker project. Why choose her stuff?

Chris Chameleon: I got to know her for the first time at school, but as with other things at school, I didn't really pay much attention. And then I watched a documentary on Ingrid Jonker - in Europe, while we were on tour. And it was a fantastic documentary. And I'd just come off a Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton phase. And Jonker was in the same vein. And I got, as they say, Jonkerbefok for a couple of weeks. So when 7de Laan asked me to compose any Afrikaans poet, she was the logical choice.

MWEB: Explain the difference between poetry set to music, and lyrics?

Chris Chameleon: There shouldn't be much of a difference. I think poetry has more freedom because with lyrics you're dealing with rhythms that have to go with the music. But most great songs of the last 50 years - pop or rock songs - if you go look at the lyrics, they're really good poems. You know, "Hotel California", "Piano Man", they always contain more than you see at the surface. Ingrid Jonker is a highly musical woman. There's an inherent melody and rhythm to all her poems. If you think of a poem like "Korreltjie Sand" which is really a depressing affair, it has all these happy words in it. "Korreltjie" and "Wereldjie" but once you've read it, you feel like shit! I think that's the magic of Ingrid Jonker. She had the ability to arrange the sounds in a poem in a sort of a mantra that had your feelings go the way she wanted to.

MWEB: And the music you've created here, is a more kind of straight sound, compared to the Boo Monki-punk sound we're all used to?

Chris Chameleon: Yes. You know, I feel to a certain extent that I shouldn't really be credited with the composition of this work. Because to me it honestly sounds like there was an innate melody in every poem she wrote and all I had to do was make contact with my muse and just open myself to this. And that's why "Die Kind Wat Dood Geskiet is" which was translated as "The Child" and read by Nelson Mandela at his inauguration ... it would have been a logical politically correct choice to compose that one, but its inner melody didn't speak to me immediately. So I didn't do it even though there were some obvious benefits to doing that. It wasn't about benefits or selling records, or anything other than just doing the art. The rest came later. I never suspected it would go this big.

MWEB: Do you still practise in the toilets when you're at music festivals?

Chris Chameleon: [Archly] How do you know that?

MWEB: [Laughing] I've heard about it from a couple of other musicians. And I've been to some festivals. I think i remember it but I'm not really sure whose memories they are sometimes.

Chris Chameleon: Oh, yes, I know what you're saying. Um... some stories, ya. [Laughs]. No well it's not really practising. I just warm up really before a gig. If you're going to sing in four octaves, which many opera people don't even do, you can't really get up there and do it if you're not warm. So I go and do it in the bogs. And there's usually very nice acoustics in toilets. Not good for recording, but good for what you hear yourself.

MWEB: So suppose you have to do a charity duet with one of these SA-bred female stars. Who do you pick? Busi Mhlongo, Patricia Lewis, Amor Vittone, Simphiwe Dana, or Karma-Anne Swanepoel? And what kind of performance is it?

Chris Chameleon: Was Candice Hillebrand in there?

MWEB: [laughs] I didn't put her in. Should I?

Chris Chameleon: [laughing] She'd be the one... I've a very soft spot for her. I'm not really familiar with her music although I believe she does make music. It will be nice when she starts doing it with me. Making babies, making music... whatever. No. What were the names that you gave me?

MWEB: [Repeats the names]

Chris Chameleon: I'd have to go with Simphiwe because I'm not familiar with her style, and it would broaden my horizons and further exploit my inner chameleon.

MWEB: Which of the SA musicians we've lost - to crime, violence, drugs and natural causes - do you most wish you could work with?

Chris Chameleon: Ingrid Jonker. And I would have liked to... I mean lately a lot of people have gone. I mean, Worsie Visser, Bles Bridges... but I don't think I would necessarily have wanted to work with any of those. Who was the bassist? Was it Gito? Gito Baloi.

MWEB: Funny. Karma said the same thing.

Chris Chameleon: Ya. He's relevant to my art form. And if not him... Koos du Plessis.

MWEB: Do you think your relative fame has gone to your head? What's the worst thing about being recognised. And what's the thing you like most about it?

Chris Chameleon: I'm naturally such a vain person that I don't think there's room for any more growth in the head. I was definitely this self-impressed when I was three years old. So that's maybe the good news and the bad news at the same time.

- Jean Barker

We asked ex Boo frontman Chris Chameleon why he's changed his tune, and what lies ahead for him.
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