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Interview: Valiant Swart

2008-10-31 12:18
"The only reason I sometimes don't write stories is because a. I'm too lazy, b. I'm too tired or c. I'm too pissed!" chuckles Valiant Swart. The legendary mystic blues rock boer is stressing just how important being a raconteur is to him. Not that he needs to. His new CD, Vrydagaand/Saterdagaand
showcases the Mystic Boer’s many storyteller sides: from folk balladeer and rooiwyn rocker to English country crooner, boeremusiek troubadour and beyond.

Is there any musical jacket that's closest to his heart? "Phew, that’s like having to choose between your children," he grins. "I come from a space of entertaining myself. I play the music that I like. Sometimes I'm lucky when other people like it as well. Sometimes not so many people like it. But as long as I do I'm happy. You don’t come up with these stories anyway, you know? They come through you. If your antennas are up at night you get them."

Indeed, but is he happy when critics champion Vrydagaand/ Saterdagaand as being a return to the old Valiant Swart sound? "It does become frustrating when people just want to hear the old stuff," he reflects. "I love playing it. [But] what is frustrating is that people say 'you’ve made such a mellow album now, so what are you getting old and all suburban?'

The second album I made was even more laid back than this one and that was twelve years ago! And I was already living in a nice suburban house amongst other suburbanites, you know? So I haven't changed really? I'm just the same oke playing the same music. To me it’s just one logical progression; to me the albums are almost interchangeable. Mellow? Laid back? What did Billy Joel say, 'It's all just rock 'n roll to me.'?

"There's an awareness that’s been surging for the past three or four years about what's known as 'roots' music," he continues. "Not wanting to get all cosmic, but I think there's a new spirituality in the world. Take O Brother Where Art Thou?; or the previous Springsteen album or the Johnny Cash movie. Music is the great equalizer again, the universal language."

Relax. Valiant isn't hyping his 'mystic boer' myth. He's had first hand experience of this 'universal language'. Just listen to him recount the legend of his recent collaboration with maskandi guitar guru Madala Kunene for SABC TV's Jam Sandwich.

"When we started playing together I had a feeling beforehand that once the guitars came out it would just work. There’s something inside of me – maybe because I'm an African – that inherently understands what [Madala] plays. Although I can't necessarily technically copy him straight off the bat. And vice versa - Madala immediately sussed where I’m from. It worked out so beautifully because what he does and I do is also related. We both play from the heart and shoot from the hip. He plays folk music. I play folk music."

Watch Valiant's "Good, the Bad the Ugly" interview, filmed for Obrigado Magazine
true blues broadband

Um, folk music? "Most music is folk music" explains Valiant. "For me, stuff like the blues, boeremusiek and punk are kind of the same. To me even hip-hop and rap are folk music. It starts with people talking about who they are. For me the blues is a feeling. And in this business it’s not hard to get the blues. Playing it comes quite naturally. It's a universal feeling.... And I believe it started in Africa anyway."

Ah right, so his collaboration with Kunene was more of a conversation about the blues between boeremusiek and maskandi? "Absolutely! Absolutely!" agrees Valiant. "In a matter of days we became firm friends. We recorded in Joburg and then I invited him to come and visit me in Stellenbosch. It was his first time there and the crowd loved him. The nicest thing was that I got exposed to this music I always knew was out there.

Now I can say 'look, I know this, I've done that now'. And I've got a new musical buddy. He’s such a great oke. He adopted me as his son. He refuses to call me Valiant, he calls me Willem. So now I'm also known as Willem Kunene!"

Afrikaner blues boer Willem Kunene finds his African roots? Sit with that feeling for a second. In an age where rampant American cultural colonialism eats away at our South African identity every day, hearing Valiant gush over the chance to reconnect with his African roots feels good, doesn’t it?

"I think in Afrikaans that's especially true," he says. "There's such a massive search for identity with Afrikaners at the moment, people are rediscovering the source of where their cultural make-up comes from." Indeed. Was this why he hooked up with accordion maestro Ollie Viljoen for 2006’s classic Vuur en Vlam? "Boeremusiek is just in my DNA, man!" he chuckles. "I can play it in my sleep. I grew up with it - it’s just part of who I am.

"I'd always wanted to do a nice, classy presentation of boeremusiek. Ollie was the right guy to do it with. He’s such a musical genius. From the first second that we got together his accordion came out and my guitar came out and…bang! There we went. I'm so proud of that album. To work with Ollie was incredible! He can play anything from jazz to boeremusiek to metal - you name it he can play it. If you’re a player, you're a player, you know? You understand where stuff comes from. And understand how to play it."

Now that he's decoded his boeremusiek DNA, and reconnected with his African blues roots, what's next for Valiant Swart? "I might do a straight blues album – or not – I might do a techno-punk metal album" he says. "To me it'll be the same thing."

- Miles Keylock

From Boland punk to TV’s blues rock doctor and boeremusiek balladeer: the legendary Mystic Boer speaks about his mission to re-map SA's folk music frontiers.

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