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Steve Hofmeyr, Truth Teller

2009-04-17 10:34

But after seeing Steve Hofmyer onstage at KKNK 2009 and meeting him in person, I can no longer argue with the power of the actual Steve. Yes, it's all true: Steve is the man! Because his career is the blueprint for success that all the top Afrikaans music stars (and possibly other stars) follow, whether they know it or not.

It's the Waarmaker tour, and Steve – onse Steve – leaps onto the dark stage in a blaze of rock 'n roll lights and smoke at 10am, facing a crowd made up of the kind of people who get up that early to get to the Burgersaal for the breakfast show... mainly pensioners, families, and single women in groups or alone. It's like a touring Steve reincarnation. Like the second coming.

Where other less wise performers would have got all needy and tried to force the audience to shake it, Steve is gentle to begin with. Because, he points out, at this time of the morning, you shouldn't have to do anything. Sit back and let me do the work, he says. We all instantly know who's in charge... no wonder so many women want to sleep with him that he could probably breed his own audience if need be!

The music is big and hard and full of flashing lights. Steve – once a big backer of the backing track – now flaunts a real live band, with Andries Botha on guitar (and backing vocals). Andries also plays stage-mate and acts as a foil for Steve's joking chats with the crowd.

After they've rock 'n rolled with full band for a few tracks off his insta-platinum Waarmaker - which sounds a lot better live than it does on the CD - Steve and Andries sit on the edge of the stage for an intimate one-on-200 humorous chat with the crowd, mixing songs and gentle comedy. Andries starts playing "To all the girls I've loved before" (Steve klaps him light-heartedly), then they move on to spoofing Neil Diamond covering others, and translating some Afrikaans classics into English for laughs. It's like Valiant Swart, for people who might buy doilies.

Steve may be showing he doesn't need them now, but backing tracks have helped make the Afrikaans music industry the business it is. Many accusations have been flung at this industry – that it's cheesy shit, that it's glorified Karaoke, and that it's a sell-out. And yes, I’ve seen more than one blue-eyeshadowed, mascara-ed, flat-ironed apparition glistening in pink lights at Huisgenoot Musiekplaas, where Steve doesn't appear this year. But the backing track (as Steve pointed out all those years ago) nevertheless enables solo artists to go out on the road, tour the small towns, reach the real people and become real superstars, without having to coordinate five hungover post-teens who don't make enough out of their music to quit their day jobs, let alone buy air tickets to go play a major music festival outside of their hometown.

Critics of the backing track system also fail to face the fact that most people don't have great taste in music. You only have to look at how popular Idols is to see that.

Oddly, a moment when an Idols star and Steve Hofmeyr came together onstage on my first day at KKNK was what launched my fascination with this Afrikaans pop scene that seemed so foreign before.

It happened when Idols runner-up Andriette sashayed onto the daytime stage at Musiekplaas, looking every bit the wholesome young boerevrou, and sang a plaintive, menacing ballad Steve wrote for her. She projected that provocative combination of sexual longing and calvinist guilt that makes family values such enduring fun. "'n gentleman sou huistoe gaan," she yearned; blending suburban purity and sultry appeal. "Hoekom dan bly jy staan?"

In my imagination, Steve – craggy, aging outwardly, but still attractive – is the man she sang to. Can you beat a composition that good, sung by a girl that cute? No, not even if you're million-album-selling Kurt Darren, whose infuriatingly catchy hit "Kaptein" has been stuck in my head since day two of the festival, just proving that you don't always have to enjoy it to be seduced.

And I am seduced. I've often dismissed Steve over the years, as English music fans generally do, but all it took was one gig, one smile and a handshake to transform my slight scorn into fascination. Perhaps it's true that power is always attractive. Because Steve may have thrown a cup of tea in the Huisgenoot reduktrise's face, but as the biggest mag and the biggest media magnet in the Afrikaans industry, he and that editor are unavoidably colleagues. One day soon they'll laugh about it. Don't believe me? Well the Krit editor he klapped because of a live show review (actually a fairly positive one) that dared playfully mock both his fans and his shoes a few years back were talking politics on the telephone mere months after that much-publicised skande.

Oh, and Steve's shoes, for those who care, are still pointy-toed, but the cowboy heels are a thing of the past it seems. The supershoe mantel has passed to chunky hunky Nicholis Louw, who as you'll see in this musiekplaas video is far from shy to work the camera like the master he's learned from.

Media prima donna Steve may be a brat when a publicity opportunity knocks, but he actually stays at the top partly by treating ordinary people decently. Some sulky rock 'n rollers could learn a thing or two here. For instance, I once went up to an up and coming trendy musician at Mercury lounge to say I'd enjoyed their show. The muso was hanging with his chick at the bar, and as I said "Hi," he turned to his girl and loudly sneered "Oh god... not another one!" It was humiliating, and unfair. And stupid, because I haven't paid for a ticket to see his band since. For his sins, he’s still so up and coming, five years later, that I doubt he can afford his own car.

Steve would never treat a fangirl that way in public. No, Steve is out the door minutes after his set climaxes in a standing ovation. He's not running backstage to drink. He's in the hallway, signing autographs. And that doesn't just entail scrawling a name on a piece of paper. Steve chats to each fan, looks them in the eye and gives each person exactly what they need. There he was, the man who goes platinum the day his album hits the shelves, hugging one blonde fan-babe close with a borderline kiss and saying "Being single isn't so bad!", handing one loving tannie a light slap on the ass and a devilish smile, posing with a family or two for pictures after a few words (and a shoulder-squeeze for the shorn-headed seuntjies). With an old granny, he gets locked into a serious-looking discussion. Could it be about their mutual recent health problems? Probably – because that's probably what matters most, to her.

This all got me thinking: who else plays the game like Steve does? And I remembered how Lance Stehr, then CEO of once-bling Jozi Kwaito label Ghetto Ruff, foolishly allowed me to ride around in his car with him for a day while he, the starmaker, worked magic. He played the hardass, while his stars shook my hand in complicated ways and chatted to me like I was the coolest music writer to ever hit town. He talked a client into hiring one of the smaller guys to cover a gig when they couldn’t afford Zola. He made sure the up and coming kwaito names starred in the established stars' videos, to make them visible (and keep costs down), just like Skouspel and Musiekplaas feeds new talent into the machine as support for big names like Juanita and Kurt. And Lance called me to complain to me when he read the article, while Zola thanked me and gave me an interview... Good cop, bad cop. Great business.

Steve, of course, takes both roles – which is another reason why he's The Man, and so endlessly fascinating.

The way I see it, musicians who play the game the British way, by remaining trendy and aloof, need to do the equivalent of pull their heads out of their asses, put on a bit of make-up, buy a pair of high-heeled boots, and hit the road (with a backing track, in case the bassist’s girlfriend gets a better gig at the last minute). Because it's either that, or playing pubs, while whining about the state of the South African music industry for the rest of their short-lived careers.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, if it's a conscious choice. I'm a journalist and not a copywriter for an ad agency because I chose to earn less, in exchange for getting to say more of how I believe.

But let's face it: there's nothing at all wrong with the South African music industry. It's healthy. It's pumping out the hits. It's just that unlike Steve, Zola, Juanita, Mandoza, Kurt, and perhaps Freshlyground the trendy bands that bellyache about the industry and ignore their fans at the bar just aren't really part of this big industry - at all.

They're more like the... um... Tuisnywerheid.

I can still joke about him. I don't have to actually listen to his music on the road trip home. I don't have to adore him blindly like his acolytes do.
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