Kaapse Klopse – Cape Town’s Minstrel Carnival
The Kaapse Klopse is a music and costume carnival celebrated on 2nd January each year in the streets of Cape Town. This festival originates from the days of slavery under the Dutch when the slaves were given a day off at the start of the New Year. For centuries 2 January was a public holiday in Cape Town as a result of this celebration. The Carnival has been held since the mid 1800’s and is believed to have been influenced by American minstrels from visiting ships, notably the US Southern Confederate raider the “Alabama” which underwent refit in Cape Town in 1863 and whose visit is still celebrated in one of the traditional folk songs. The festival evolved into one of groups of singers, dancers and bands dressed in colourful silk outfits competing with each other in song, dance and parades through the streets of Cape Town.
Preparations for the Cape Minstrel Carnival, as it is now officially designated, starts months in advance with troupes rehearsing their songs, dance routines and parades for months. Costumes typically feature bold, multihued colourful satin fabric, bow ties, umbrellas and hats. Over the years, these minstrels, with their rich blend of music and spectacle, grouped into ‘klopse’, or clubs to compete, which is how the Afrikaans name for the festival stuck. The Minstrel Carnival of today features more than 65 troupes, tens of thousands of minstrels, strumming banjos, blowing trumpets, trombones and generally making merry. The majority of the minstrels come from the Islamic community; ancestors of the slaves brought by the Dutch from the East Indies, and other “coloured” or mixed race communities; who are mainly Afrikaans speaking.
The Carnival parade held on 2 January 2013 kicked off in District Six, previously home of the “coloured” community which was notoriously razed by the Apartheid regime in the 1960’s. The Grand Parade in front of the Cape Town city hall was the scene of musical entertainment and many food tents to keep the crowds entertained while waiting. Most people however, preferred to lay claim to a shaded spot on the route despite the relatively late starting time of noon and the finish time of 8 pm. Locals and visitors descended on the city in their tens of thousands, and by early afternoon the crowded streets were oppressive in the heat. Refreshments are plentifully available, although the portable toilets provided are only for the very brave, or very desperate. Many families arrive as early as 7 am pitching a shade tent, setting out chairs and bringing a picnic for the day. Cape Metro police were on hand in great numbers to ensure that all went peacefully.
It required fortitude and determination to be able to see much of the 2013 Festival parade. After the official opening at 12, following the firing of the famous “noon gun”, a single troupe paraded along the route to the end point of the “Bo Kaap” or Cape Malay quarter, after which everything shut down for the Muslim mid-day prayer time. At around 2:30pm another troupe followed the routes when all was shut down again for afternoon prayers. By 5 pm only 6 of the reputed 65 troupes had strutted their stuff. Even some of the dedicated locals were taking down their shades and heading for home by then. We, too, had had enough after seeing so little to reward us for having to stand in the streets for more than 6 hours. Some of our guests at our Cape Town self-catering cottages stayed the course and reported that by 6pm the remaining crowds were rewarded by one troupe after another parading in quick succession and that the parade finished just before 8pm. I think that the city officials should communicate this information in their press releases and that the organisers should consider scheduling their parade to be more convenient for the spectators and supporters. Perhaps this is why the Kaapse Klopse does not feature highly on the list of things for visitors to Cape Town to see during their visit.