In the popular music press Nico Carstens was commonly described as the “king of boeremusiek” – a title he never appreciated. Initially, his compositions were based on an application of traditional boeremusiek idioms – which still formed part of his later work. However, he extended these devices from early on in his career by way of an imaginative fusion of musical influences and styles.
The historical positioning of Carstens’s work contributes to its contextual intricacy. It originates from a period during which the dissemination of Afrikaans popular music was controlled or manipulated as part of a broader cultural-political strategy, classifying it as either “friendly” to Afrikaner culture or “foreign” to it (Van der Merwe 2017:15; Laubscher 2005:313). Although Carstens’s hits were always commercially marketed, and for a considerable time catered to Afrikaner sentiments, we argue in this article that hybridity started taking form even in his early compositions, and that this aspect of his work was not a commercial strategy only; rather, it was a conscious mixing of identities and ethnicities through which Carstens created an own voice.
Following a discussion of a selection of his best-known compositions we then make the case that authentic expression did occur in Carstens’s music – starting with his early albums, and culminating in later, “serious” multicultural work. In this regard our argument takes into consideration recent discourses on musical identity that explore concepts such as permeability, porosity and hybridity.
The question on which we focus highlights the ways in which Carstens, both as a composer and as a piano accordion player, succeeded in enriching traditional boeremusiek idioms by way of the fusion of a variety of musical influences and styles in order to produce a stylised, yet highly accessible and marketable South African popular music identity.
Our findings highlight the fact that throughout his entire musical career Carstens not only embodied elements that may be considered to be “friendly” to Afrikaner culture, but also continuously included “foreign” musical elements. Furthermore, his personal statements made it clear that, for him, “own” cultural goods incorporated not only cultural elements that may be considered as typically belonging to Afrikaner culture, but also those that represent the music of other indigenous peoples. In this regard, Carstens’s re-establishment and reinterpretation of boeremusiek as a most individualistic local music identity may be seen as an authentic extension of an identity which formerly had been associated only with a narrowly defined Afrikaner context.
Keywords: Afrikaans light music; Afrikaner culture; “Betowering”; boeremusiek idioms’; Nico Carstens; “Hasie”; hybridity; “Istanbul”; piano accordion; “Skokiaan”; South African popular music; “Warm patat”; “Zambezi”.