In addition to praising the rural world about me through the arts of Poetry and Music, I also capture its beauty through the practice of photography. Birds are a favourite subject; and among the many species of this region, I consider the Malachite Sunbird one of the most exquisite.
Here is the male of the species. The first photograph was taken during the breeding season last year in October when it is spring in South Africa and it is covered in iridescent green; the second and third, earlier this week. It is now late summer and its breeding season plumage is being replaced by less vibrant feathers.
Needless to say, the Malachite Sunbird is a subject of my poetry—in fact, one of the very first poems I composed for the collection was an ode to the creature titled “Sunbird!”.
My love for traditional poetry began early in life. I ascribe it wholly to the influence of my mother whose love for Afrikaans poetry inspired in me the same. Her frequent recitation of lines from the great Afrikaans poets demonstrated to me the value of the art form. Even so, I came late to composing poetry myself, writing my first verses only in my early twenties. They were all lyrical ballads inspired by songwriters I admired at the time—especially Bob Dylan and Jim Steinman whose respective themes and styles captured my imagination.
When I later took up songwriting, my interest in poetry found expression in lyrics, and for the next decade, this was the sum of my poetic pursuits. Then in my mid-thirties, I started taking an interest in poetry proper once more, and in 2012 composed “Autumn” (an ode to the season) and another poem (since lost) the title of which I vaguely recall as “A Day by the Sea” (a recollection of love). These were the only poems I wrote during that period, but “Autumn” was significant because it was the earliest incarnation of what I am doing now.
Becoming a poet
In 2016, I had the idea to compose a verse as “lyrics” for the track “Silently You Sail” on Airship. Soon thereafter, I wrote a couplet for The Zephyr and the Swallow, followed by a ballad for the eponymous album Forgotten Fields. At the same time, I slowly began to rediscover my rural surroundings: the sights and sounds, landscapes and creatures. Though I had been in the midst of them (the “fields”), familiarity had rendered them all but invisible to me (“forgotten”), and I longed to reconnect with the pastoral world about me.
Not one to do anything halfheartedly, I immersed myself in the agrarian and unspoilt beauty of the Overberg region where I live in the Western Cape of South Africa; and as it revealed itself to me anew, poetry became my inevitable response. I began drafting rough poetic sketches—at first sporadically, then ever more frequently, until at last, it was all I wished to do—and it soon became clear a collection was in the making. By early 2018, after much deliberation and reservation, I was ready to assume the self-ascribed title of Poet.
I embraced the art form, eager to explore the themes of Forgotten Fields, thitherto undertaken primarily through experimental music, in its literary antithesis: traditional poetry. The experience has been engrossing. From an artistic perspective, traditional poetry is the inverse of experimental music, introducing a complementary aspect to my process; for where in experimental music I may bend, break and invent rules, in traditional poetry I must obey, uphold and defend them, drawing from me creative ingenuity of a different kind.
Conventions introduce challenges and opportunities of their own, resulting in work with a character impossible to create at the avant-garde extreme of the gamut. Traditional poetry may now be out of fashion (hence my self-publishing the collection upon completion), but it lends itself perfectly to what I wish to express. My poetry celebrates a forgotten world where Simplicity, Innocence and Joy awaits; where Reverence and Wonder have meaning; where swallows in the heavens inspire awe and ripples in the grass contemplation.
“Experimental music” is a somewhat nebulous term, but I think of it as a descriptor for musical exploration in whatever genre, or combination of genres, one happens to do so. To me, it is the liberty to invent new ways of expressing a theme in a composition. Whether I use elements from classical music, drone or vocals, my primary goal is to put them at the service of a concept. Of course, every composition in any genre is an experiment of some sort, but there are times when the outcome is not readily classifiable.
My journey into the genre
Some of my earliest musical ideas were rudimentary experiments, before I knew what “experimental music” was. I would write minimal pieces for the piano and combine them with poetry and field recording—in essence, the raw beginnings of what I am doing now. Before the advent of the Internet, it never occurred to me that others may be doing the same. It was decades before I would return to this approach—having long explored acoustic music—this time, aided by the digital democratisation of music production.
My interest in experimental music was revived with the discovery of post-rock and the genres with which it was often confused—like shoegaze, dream pop, ambient and electronic music. By the time I heard “Container Ships” by Loscil from Sketches from New Brighton four years after its release, I was ready to compose experimental music again. That album was the catalyst for my first release, Airship, a work that laid the foundation for what Forgotten Fields ultimately became: the consolidation of my artistic ideas.
You will notice on the progress list posted on 7 February 2019 that some titles are abandoned, namely “Boys and Bicycles”, “Fields and Flocks” and “So Light a Wind”. I do not abandon sketches lightly: in the first, the concept was lacking; in the second, I had explored its content in other poems so that it became somewhat academic to pursue; and in the third, the draft evolved into “The Robin-chat”, which I then listed as a new work.
Today, my interest in “Boys and Bicycles” was revived by a wandering mind, and I conceived not only of a workable theme for the sketch but also rudimentary verses with which to express it. The intention of this revised concept is to present the seasons through the ebullience and wonder of childhood—a response to the world I wish to celebrate in poetry—and thus “Boys and Bicycles” returns to the litany, but in a simpler form: “Boys”.
Living in the Overberg, surrounded by gentle farmland, serene mountain ranges and restoring silences, my work is a response to it all. In my music and poetry, I seek to express what in sacred moments among the hills wells up within me: awe, wonder and joy! My work is an inevitability—an act of adoration.
This is the first of a series in which I shall explore my thoughts on art-related questions, everything from “What is your favourite artwork?” to “Should art be funded?” Where I have already established a view, my answers shall be brief, but where I am yet undecided, they shall be exploratory. Analytical by nature, I am going to enjoy this tremendously.
Who are you and what do you do?
I am a musician and poet from the Western Cape of South Africa. I compose idylls—reflections on fleeting images of rural beauty—in melody and verse, the latter often inspiring the former. My most recent musical release was a self-titled album in the experimental genre, and I am currently working on a collection of traditional poetry inspired by my rural surroundings.
A list of the titles for the poetry publication. They were all composed between 2017 and 2018 with the exception of “Autumn”, a poem from 2012. Of the forty-six drafts, fifteen are completed, twenty-seven are unfinished, and three have been abandoned. The list is updated periodically as I complete poems or add new drafts.
Whilst out among the hills, I was amazed to see three separate flights of swifts and swallows along the route! The biggest of these I filmed, a flock of at least a hundred birds: Alpine and African Black Swifts and White-throated Swallows. Though swifts look very much like swallows on the wing, they are in fact classified as hummingbirds; even so, they behave much the same. Watching them mill high and low about me was otherworldly! They do this to feed on flying insects, but I like to think also for the pure exhilaration of flying.
I watched a crane leaping in the wind
On another occasion, I saw two pairs of Blue or Paradise Cranes (Grus paradisea) among the hills. This time of year, they are watching their eggs, laid directly on the ground, usually in the stubble of harvested wheat fields. The first pair was at the summit of a gentle hill. At one point, the male spread his wings and leapt into the air on the wind! Blue Crane males dance to attract a partner, but since he was already paired up, I presume he was simply enjoying the flow of air. The second pair was more serene, quietly pacing in the stubble.
I started composing “Over the Mountain”
“Over the Mountain” started out as a caption to a photograph I posted to social media1 in late 2017. It showed the open skies, rolling hills and distant mountains so typical of the region in which I live, the Overberg2. Accompanying this impromptu photograph was the line “The fields become the hills and the mountains become the sky”. Not long after, it occurred to me that it may have poetic value. Initially, I thought to explore in “rolling” lines the undulating landscape of the region, and a rough sketch titled “A Vista” was born.
At the end of 2018, I began developing the draft. My intention was to compose one verse extolling the beauty of the landscape, but as I reflected on the photograph—and the frame of mind that prompted the original sketch—it became clear that this would not be adequate. There is so much more to the region than the distinctive patterns and colours of agriculture upon the land: splendid creatures dwelling in the valleys and mountains! I sought therefore to encapsulate my admiration for the Overberg in a kind of poetic “song”.
Inspired by the name of the region, “Over the Mountain”—a play on Overberg—slowly took shape, resulting in a number of amusing verses and refrains, amongst others: “Over the berg! / Over the berg! / Over the berg I go! // No more ’scrapers, / No more papers, / Over the berg I go!” This, of course, did not align with the style and tone of the collection, and it was clear that I had to write from a different perspective. The “song” route was not entirely fruitless, however, for it provided the raw material for the approach that would replace it.
Instead of composing a lighthearted “ditty”, I chose to think of the poem as a “hymn”. Consequently, it became more solemn—though no less exuberant—each verse painting a vignette of the Overberg, scenes I would not trade for the world: the hillsides where the Rhebok3 watches, the fields where the wheat blows in the wind, the heavens where the buzzard4 circles, to name a few examples. The poem is now in its final phase where I must select from the many verse variations I developed, those most promising for the final composition.
I learnt about the plight of the rhebok
“Over the Mountain” naturally lead me to research the Rhebok. I was dismayed to discover that it was declared endangered in September 2017. This is mainly the result of hunting and a loss of habitat. Hunters consider them a great prize since they are difficult to find, stalk and shoot. You see them very rarely; they are shy, cautious and fast. Hunting, in addition to the expansion of farmland and the use of traps set for other animals, has devastated their numbers; and thus they join the Blue Crane on the threatened species list.
The unfortunate news brought to mind my earliest encounter with the Rhebok (or Ribbok5, in Afrikaans). It was not a sighting, but a song from my childhood. “Die Oukraalliedjie” is a well-known Afrikaans folk song (about a song) about a farm called Oukraal6. In one of its verses, it mentions “’n ribbok wat daar teen die rantjie staan”7 (“a rhebok that stands against the hill”). Imagine my delight when decades later, upon one of my rambles, I should see a Rhebok for the first time in just such a scene: quietly grazing against a hillside—
Incredibly, at first, my presence did not disturb it. It was only when I produced my camera that it lost its nerve and bolted swiftly up and over the hill. I was fortunate to capture this flight in a series of photographs which I later used to confirm that it was indeed the Grey Rhebok, Pelea capreolus. Though I pass that area often, I have not seen it since. There was one evening I saw a buck darting by the wayside in the bushes; I suspect it may have been a young Rhebok, but in the low light, I could not tell. I wait patiently to see one again.
A chiefly agricultural region in the Western Cape province of South Africa. “Overberg” (pronounced “oowuh-fiR-beh-R-CH”, a trilled “R” and a guttural “CH” as in “kccch” or “kgggh”) is Dutch for “over the mountain”.
The Rhebok is a medium-sized South African antelope.
Incidentally, the buzzard is a large bird of prey resembling a hawk. I photographed it early in 2018 and posted it here (Twitter). As you will see, it is not a vulture, as American English suggests. It is often seen circling high above, something I was able to capture (by complete accident) in 2017, which can be watched here (Twitter).
Pronounced “Rh-bock” with a trilled “R” and the “o” a shortened version of that in “or”.
“Die Oukraalliedjie” (pronounced “di oh-kRaahl-likki” with the “i” in “it” and a trilled “R”) is Afrikaans for “The Ol’ Pen Ditty”. “Liedjie” (pronounced “likki” with the “i” in “it”) is Afrikaans for “ditty” or “little song” and “Oukraal” (pronounced “oh-kRaahl” with a trilled “R”) is Afrikaans for “Ol’ Pen” (“ol’” as in “old” and “pen” as in an enclosure for animals), the name of a farm.
Literally, “a rhebok that there against the little hill stands”. The line appears at the end of the first verse around the 0:20 mark. You can listen to the song as recorded by Groep Twee (Afrikaans for “group two”, pronounced “CHRoup tweeuh” with the guttural “CH” as in “kccch” or “kgggh” and a trilled “R”) on Apple Music, Spotify or Youtube.