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A man with a grey Afro looks directly to camera, wry. He wears a Nehru collar with an African print trim.
Mac McKenzie (1951-2024) took Cape Town’s unique carnival sounds and added punk. © Paul Darné

Goema superstar: how composer Mac McKenzie reshaped the sound of Cape Town

Gerald “Mac” McKenzie passed away on 29 April 2024. He will be remembered as a renegade spirit and innovator in South African music. The composer and bassist changed Cape Town’s goema music tradition forever. Growing up in the city’s carnival culture, he helped form The Genuines, combining styles like rock, punk, classical and jazz with the music of his childhood. Valmont Layne has studied Cape Town’s music history, including McKenzie’s contribution. We asked him three questions.

Firstly, what is goema?

The word describes a musical style from Cape Town that’s linked to the city’s slave heritage and to the drum from which it’s named. It is more than likely that the word has strong connections to ngoma, a term referring to spiritual rituals and healing practices across many societies on the African continent. Goema can include street bands, choral music, vernacular partner dances such as tiekie draai – and the yearly carnival season and competition.

The Goema Captains, who collaborated with McKenzie.

In particular, the word usually evokes the ghoema drum, which resembles a wine barrel modified as a single-headed drum to play a syncopated rhythm. The left hand marks the beat, while the right hand plays the rhythm. Some marching bands – like carnival bands – use banjos and guitars to drive the underlying rhythm, instead of drums. But the feel is still described as “ghoema”.

Mac spelled it “goema” and believed it went beyond genre to an aesthetic, to being attentive to the spirit of a place. It was about reclaiming the right to create something unique – he experimented with punk, “gypsy” music and classical music in his work.

What constitutes the essence of this goema “attitude”? It may begin with layers of memory, and sounds of the banjo, concertina and accordion as colonised people adapted to new ideas and instruments arriving in the port. Mac was acutely aware of the history of indigenous people’s dispossession. Goema represents a way of being in the world that is global in scope. He was keenly aware of Cape Town’s history as a stop on the oceanic spice routes and the slavery that underpinned this trade.

An African man plays guitar wearing jeans and no shirt.
A young Mac McKenzie. © Paul Weinberg

An urban world came into existence as European colonialism dispossessed indigenous people and imported enslaved people to serve the economic needs of colonies in Africa and elsewhere. Ships had a vital influence: bringing new goods, commodities, ideas. These influences blended with indigenous cultures in the Indian and Atlantic Ocean worlds. Compare the Cape goema rhythm to other rhythms influenced by slave economies, like the Cape Verde mazurka, Jamaican calypso and Brazilian samba. The music of Cape Town that shaped goema has a rich and complex history, including Irish folksongs, classical music, choral music, marching music, church music and sailor songs.

Today the goema attitude is showcased in Cape Town’s annual “klopse” carnival. The word “klopse” means “troupes” and possibly “clubs”. It represents the sonic and rhythmic essence of collective life among the poor.

Who was Mac McKenzie?

Gerald “Mac” McKenzie was born on 27 October 1951 in Bridgetown, a township of Cape Town on the Cape Flats – a residential area established in the wake of apartheid’s forced evictions and displacement of black South Africans. Thousands of families have lived there for generations, descended from indigenous people, slaves and other migrants to the city.

His parents were Samuel “Sammy” McKenzie and Wilhemina “Ma Mac” McKenzie. Samuel was a skilled and seasoned banjo player who worked with dance bands and street bands, a keeper of tradition.

The Genuines railed against apartheid.

Growing up in the city’s festive carnival culture, Mac aspired to mobilise his inheritances for something new. He dedicated his life to making goema not just about the past, but about the future.

In the 1980s, The Genuines, led by Mac and Hilton Schilder, offered a sonic way out of apartheid’s trap. They did so by example, in their musical virtuosity, in attitude, in spirit.

This new wave resonated with me as a young activist musician when I witnessed The Genuines perform at political rallies on the Cape Flats. The music proceeded at 100 miles per hour – presenting a modern goema sound, with rock guitar effects, a funk platform with a distinct sensibility. The Genuines brought a new future for the carnival rhythm of the Cape.

Mac moved through several phases in his life with different musical styles. He never rested on a single one. Among his main recordings were Goema, Mr Mac and the Genuines, Nights with the Cape Gypsies and Chasing the Voodoo. Mac and Hilton Schilder also worked with the band Goema Captains of Cape Town and on the album Healing Destination.

“South Africa’s only black rock band!”

In his golden years, Mac focused on composing in the classical idiom and took the music to new places. His South Atlantic Suite is an excellent example of this period, giving a visceral rendition of Cape Town’s port city melting pot atmosphere.

What was his impact?

Like Cape Town pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim before him, Mac walked the talk in his search for authenticity and invention.

The song Die Struggle (The Struggle) gives a sense of the trail The Genuines blazed musically and politically. They inspired a generation. Mac and Schilder were later involved in a heritage programme at the District Six Museum, a museum that commemorates the forced removals under apartheid.

Mac threw the folklorists’ script out of the window. He had faith in the carnival as a project for the modern age. He believed goema stood alongside great black musics like the Brazilian samba, Cuba’s Son Cubano, the American delta blues and the tango of black Argentina.

He had a restless soul – recently comparing himself to a “jumping bunny” – always hustling for gigs, drugs. Being a composer, it turns out, was his most important hustle, and contribution, because it helped open the creative floodgates we have experienced in his subsequent artistry.

A jazz performance later in life.

He and his fellow travellers were part of an avant-garde scene in the city that pushed the boundaries of art, experimenting and listening to strange new sounds. At the same time they engaged South African music greats like pennywhistle master Robert Sithole, bassist Johnny Gertze and saxophonist Winston Mankunku. They respected the musicians of the past, and had a keen knowledge of the cutting edge.

Before him scholars were still writing about “ghoema” in a way that reduced it to a folk form, as something old and fixed, or as an expression of colouredness as a racial identity. Mac also paid these inheritances forward, mentoring many young musicians, including the late Alex van Heerden.

Given his rich inheritances, including his father’s habit of playing classical etudes on the banjo, it comes as no surprise then that, as he grew older, he developed a deep appreciation for orchestral music. The beauty of black music was limitless and not restricted to the goema beat, although he excelled at it. He was a visionary artist who had a keen eye for the future. We have not reached that future, perhaps, but through voices like Mac’s we are in a better place to conjure it.

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