Alex van Heerden

trumpet, accordion, voice, programming

Alex van Heerden started his music career as a teenager when he began playing jazz in the townships of Port Elizabeth.

After school he moved to Cape Town to play with legends such as Robbie Jansen, Mac McKenzie, Winston Mankunku and Hilton Schilder.

His interest in Afrikaans music led to his making many journeys through the Karoo, Namaqualand and Overberg, where he played with numerous folk musicians, and became fluent in musical styles such as ‘vastrap’, ‘riël’, ‘boeremusiek’, ‘langarm’ and pentecostal ‘koortjies’.

These experiences led to the formation of ‘Gramadoelas’ in 1996, which blended these music styles with funk and house music. Together with Derek Gripper, he also mixed vastrap with avante garde string quartet in the album ‘Sagtevlei.’

After 2003, he become more active abroad, where he released numerous albums on international record labels.

In 2008 he returned his focus to South Africa, where he relaunched the ‘Gramadoelas’ project.

He also worked on a project for Museum van de Caab, researching the history of ethnic Afrikaans music. 

Alex van Heerden passed away on the 7th of January 2009.

“Vastrap is a music which is impossible to play if you don’t believe in magic.” Alex van Heerden

The following is from Alex van Heerden - Frontier Rogue, Alex’s original website.

“Even though I find it vulgar to speak endlessly about oneself, I am going to indulge myself at this point. After all, these are my memoirs.

Like all of my musical mentors, I have no formal music education. I learned everything that I needed to know from the musicians that I worked with. I started playing the trumpet in my school’s brass band in order to avoid compulsory military training. This was Apartheid-era South Africa, and military-training was not a pleasant prospect. Fortunately, Apartheid was on the decline, and soon I was playing jazz in the local townships.

My first professional engagement was in 1990 with Port Elizabeth’s stalwarts of African jazz, the Soul Jazzmen, who have been a starting point for many of South Africa’s jazz greats.

At age 17, I joined Mac McKenzie’s goema-rock outfit, the Genuines. It was a psychedelic rollercoaster colliding with hedonism and decadence in the frayed paranoia and excitement of Johannesburg in the early 1990’s.

My next destination was Cape Town in 1994, where I spent 2 years living and playing with pianist Hilton Schilder on the notorious Cape Flats of Cape Town. This prolonged initiation shaped me deeply, and prepared me for the next step on my journey: joining the band of ‘bad boy’ of Cape Jazz, Robbie Jansen, in his group, ‘The Sons of Table Mountain’. Together with Robbie Jansen, Hilton Schilder, Steven Erasmus, Jack Momplé, we provided the musical landscape for post-apartheid Cape Town. Playing for politicians and dignitaries while barely managing to conceal the drugs, poverty and desperation which absorbed us as it did most of the Mother City.

The peak of my success as a ‘jazz trumpet player’ came when Winston Mankunku Ngozi aked me to join his quintet. I remained a member of his group from 1996-1998. He was and still is the most lyrical master of African Jazz that I have ever heard.

During this time, I became disillusioned by the music scene in Cape Town, and turned my attention to the rural areas of the Cape.

I found I found a musical tradition that was my own, but had been concealed from me. The rhythm of the ‘Vastrap’.
It is a music that is impossible to play if you don’t believe in magic.

Me and my accordion travelled acroos the Karoo, Overberg, Namaqualand. I drove, took buses, hitch-hiked, waiting for and finding synchronous meetings with musicians and other sorcerers.

I returned to Cape Town and founded ‘Gramadoelas’, playing ‘psychedelic vastrap’ to astonished audiences. One of the first groups to bridge the cultural gap in Cape Town, we played to rock, jazz and world music audiences.

My interest in music magic and psychedelia led me to electronic music via the chemical decadence of Cape Town’s outdoor techno party scene.

Luckily, in 2000, my first trip to the ‘developed world’ of Europe, and subsequent friendship with producer Håkan Lidbo, saved me from the vulgarity of South African electronic music. Håkan is one of the most creative and visionary people that I have ever met, and through him and other Swedish friends, I started my apprenticeship in electronic music, learning the ways of Europe while trying to reveal some of Africa’s secrets to the Europeans. Electronic music holds a deep fascination for me. I discovered that so many of the subtle aspects of the landscape of my home on the outskirts of the Karoo desert can be expressed via electronic music, which is free from cultural references and allows the resonances of unspoken stories and hidden landscapes to be amplified. It can render the abstract funky, the ancient futuristic. During my prolonged stays in Europe, I have performed at many wonderful electronic music festivals, and have collaborated with many creative people. Nevertheless, there is a mixture of pettiness, narcissism and pragmatism there which eats away at my own delusions of grandeur, my magical thinking.

Having said this, my homeland of South Africa becomes frustratingly slow paced after a while.
I am therefore, a commited nomad. I live as a contemporary frontier rogue on the edges of the Karoo desert, or in absolute contrast, in the centre of Berlin.”

ha ha - wonderful! yes many hardships but mostly we have a good time and things get better and better. i am very excited about the New Cape project so am wonderfully happy to hear that you see it in such a positive light - this is the kind of thumbs up we need in the dark moments (when dealing with printers for instance!).

Of course for me it was wonderful to see our surroundings with new eyes - the fresh eyes of the visitor. I suppose this can be the positive contribution to SA by a group of musicians such as New Cape - without hyping the music or changing it in any way - just South African people making South African music - not American music... It has a huge potential to make a few of us start to think about just what we do have to offer - rather than asking "how can I make myself more like everybody else?"

Die Vastrap

O Geliefdes,

Ons is hier vergader om hulde te bring aan iets wat ontsaglik mooi en magtig is, oud en kragtig is - die Vastrap.

Ja, die Vastrap, wat blydskap en sterkte bring, en tog so maklik vergete is.

Ja, die Vastrap wat hierdie land ontstaan het, en nog steeds weerklink in die kranse van die berge en oor die vlaktes van die karoo, en nog steeds weerkaats in die harte van die mense wie hier woon, en hier hoort.

Maar hier lê die probleem, broeders and susters:

Ja, want soveel van hierdie einste mense, hoor die ritme, en ontken dit, want hulle is besit deur die bose mag van 'n diep skaamte. 'n Skaamte vir wie hulle is, 'n skaamte om lekker te kry, 'n vrees vir alles wat waar is, hier is, en nou is.

Maar daar is hoop Geliefdes.

Daar is ‘n nuwe gees aan die opkoms. ‘n Gees van herdenking en oorwinning. ‘n Gees van sterk wees en trots wees, van jouself wees en ons wees, hier wees en nou wees.

En hierdie gees het net een naam...

Die Vastrap en die los trap

Die alleen-trap en die skuins-trap

Die om-trap en die skeef-trap

Ja die Vastrap