Koos Kombuis: The Beauty of A Foul Mouthed Troubadour

Those who knew me, know I have a ‘thing’ for beauty.  I love beautiful things.  And beauty comes in my forms, not just the obvious ones.  Beautiful women and beautiful paintings and beautiful sunsets and beautiful cars are just too obvious.

Sometimes beauty hits you where you least expect it.

Last night it hit in the form of a 67-year-old man with a foul mouth and an out of tune guitar performing a live show in an intimate theatre in the heart of Johannesburg.

I was sixteen when I first heard (of) the man known as Koos Kombuis.  At the time, he was a scruffy, scummy junkie Afrikaner who drank too much wine and was almost permanently stoned.  His folksy music was the stuff of rebellion.  He could not sing, he could not play guitar, and yet he made an album (His second, Niemandsland & Beyond) which became an instant hit among a certain subgroup of Afrikaners.  His songs were funny, poignant, littered with swearwords and un-PC language, and demanded change in Apartheid-era South Africa.  I did not give a hoot about his politics.  I gave a hoot about the delicious rebellion that Koos Kombuis evangelised in my mother tongue of Afrikaans.  He sang about getting stoned at holiday resorts, cheating spouses, township violence, inter-racial love (and lust), and it was all done uproariously funny!

Except track number three.  Track number three was a song that was not funny.  Not in the slightest.  It was — is! — simply exquisite.  A song about a friend — maybe a girlfriend — named Liza, who lived in a flat in Oranje Street, Cape town.  Liza played piano.  All night.  Even though the neighbours complain.  At the time, I thought Liza se Klavier [Liza’s piano] was the most beautifully haunting song ever written in Afrikaans.  Or anywhere else, for that matter.

I was evidently not alone in this opinion.  Lisa se Klavier made Koos Kombuis a household name, and uber-conservative Afrikaans grandmothers who would faint and clutch their pearls at his other songs and the sheer insolence and offensiveness of both songs and singer, would wipe away a tear at the almost gothic opening bars of the song.  In one song, Koos Kombuis somehow elevated himself from the Afrikaner counter-culture into mainstream fame, and launched a career that has spanned now for thirty-five years and a dozen more albums.  (And in my opinion, at least two more songs even more haunting and beautiful than Lisa se Klavier; Liefde Uit Die Oudedoos [Literal: Love from the old chest, Metaphorical; old-fashioned love], and Atlantis In Jou Lyf [Atlantis in your body]).   For my international friends: if you can listen to Ali Farka Touré and Andrea Bocelli and Gangnam Style (Screw that one, not gonna link it!), then you don’t need to understand the language to experience the haunting beauty of these songs.

I listened to his tapes on my Sony Walkman when I took the bus to college, when I walked the filthy streets of Johannesburg in my beat-to-shit Doc Marten boots between the bus stop and my job.  When tapes got replaced by CDs, his discs played when I coded websites.   When I went to visit my buddy in Seattle in 2002, his ‘Best of’ album was one of the gifts I took along, and we listened to Koos Kombuis on repeat as we undertook the classic American road trip down the 101 between Seattle and Los Angeles.  Koos Kombuis became an icon.   Both personally and culturally.

Last night I had the honour and privilege of seeing this man live on stage.

Koos Kombuis on Stage in Johannesburg.

Just an old man on a bar stool, accompanied by a guitar and a glass of red wine (not even on a side-table, but on a fruit-box turned on its side), and for two short-ish sets, I watched in amazement at how an arthritic boomer can still stir the soul.

Seeing Koos Kombuis live is not musical.  You don’t go to listen.  You go to experience.  He is still as foul-mouthed as ever, and in-between — and even during — his songs he tells jokes and anecdotes and engages with the audience not as if he is a legend, but as if he is some kindly old uncle having fun with his mates, cousins, nieces and nephews.  He talks about his drug problems he had during his younger days, about LSD-fuelled wanderings in Namibia, about rugby, about how he likes “fat girls”, about his deceased friends, about the mess that was corona.  It’s too easy to take away the theatre and guitar and imagine a beer-stained pub table as he spins his yarns.

And when he plays guitar, and when he sings… he still cannot play guitar, and he still cannot sing.  But passion and beauty oozes out of his pores; eyes tightly screwed shut as he forces his arthritic left hand to squeeze out the chords.  Lisa se Klavier played solo on an acoustic guitar — no piano in sight — was every bit as haunting and as beautiful and soul-stirring as it was when I was but a wee lad.

Dylan has got nothing on this guy.  Nothing.  This was not merely a travelling troubadour doing live shows to earn his daily bread.  This was a man who played his show as if it was the last show he will ever play.  Every ounce of passion and energy he had was poured into six strings and a microphone.  As if the very survival of humanity depended on how well he pulled off his sets.  If I were the arbiter, humanity endured.  It wasn’t even close.

And through the laughter and easy-going chit-chat and offensive music with unsavoury lyrics, there were periods of beauty so extreme that I’m not shy to admit it brought tears to my eyes.

Last night, beauty came to town as an ageing folk-rocker with a foul mouth and an out of tune guitar.

And I, for one, am grateful for it.