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Vermaak | Entertainment > Musiek | Music > Resensies | Reviews

Hanru Niemand’s Roepwoorde is the calling card of a gifted songwriter

Riaan Oppelt - 2010-08-31

Hanru Niemand’s second album, Roepwoorde, is a study in perseverance and self-belief, an exercise in conviction through strife that never aspires to be anything but its author’s basic truths sung to exceptionally thoughtful and sensitive music. In eschewing grand ambition and the temptation to make a magnum opus of a series of personal reflections, something that at best requires self-control and balance (how many epic but embarrassingly over-compensatory life stories have not been put on CD already?), Hanru Niemand’s album addresses the art of the storyteller: in being reined in as they tell their particular story, or a story in their story, storytellers do not impose their narratives (or in this case force them into their listeners’ ears) and give their audience numerous points of entry – storytellers give their audiences the choice of entering this narrative through soft, gentle and friendly persuasion. This is because the stories shared on this album are exactly that: soft, and friendly, easy on the ear and always food for thought without trying to be preachy or overbearing. It is quite simply a case of one human being speaking to others willing to listen.

The album is skilfully arranged and reveals a well-thought-out narrative: in the classic sense, the album follows its “concept” in a manner that is accessible and assured. New ideas are introduced in each song without drawing attention to themselves; the variety in the music and the transition from song to song are highly commendable; to contrast seriousness and intensity there are appreciable amounts of self-humour and satisfyingly light lyrical stylings from time to time; the album’s central concern of communication and dialogue (“roepwoorde”) – between lovers, as well as between the individual and him-/herself (especially regarding the choices they’ve made) is conveyed through the very songs themselves calling to and from each other. The latter element was especially evident in Niemand’s stage performances of the album earlier in 2010: two telephones on stage operated between songs by two people, with only one voice heard (Niemand himself) each time until a short sea-change later in the show when the other voice (keyboardist Frieda, playing the part of the “woman”) speaks in unity with the first voice. Good theatre, doubtless, but the metaphor had already been powerfully introduced by the music.

The album’s first song, “Op pad”, is joyfully busy in its music even as the lyrics reveal another “start” to another journey – in life, in your working day, as part of your errands –  as a routine that seems never-ending despite the awareness of age, of growing older doing the same things. Yet, with remarkable expedience, the message is also conveyed that each distance between two people, or a being and a belief, or Divinity, is a journey that is undertaken and negotiated with each decision made: if the character in the song is “vroegdag op pad” then our focus is drawn to what his destination is, and why he takes the journey, and this negotiation of time and (inner as well as outer) space from the seat of a car is made all the more poignant through Niemand’s ability to merge everyday observation (“en die ou hier agter my ry veels te aggressief/ hy laat my dink hy kom dalk van Pretoria”) with self-awareness (“maar vir my dwaal die naald nou te naby aan nul/ en ek weet nog nie wat ek wil hê nie”) in a poetic roundedness that sets an important tone for the rest of the album.

The second track, “Silwer sand”, immediately displays one of the narrator’s destinations, a space of spiritual fulfilment and contemplation of destinations beyond, engaging with thoughts of afterlife as well as rejuvenation in the present life. If life is a series of journeys, it may equally be a series of little deaths and little rebirths – a shedding of the old and rising of the new. Whereas on the first track the music was jolly and as consistent as the traffic it referenced, the music here is immediately calm, a dream space that is itself a destination, and by this the album also shows us that it has established its rhythm: the pace will change from song to song, sometimes quite obviously, sometimes lulling, but tied around its thematic concerns with an unswerving sense of purpose.

“Hier is ‘n deuntjie lig soos ‘n veer” is the ironic, almost bitter way the lyrics to the album’s heaviest track, “Langstandduif” begin. In almost angry waltz time the song both looks back to the self-reflexive lyrical style that Hanru Niemand used to dynamic effect at the end of his first album, and also paints a picture of frustration, of the battle of distance. The narrator in the song is embittered at his loneliness when missing his partner, and the results surface in a semi-savage employment of lyrical skill (“skryf beletsel tot my vel nie meer voel” is innocent but jarring) and portentous instrumentation. In other words, this is the album’s heavy moment: heavy-heartedness fighting with its own allies, which here include Frieda’s dramatic ascensions and pounds on the piano. Like a mood, though, it does not, it cannot, define the album, or the narrator – it is simply a storm passing, not staying. With great alacrity, this moodiness gives way to the quick-trot of “Tien dae”, a humorous and lightning-fast look at the stages of a relationship and the effects it has more on the individual than the couple, gauged by the growth of the man’s beard (and a wildly comic allusion to pop culture in the “first stage”). The song’s pace also made it a performance highlight in the stage show, where it was embellished and briefly interrupted in the middle, and Niemand displayed deft comic timing when he took on the character of the song, going from a bearded character to a mulleteer in a swift lyrical movement that was also mimed on stage. In just under three short minutes, the track shows ample amounts of story, changes direction from the heavy drama of the preceding track, and looks ahead to the rest of the album. And make no mistake, the musicality is solid: a secure bass and halved drum kit anchor Niemand’s razor-sharp and very busy wordplay and Frieda’s ivory tinkles that say almost as much as the singer does.

A centrepiece of the album, “Honderde myle”, succeeds in reinforcing the album’s concerns with distance and journeying in both a literal and figurative manner, while at the same time serving as an even better example of the interplay between Niemand’s personal reflections (“tussen daar en die stad wat ek myne nie noem”) and his general feel for observation, which in this instance includes a slight but loaded cultural observation (“en al my vriende is ver ver friends op die rekenaar”). The balance between such lyrical turns and the music is even more important at this point in the album in that it emphasises in a slow, peaceful manner exactly how alert the music is to the words. In the previous tracks it may still have been a case of one slightly more evident than the other, but the balance is crucially struck to a majestic synergy in this song, which is pleasingly wistful.

“Land van Kain” is a showcase for Hanru Niemand’s poetry, so much so that it may be debated whether this should have been a song. Funnily enough, there are many notable musical elements introduced here: a melody that manoeuvres through darkness and light like a riverboat moving upstream, the sound of Frieda’s voice joining in as backing towards the end of the song, and the unmistakable identity of the acoustic guitar leading the song. It truly does have all the ingredients of a memorable song. Yet, for all that, the unity between the words and the music somehow does not feel assured, and for the first and only time something on the album sounds superfluous – or at least not vital – but then, it only sounds that way . The iconographic religious imagery fused with the contemporary is again skilfully incorporated – evidence of a confident lyricist.

The aptly named “Sielkundige se gebed” (Niemand is a practising psychologist) is haunting and arresting, superior in music and lyrical achievement to the previous track, and easily among the most poignant songs dealing with its kind of subject matter: the individual who, by process of wearing a mask even in the function of helping others, is in need of being unmasked and exposed, in need of shelter. This is tricky, delicate territory, and quite simply amounts to a call for help from someone who is in the business of helping. It is naked in its sincerity, as stark as Frieda’s piano octave melody that helps the vocals along; and even though it precedes the album’s title track, it is indeed a song about “roepwoorde” – it is an intimate call for help, for company, and the acknowledgement of fear. This song deserves radio play.

The last song, and title track, “Roepwoorde”, recalls the time signature of “Langafstandduif” at a more serene tempo, as if the drama of that earlier song has now been confidently overcome. The support that the instruments have provided all along is reliably heroic on a song as looming as this, a song that effectively ties the album together. Frieda’s piano work emerges, in the final analysis, as a character in itself, the feminine voice to Niemand’s meditations, the unseen woman in the musical performance. The lyrical schemes of especially “Silwer sand”, “Honderde myle” and “Sielkundige se gebed” re-emerge in the verses, a sign of something approaching craftsmanship in lines such as “jou manier om te lewe rammel nou einde toe/ jou manier om te lewe in rukke en stote”. The song displays the narrator’s sense of reward after strife, of a journey undertaken and completed, yet also references how easily the individual alone is dwarfed, by a sea-like wine and a bleeding sun, all markers of space and time that can crush the lonely viewer – but then, the journey from loneliness to unity with another ensures that these sights are not threatening, but appreciated. This is but one of the stories told in this album, and to Hanru Niemand’s credit the story is short but full, pleasing to the ear and satisfying to the mind.

Let us hope that Hanru Niemand remounts the stage show of this album, which was an inspired idea. Part cabaret, part dinner theatre, the performance of the album’s narrative is visceral and courageous, taking care and delight in bringing the more intimate moments in the music together and done with the same band featured on the album. Until the time Niemand can hopefully be coerced into performing Roepwoorde again, the album remains as a definite statement attesting to his prowess as a unique and gifted singer-songwriter active in Afrikaans South African music at the present moment. Some may remember his regular Dorpstraat performances in Stellenbosch of a few years back, while others may be introduced to him for the first time. If anyone of either group finds this album, they will find themselves listening to one of the more brave and intelligent young songwriters in South Africa today quietly applying himself.