The Music of Alex van Heerden

Van Heerden was a fixture in Cape Town's jazz and alternative music scenes. His music is now available for purchase online.

From the cover art for "Ale​!​x" by The Sagtevlei Trio (PR)

This January marks the anniversary of trumpet and accordion player Alex van Heerden’s sudden passing on January 7, 2009.  He died in a car accident. Van Heerden, who stood out on stage (he was tall and white in a very black genre), was recording music with a band of coloured farm workers, the Delta Optel Vastrap Band, at the time of his death. He was barely 35 years old.

As I noted on my old blog, I was a big fan of Van Heerden’s style of playing: the way he mixed a range of South African genres and sounds like boeremusiek, goema, vastrap, and the riel, among others, and through his collaborations and research in the Boland of slave history, contributed much to exploring the creole roots of the region’s music. I saw him perform live a number of times since the mid- to late-1990s when I still lived in Cape Town or when I visit since I moved to New York City.

He was originally from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, and “… 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.” That led to his first professional work in 1990 with local legends, the Soul Jazzmen. Still a teen, he moved to Johannesburg. “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.” McKenzie, in an earlier life, was a member of South African punk band, The Genuines, which combined urban coloured working class music with rock. At the time Van Heerden met him, McKenzie was returning to his family’s musical roots in the carnival music dating back to Cape Town’s slave past.

Van Heerden owed much to Cape Town’s coloured jazz musicians and it may explain his later exploration of the region’s creole musical traditions. In his own words:

“… 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.”

Disillusioned with Cape Town’s music scene, he eventually moved between the Boland and the Karoo regions where he made electronic music and collaborated more with musicians like Derek Gripper (see below for links to their collaboration) and with rural, working class coloured musicians.

Alex’s discography, reflecting his engagement with Cape Town’s musical heritage, includes: Gramadoelas (1999); Cape Doctor, with Robbie Jansen (2000); Sagtevlei, with Derek Gripper (2003); Future Cape, with Hilton Schilder) (2006); and Ale!x, with the Sagtevlei Trio.

In 2010, the French musicologist Denis-Constant Martin wrote of Alex’s musical legacy: “The death of a young person is indeed always a deep loss. But with Alex van Heerden it is not only a great musical talent that we have lost, but an extremely warm and sensitive human being who wanted from his heart to uncover the creole realities of South Africa, and more specifically of the Cape. In his music as well as in his research, he looked for links, relationships, encounters and mixtures that South African history have concealed.”

Derek Gripper, who recorded and played with Van Heerden as The Sagtevlei Trio, just sent me a link to a site where you can buy some of Van Heerden’s music. Gripper also noted that he hopes to get the last “… Gramadoelas [Van Heerden’s jazz band] released, as well as the rest of the huge catalog of jazz, electronic, new acoustic etc that he left us before passing onto other things.”

*  In the great tradition of blogging, this post was edited and updated since January 2010.

Further Reading