The genuine goema captain of Cape Town

The musician Mac McKenzie, who passed away in April 2024, helped pioneer a sound that captured the Mother City’s Creole heritage.

Still from “Cape Town Goema Orchestra - "Table Bay Concerto" (Mac McKenzie),” on YouTube.

South African composer, bandleader, bassist, guitarist, and singer Mac McKenzie once said of goema, Cape Town’s Creole music: “It is the one thing that Cape Town’s got, besides the mountain, that’s an identity.” McKenzie, who passed away on April 29 in Johannesburg, was noted particularly for advocating for goema. Since his passing, he has been celebrated for his varied contributions to the country’s music scene. Described as a “shape-shifter” and “musical chameleon,” McKenzie’s career bridged rock, punk, and jazz. 

McKenzie rose to prominence in the late 1980s as the founder of the Genuines, one of apartheid-era South Africa’s pioneering all-black punk and rock bands. Later in his career, he gained renown for his symphonic goema compositions. 

At the time of Mac’s death, the producer Iain Harris, a longtime collaborator of Mac, told the website Music in Africa, “Mac was an incredible distillation of all of human experience in all its good and bad experiences. To be a part of Mac’s universe was this rush of experiencing all of consciousness simultaneously.”

Gerald Samuel McKenzie was born in October 1951 in Cape Town. He grew up working class in Bridgetown, a section of Athlone, one of Cape Town’s satellite, coloured townships. His father, Samuel, known as Mr. Mac, was an exceptional banjo player and band leader renowned for his work with carnival troupes in the city. Mac started playing with his father’s friends in these troupes from a young age. 

Mac had plans to study architecture or engineering but pursued music instead. Though he had no formal music education (“I am a born composer”), Mac would go on to write and compose most of his music and the music for the bands he was involved in. 

In 1986, he founded the group the Genuines with Hilton Schilder (keyboards, percussion, and vocals), Gerard O’Brien (guitar), and Ian Herman (drums). South Africa was in the throes of the final, very repressive phase of apartheid. The Genuines combined urban, coloured working-class music, especially sped-up goema, with rock, cultivating a loyal following among progressive intellectuals and activists, including whites, in the 1980s and early 1990s. One of its most recognizable songs was “Die Struggle,” which historian John Edwin Mason described as “a wonderfully absurd and subversive anti-apartheid song.” 

The music historian Valmont Layne has argued that the Genuines aligned “Goema with an original project located in a postapartheid imaginary.” They also undermined goema’s overriding association with carnival and humor, imbuing it instead with a “threatening black masculinity,” a kind of coloured militancy that openly aligned itself with the anti-apartheid opposition. The Genuines broke up in the early 1990s, but not before extensive touring in South Africa and Europe. The Genuines’ albums include Goema (Shifty Records, 1986), Mr Mac and the Genuines (Shifty Records, 1987), Chasing the Voodoo (Provogue Music, 1991), and Nights with the Cape Gypsies (Mountain Records, 1993). 

One consequence of the Genuines was that McKenzie and Schilder became lifelong collaborators. Schilder comes from a celebrated family of exceptional jazz musicians. “I’m devastated. My soul mate and brother Mac is no more,” wrote Schilder at the time of Mac’s death. 

On social media, the drummer Steven Howells, now based in Hawaii, remembered Mac during their time in Johannesburg as “the rebel-spirited wild man of our Shifty music days.” He was referring to Mac’s reputation for hard partying, which McKenzie wasn’t embarrassed about. 

 In 1990, Mr. Mac (born in 1924) died, and McKenzie, living in Amsterdam, returned to South Africa. In the 1990s, McKenzie moved between Cape Town and Johannesburg and began performing as a solo act. 

At the end of that decade, McKenzie arrived at a sound that combined Cape jazz, goema, and dance band music. He felt he could express this sound best via symphonic ensembles. Bands like the Mac McKenzie Songbook Orchestra, Mac McKenzie and the Goema Captains of Cape Town, and the 22-piece Cape Town Goema Orchestra resulted from this evolution. The Goema Captains released the album Healing Destination in 2013. The personnel on the album included many well-known jazz musicians: Hilton Schilder, Robbie Jansen (a legendary Cape jazz musician who recorded with Abdullah Ibrahim), Alex van Heerden (accordion and trumpet player), drummer Clement Benny, saxophonist Basil Moses, the singers Zolani Mahola and Ernestine Deane, as well as the banjo player Riedwaan Bollie and singer Kaatjie Davids. By including Bollie and Davids, Mac continued bringing carnival musicians into concert halls and onto recordings, as he did with his father in 1987 with Mr Mac and the Genuines

In 2019, McKenzie said about regrets: “If the Genuines were still together today, we’d each live in a castle.” In 2009, Mac lamented the financial struggles of talented musicians like himself after apartheid: “There’s only one problem in [South Africa]. Too few people in South Africa can picture [someone like me] with a lot of money. You must stay poor. I don’t want to be poor … I am a composer and a musician. Every time I play, I must have good money, not okay money. But the banks are not interested; they’d rather put [money] into football, cricket, or rugby, but they won’t put it into music. Or they give one or two guys a chance. Then they say, this country is free. ‘There, see, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba are making money.’ What about the thousands of other musicians?”

At the end of the 2011 film Mama Goema, which documents McKenzie’s goema symphony, the pianist Kyle Shepherd remarks: “Mac McKenzie says, ‘If the world’s about to end, play goema.’” To which Mac responds: “When the world ends? I won’t be here. I’ll be in the other goema heaven!”

Further Reading