Hannes Coetzee, youtube star


Only two photographs of legendary blues pioneer Robert Johnson are known to exist, and one of those was taken at a do-it-yourself photo booth. But seven decades after Johnson was murdered in a Mississippi Delta jook-joint, a once obscure South African guitar player has been seen by millions of people around the world thanks to youtube.

Hannes Coetzee, a 65-year-old self-taught musician, had never used the Internet prior to seeing himself on Youtube, said his friend and fellow musician David Kramer.

What sets Coetzee apart from all other guitar players is something even Johnson couldn't do: while playing the chords with his left hand and finger-picking with his right, Coetzee plays the melody with a teaspoon in his mouth. If it weren't for the video, you'd think you were listening to two guitar players.

And if it were easy to do, a lot of people might be doing it. After Coetzee's clip debuted on youtube two years ago, numerous "homage videos" were posted on the site. But all of the copycat clips use two people and one guitar, said Coetzee. The most amusing one, he said, shows someone playing a keyboard with a spoon.

Story and photos by Barney Burke

David Kramer (left) and Hannes Coetzee perform at Centrum’s Slide and Steel Workshop, June 2007

The video of Coetzee is an excerpt from Kramer's documentary film "Karoo Kitaar Blues." Perhaps taking a cue from Alan Lomax's quest to find and record authentic American musicians for the Smithsonian in the 1930s, Kramer had set out to find indigenous South African musicians.

In 2000, Kramer heard about a man in Karoo who played guitar with a teaspoon. Subsequently, they've performed together in South Africa and Coetzee has released his own CD.

But it was the youtube clip that led to Coetzee's first journey outside of South Africa.

One of the many people who happened upon the now familiar video was Peter McCracken of Centrum, a nonprofit arts organization in Port Townsend, Wash. (pop. 8,500). As program manager, it's McCracken's job to line up the musicians who serve as instructors for various workshops, including the June 2007 Slide and Steel workshop.

After a friend e-mailed McCracken a link to Coetzee's video, he knew he had to book him for this year's slide and steel guitar workshop, said McCracken.

Coetzee's finger-picking style is called "optel-en-knyp," an Afrikaans term that means "picking up and pinching" the guitar strings. According to Kramer, Coetzee is the only known practitioner of this technique.

Coetzee learned to play guitar by watching his father. He wasn't allowed to participate, but would hide under a table and watch. At the age of 10 or 11, he built a guitar from an oil can and three strings of cat-gut.

As an aloe-tapper, Coeztee would often work alone for long periods of time. Without anyone to accompany him, he was inspired to develop his teaspoon technique. He performs his own songs, but also sings and plays guitar in his church. At the Centrum workshops, he played his own compositions as well as songs such as "Danke Jesus."

Kramer, 56, has had several gold records. His first album, Bakgat!, was banned by the South African Broadcasting company because of its politics and because it mixed languages – something that was prohibited under apartheid. Kramer's best-known composition is “So Long Skipskop,” which chronicles the plight of black fisherman forcibly removed from their village.

Appearing on stage together in Port Townsend in 2007, Kramer joked about Coetzee becoming better known than himself because of youtube. "Now I'm carrying his bags around," said Kramer. "Such is the new South Africa."

Although Coetzee only speaks Afrikaans, that didn't stop him from making friends during his brief visit. It turned out that he was the best dancer at the workshops and never lacked for a dance partner. Between workshops, he made his way around town. At the farmer's market, Coetzee enjoyed gumbo while listening to a local Cajun band and then danced some more.

"The people were so full of love towards me," said Coetzee. "I won't forget this." He said he's not a man who cries easily, but was moved to tears by the kindness of people who welcomed him to America.

Kramer and Coetzee said they hope to return soon. But to borrow a word that Coetzee learned during his short visit here, it was time to “boogie.”

Hannes and Ela kick up their heals on the dance floor

Kramer (left) and Coetzee confer at a Centrum workshop

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