Text and pictures by Julienne du Toit (and other WAGs)
It was a late 2016 winter Saturday morning in Cradock, and something odd was afoot in Pep’s underwear department.
Woman after woman (each one of a certain age) entered with a discernible air of mischief, and chose a random array of inappropriate underthings. There were red thongs and giant beige Bridget Jones broeks and sensible cotton bikinis and leopard-print hi-cuts and even a purple satin bra with red polka dots. Reasonably racy stock for a country store. They stowed the underwear away in handbags and Pep plastic bags.
I know all this because I was one of them.
We call ourselves the WAGs (which stands for Wives and Girlfriends, but actually we are all wives) of a bluegrass band called Ginger’s Fault. The WAGs consist of Margie Osler, wife of Zen writer Antony of Poplar Grove farm; Lesley Osler, wife of Maeder of Hanglip Farm near Colesberg; and Ruth Seipp, wife of the eponymous Ginger, a former accountant, both retired to Cape Town. And me, of course.
We first heard our respective husbands playing together, really playing, on a Friday night in our Cradock home just before the Schreiner Festival Huiskonsert at the end of July 2016.
Chris Marais on rhythm guitar and lead vocal. Antony Osler under a hat on double bass. Ginger Seipp strumming banjo and guitar. Maeder Osler on harmonica. They sounded like a bunch of old cowboys in a Western musical – rough to smooth with moments of sheer spontaneous perfection among the books and coats that inhabit our entrance hall, the sound rebounding off the wooden floor.
Suddenly Antony and Chris began to harmonise. Maeder’s bekfluitjie just lifted everything. And that iridescent sound of Ginger’s banjo came sparkling through the bass and guitar.
There was bread and soup in the kitchen (butternut and oxtail), in the tradition of Cradock huiskonserte. We WAGs sat in the lounge chatting and drinking too much wine, but every now and then we’d fall silent to listen to the men creating magic.
We quietly hatched a plan to fling panties at our husbands the next evening, the night of the performance. Hence the visits to Pep.
The First Gig
A quick rewind.
Chris was invited to sing at the 2015 Fugard bookfest in Richmond, Northern Cape.
He recklessly agreed, but on later reflection decided he didn’t want to play alone. He called his old jamming partner, double bass-player, Zen Buddhist teacher, whiskey sipper, lawyer, farmer and writer Antony Osler, to join in.
Equally recklessly, Antony agreed.
At the festival, Antony brought his brother Maeder for reinforcement, and tried to get him to play the harmonica. But Maeder demurred for fear that his false teeth would misbehave.
He in turn brought along a friend, Verlen ‘Ginger’ Seipp who not only happened to play the guitar and banjo, but had those very instruments with him. Thus a Karoo Old Man’s Band was formed.
A Stoep Rehearsal
Next to the parking area of a guesthouse, near the Magistrate’s Court, Chris and Antony practised, and Ginger pulled out his five-string banjo. It sounded mad but rather marvellous. They loosely referred to themselves as the Soggy Bottom Boys, derived from the Joel and Ethan Coen movie O Brother Where Art Thou.
Antony writes about the experience in his new book, Mzansi Zen: “..we end in an unrehearsed multiple pile-up with a final strum plink crrssh boom, our chests thudding, unable to talk from the excitement, three men on the edge of a heart attack thinking, ‘What a way to go!’”
Most of the festinos must surely have expected something gentle and heartfelt from writerly huiskonsert musicians, especially from a genuine Zen Buddhist teacher. What they really did not expect was crazy bluegrass – even the eminent playwright Ronnie Govender was seen boogying in the passage.
At ‘The Schreiner’
A year later, Antony was asked to present Mzansi Zen at the 2016 Cradock Schreiner Festival. The organisers very gently floated an enquiry: could this pop-up bluegrass band stage a huiskonsert to end the festival? And, for purposes of the programme, what was this band’s name?
The WAGs had gone right off the Soggy Bottom Boys thing. It sounded too much like four pensioners wearing diapers. So a new name came about: The Froggy Hollow Band of Poplar Grove. The name appeared on the poster, but never caught on. By then, the men had started referring to themselves as the Well-Hung Biltong Bits.
As before, there were cold feet and a vague attempt to cancel the whole thing but Antony said: “No we can’t! Ginger is coming all the way from Cape Town especially for this!”
Which is why the band is now called Ginger’s Fault.
Rocking the KarooBrew
What an amazing Saturday night it turned out to be. The chosen coffee/brewery venue was packed beyond capacity. The boys knew the WAGs had some secret up their sleeves but didn’t know precisely what.
On trooped Ginger’s Fault – two writers, one sheep farmer and one retired accountant – playing bluegrass classics, Welsh coal mining songs and folk songs from the Sixties.
The audience roared their appreciation, sang along and called for more. The band obliged.
The panty-flinging was priceless. We chose our moment well and suddenly there were frilly women’s undergarments flying through the air and dangling off double bass, banjo and guitar. To top it all, the coltish Maeder Osler wore a pair on his head. And they played on.
This time it was four men, flushed with the music, and a room full of happy people who all raised their glasses and sang along to Forever Young – like they really, really meant it.
Brothers on Farms
This may be an opportune moment to introduce the band members.
Chris Marais used to sing with the Silver Creek Mountain Band, where he learnt his love of American bluegrass music.
Chris and Antony Osler started jamming on the farm stoep at Poplar Grove near Colesberg when they first met in 2013, with Irish whiskey and popcorn to hand.
Antony, a Buddhist lawyer who wrote the iconic Stoep Zen, Zen Dust and Mzansi Zen books, has gigged with well-known South African musicians like Marloe Scott-Wilson (remember The Pink Lady?) and Mynie Grove.
Maeder is the oldest in the band, and has the most hair. He is the one who stands on the edge, who plays heartfelt accompaniment with a faraway look in his eyes, with one hand in his pocket, looking like a cowboy straight out of a Larry McMurtry novel.
Ginger Seipp is probably the most proficient member of the band, having been a founder of the Natal Folk Music Association with the legendary Dave Marks. Together they masterminded the successful plan to bring Crosby Stills and Nash on tour to South Africa in December 1995.
It was Estelle Jacobs of the Hantam Community Educational Trust (HCET) that set her mind to attracting Ginger’s Fault band to the 50th anniversary of Colesberg’s Rotary organisation.
Incredibly, Ginger and Ruth made the long journey up to Colesberg for this Saturday morning gig.
The WAGs decided panty-flinging might not be completely appropriate behaviour in front of Rotarians, even if they were under the influence of champagne toasts and sherry top-ups. We just decided we’d applaud heartily in case no one else did.
Well, we need not have worried. The Colesbergers cheered and clapped after every song, and sang along to the choruses of Have You Ever Seen the Rain and Country Roads. They whistled and wanted more.
The band members shyly ducked their hatted heads and played on.
At the end of it, they got ovations, gifts of wine, mint imperials and nougat, lipstick on all their cheeks, and an invitation to perform at someone’s 80th birthday in two years’ time.