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26 August 2019
Art activist Layne probes Goema music for his doctorate

(Published - 26 August 2019)

Valmont Layne grew up in District Six and on the Cape flats. As a boy, Layne and his friends played cowboys in deserted buildings in District Six. They drew cartoons and even made their own music. 

That seemed to have sparked his interest in arts and culture. It became his career and he used music to draw attention to the violence of the apartheid regime as a young activist. 

“I could see things breaking down around us … falling apart. We were frustrated...we had very little except our creativity. I guess how I coped with the world was through music,” said Layne.

In August Layne, a former Director of District Six Museum, became Dr Layne when he graduated with his PhD at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). He was an Andrew Mellon and NRF Flagship Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Humanities Research at UWC and his thesis revisits the history of Goema music in Cape Town and its relationship with Cape Jazz. 

Goema is a Cape Town musical genre which started with the New Year’s minstrel carnival which celebrated the abolishment of slavery in the 1830s. 

“With my PhD, I had the opportunity to reflect on a key challenge in my professional career about how to move beyond apartheid categories in thinking about music, and how goema is part of African oceanic, and global systems. I have always been interested in how we can use art to be more human and fight back the dehumanising effects of apartheid.”

Layne - who after being forcibly removed from District Six lived in Bontehewel, Factreton and Hanover Park -  joined a militant band in his teens called Raakwys. He went on to do his master’s degree about the history of jazz and dance band music in Cape Town. He worked for the District Six Museum as an archivist collector of oral history before working his way up to the director position. He also served in the Klein Karoo Arts Festival and worked for arts advocacy organisations.  

Layne said he had realised that the public image of the Kaapse Klopse carnival is very one-dimensional and is seen mainly as amusement.

 “You just see images of people dancing on the streets but you don’t get a sense of how the carnival is part of what makes the community function. When it becomes perverted by apartheid, it becomes something else. It becomes a tool to divide. Yet the promise of the carnival is about breaking boundaries”.

Layne added that in townships people often take for granted things that make up the community and give value to life. “If you recognise what is in your lineage, in your family, in the world around you and use it to build your own creativity, it is very powerful.”

Professor Premesh Lalu, his supervisor, said: “Valmont Layne has delivered a tour de force on the cultural history and politics of the Cape. His thesis is a statement on the meaning of post-apartheid freedom.”