Feature

Psychologist by day, musician by night, Hanru Niemand unpacks his most recent album, Opgrawings Van ‘n Lugkasteel

It’s not often that I interview Afrikaans musicians, and certainly none that are psychologists or academics, so I seize the opportunity to greet musician Hanru Niemand in my moeder taal: “Goeie môre Professor, hoe gaan dit met U,” I say in my most suiwer Afrikaans, and he meets me with a warm, inviting smile, not expecting at all to be addressed so formally.

Instead of admitting that my Afrikaans isn’t quite strong enough to conduct an interview in, I blame our readers for having to flip the English switch and Niemand is on board as he explains the ups and downs of being a psychologist during lockdown.

“It was quite a challenge because Zoom is not a great way to have a session — if the patient has a not-so-great internet line, and you don’t really get to read their body language,” he starts to explain. “But when it sort of eased up, then it was a little bit like floodgates are opening,” he laughs and indirectly confirms that the number of fragile people in the country saw a steep rise.

I’m curious about what was happening on the Afrikaans music scene when he started out as a performer, and he thinks long and hard as he travels back in time to Stellenbosch, 17 years ago. “That’s where I played mostly, and I started out at the same time as Fokofpolisiekar, but I wouldn’t say we travelled in the same circles. I knew Hunter (Kennedy), who everybody knows of course, and Zinkplaat, and Basson Laubscher,” his voice trails off as he gets lost in nostalgia.

He adds, matter-of-factly, “When I started off, strangely, I would say that the weight of the alternative Afrikaans scene – so not Kurt Darren – was actually in Pretoria, and then I think it shifted towards the Cape with Fokofpolisiekar,” he sends a nod in the direction of Die Bende.

We fast forward four albums into his music career, to his most recent album, Opgrawings Van ‘n Lugkasteel — which very loosely and poorly translates to: excavations of an air castle (read: pipe dreams). It’s a compilation of stories and poems, not all his own, some English, some Afrikaans, some both, and I ask whose stories inspire his writing.

Niemand grows silent in his thoughtfulness before he starts, “It’s about some journalist friends of mine, but also about some people that I’ve seen in therapy. And I don’t of course need to expose any of their stories, that’s confidential, but I think some of the feelings get stuck somewhere in the subconscious, you know? It becomes a common denominator in many people’s lives and could be a story for a lot of people. And that comes out as if it’s one person’s story, but it’s not one person’s story.”

Niemand has taken a vintage approach with his album having both an A and a B-side, but rather than the B-side consisting of songs that weren’t good enough to make the A cut, he creates two completely different worlds for his music to exist in. The A-side features Niemand, solo, as he accompanies his vocals and harmonica-playing, just as he would perform it live. The B-side features a band of friends he’s played alongside over the years, and it’s a lot more polished. 

I ask about the idea behind this particular approach and his reasoning makes me laugh: “It’s almost like the question of what do you prefer: playing live, or recording stuff? But that’s like asking: do you prefer dröe wors or biltong? And I say I like both, thank you very much. Why do I have to choose?”

He elaborates on the A-side, “Many of these songs have been done before on other albums, but it’s because there’s an obvious second way to do it. At the time I had to choose one, but the second option wasn’t bad. So the A-side is almost unfinished business, if you can call it that.”

Of the B-side, Niemand explains, “[It is] completely different where I get to play around and produce the hell out of it and put in as many instruments as I can. None of this less-is-more crap!”

Take the A with the B. Each side gives off a mystical energy of nostalgia. Some of it is pleasantly light. Some of it is uncomfortably dark. But these are all the risks we take when we dig up the past, when we relook at memories we’ve either forgotten, or chosen to bury away.