Elim, the Moravian Church and brass bands

Elim, the Moravian Church and brass bands
The Moravian church brass band in Elim participated in a brass band festival held in the village. Photo: Brian Engel

Dorpies sometimes have interesting histories, people and events. The more cynical among us would attribute this to there being little else to do but engage in things that make them quaint. The original Moravian mission station of Elim in the southern Cape is one such village.

Because of familial links, and since there was a brass band festival happening, a visit to Elim village was undertaken. Early morning drives are so refreshing and exciting, with the cool, clean air, newly minted sunshine, quiet roads and, of course, appropriate padkos. We chose the road via Caledon toward Napier.

Caledon itself is not that little a town anymore, compared to when I passed through there often in the late ’70s, on my way to and from Gqeberha, which was then my home. It has grown quite a bit.

Napier has also grown, but definitely not to the same extent. Its main road has retained its old-world charm and colourful, if not flamboyant, buildings.

It reminds me of towns such as Riebeek-Kasteel, McGregor and Barrydale – arty places with interesting residents and renovated homes. In some cases, these homes are themselves the works of art.

As with all towns and cities (or most), there is the other side of the coin in terms of separate spatial development. It is always worth taking a drive through the alternate universe to orientate your appreciation of how different folk live. On this trip there was not much time to explore this in detail.

Once you cross Sir Lowry’s Pass, the vegetation tends to mountain fynbos with large tracts of orchards producing deciduous fruit, much of it for export. Descending to Botrivier, the vegetation changes to mostly rolling fields of agricultural lands where bright yellow splotches of canola are interspersed with wheat fields. This rolls way past Caledon, our first turn-off point, and also south towards the sea and Elim, Bredasdorp and Gansbaai.

At Napier, we negotiated a sharp right-hand turn at the first four-way stop to embark on a gravel road trip of about 30km to Elim itself. It took us through a beautiful valley containing bucolic cattle, dilapidated farmhouses, newly planted proteaceae fields and sombre sheep with frolicking lambkins.

Finally, we arrived in Elim, via its main road (Church Street). Being a Sunday, and with many people attending the festival further down the road, it was quieter than its usual quietness. Thatched roofing seemed like old hats being doffed as we slowly drove by. A few dogs lay in pale sunlight filtered by clouds on the warm day.

Elim’s brass band is part of the Moravian Brass Band Union of
South Africa, tasked with the biblical calling to ‘praise God with
the sound of the trumpet’, as per Psalm 150. Photo: Brian Engel

Normally this road runs through the town toward Die Dam via a small right-handed kink in the road at the church, itself being a beautiful white thatched building with a clock tower and the traditional bell for calling one to prayer. The local traffic police managed a road closure, allowing the big parking area to be used as the stage for the agglomeration of brass bands from Western and Eastern Cape.

The Moravian Brass Band Union of South Africa was established by the church community to involve parishioners and non-Moravian members in “praise … with the sound of the trumpet” (Psalm 150), and, by implication, other brass wind instruments too.

The 375 instrumentalists seated on the square with a huge audience all round was a sight to behold. Visitors had come from far and wide, as evidenced by the registration plates of the cars filling the streets. The gleaming brass instruments themselves added glister and gold to the aural symphony, even before a note was played.

For the uninitiated (which includes myself prior to researching this topic), a brass band may consist of instruments such as the trumpet, cornet, horn, trombone, saxhorn and tuba. Each of these instruments has quite a number of variations.

The church steeple still houses a bell, the second of two, the first being mounted in front of the parsonage and dated 1835. The clock was a gift from Herrnhut, a town in Germany, in 1911. This was where the Moravian Church was established 300 years ago. It is probably one of the oldest working clocks in South Africa.

Musical renditions were interspersed with statements and prayers by dignitaries, conductors and composers. Upon our arrival, the first rendition we heard raised goosebumps. The sound of the tuba playing the back line against the melody covered by other instruments was a sheer pleasure, mixed, I must admit, with childish glee harking back to the days of marching bands passing our house on a Sunday.

The tuba provides the lowest pitch of brass instruments. Photo: Brian Engel

As children, we loved marching along with the band, which included drums. Our dreams were always either to play the tuba or the big bass drum! I am sure kids of today would have the same sentiments.

In today’s fast world of instant gratification, it all seemed at odds with the audience, including ourselves, with sedate music and appreciative yet muted applause punctuating the warm, sultry air, from which the promise of rain disappeared with the mellifluous notes. A significant moving point in this collage was a busy photographer taking up various positions to capture the ensemble in all its detail.

As I panned my gaze across the square, my eyes alighted on some of the older buildings surrounding it, the nearest ones mostly related to the church itself. We ambled slowly around the square toward the small post office, which hopefully was fully functional and able to service the needs of the small community. Did it still pay out grants and dispense related social services to the locals?

The old Water Mill, built in 1828 and restored in the 1970s, as well as other buildings belonging to the church, are situated on what was the Vogelstruys Farm, purchased in 1824. The original mission station was laid out at this point.

Elim, outside of the brass band festival, is worth a visit in itself, especially the church and its environs. Whitewashed rocks on the slopes of a hill to the east proudly spell out the town’s name. A modest HOLLYWOOD of its own.

Our youngest felt that the older buildings, some of which did not seem to be in use, looked like an abandoned ghost town with one or other scary mystery hiding behind the façade and embedded in its very soul and soil. It seemed ripe for a story to be written against this backdrop.

We were not able to visit the cemetery on this trip, but doing so is a quiet indicator of the history of its original and previous inhabitants. Examples are Engel, Van Breda, Cloete, Swartz, Temmers, Joemath, Philander and others.

And so the afternoon ebbed away as we walked down the streets to the soft cadence of the band in the background. Beautifully maintained houses were interspersed with others of a more run-down nature, obviously because of a lack of capital to do repairs. Some homes had beautiful gardens with myriad flowers and colours.

As the sounds of the band rose and fell, interspersed with moments of quietness, my mind’s eye could visualise it as a backdrop to a movie scene in Tuscany or Sicily somewhere, with the main players discussing urgent business in undertones, respectfully.

The Moravian church brass band in Elim
participated in a brass band festival held in
the village. Photo: Brian Engel

We left Elim before the end of proceedings, both to beat any departing traffic and to visit familial farmland about 10km away.

And so, we slowly wended our way home after a splendid day in the Overberg and Agulhas municipalities. We were enriched by what we heard, saw and tasted. Here’s to more. DM

Participating bands:

Arcadia, Atlantis, Belhar, Bellville, Bloemendal, Bonteheuwel, Bridgetown, Clarkson, Darling, Ebenhaeser, El-Shaddai, Elim, Elsies River, Enon, Gelvandale, Genadendal, Goedverwacht, Hanover Park, Herrnhut, Humansdorp, Kraaifontein, Kuilsriver, Lansdowne, Macassar, Maitland, Mamre, Matroosfontein, Mitchell’s Plain, Pella, Salem, Steenberg, Thornham, Uitenhage, Wittewater, Wupperthal and Wynberg.


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