17 December 2022
Annemie Nel is a musician who ticks quite a few boxes that sets her apart from most of her peers on the local entertainment scene. She has an honours degree in classical music. She is an accomplished pianist. At one stage, she also learnt to find her way around a sax and can strum a few chords on the guitar.
Yet, it is as a drummer that she performs – and excels at – when she is on stage around Cape Town. Playing mainly jazz, mind you.
A female jazz drummer who is a classical pianist by training who is also not unfamiliar with a saxophone and a guitar. Is there anything else that this woman can do? Aaah, yes. She’s also a teacher at Frank Pietersen Music Centre in Paarl. That’s her day job.
Annemie has been a fixture on the local music scene for about 10 years playing, in the main, as the drummer for pianist Ramon Alexander’s in a trio or quartet. While they may play anything and everything, Ramon dishes up mainly jazz sounds.
They draw pretty good houses wherever they play and the music’s good buy there is no denying heads turn when the crowd catches the drummer. Mine did. In all the years, I had never seen a female on drums in Cape Town.
Jack Momple, who used to be a regular drummer with Ramon, thinks she’s pretty damn good. That’s high praise from someone who has been playing skins for more than 50 years.
Music was always going to define Annemie’s life. Even from a tender age she knew that was the path she was going to follow.
“When it was time to apply for University in Gr. 11, I just didn’t really consider anything other than music,” she says. “At that time, I felt like it was the only thing I could do well and there weren’t really other career choices for me. I do have a love for reading and languages, so in my wildest dreams I did entertain the idea of writing, but somehow that was never pursued.”
She started piano lessons in Grade 2 in primary school but her exposure to popular sounds was at home. “On Christmas and New Year’s Eve occasions at home, my father would move the furniture, and we would have a proper ‘langarm’ dance evening at home. He loved country music, as well as bands like ABBA and Boney M.
“My older sister played piano and did music up to Grade. 8 exam level. That really inspired me to play piano. At primary school, I wanted to start violin, but my parents were not keen on this.
“Early in high school I discovered drums and just really wanted to start playing. This never realised, so I took up saxophone as well in Grade. 10 and I bought my own guitar and just taught myself to play chords. I think I knew deep down that I was not a classical player and I gravitated towards all instruments that might open a door to other styles of music. I just didn’t know how to get there.
“I didn’t play in a band, but that was my greatest desire and also why I so much wanted to start playing drums. My biggest dream was to play in a band! But it was all classical and at school level I only participated in the school’s wind band and the choirs. This was of course all great fun and enjoyable and part of shaping me as a musician.”
She furthered her music education at Stellenbosch University because that’s where her family attended. At that stage, she wanted to pursue a different direction in music (other than classical) but felt she was not equipped at that stage and age to know what it is and how to get there.
It was in her second year at Stellenbosch that she took her first step that was to lead her to where she is today.
“It’s amazing how life just pushes you where you need to go – at Stellenbosch I took up classical percussion in my 2nd year and dropped saxophone (I am not a wind player at all) which definitely brought me a couple of steps closer to playing drums,” says.
“I also encountered jazz there for the first time in my life. I met [pianist] Ramon [Alexander] who took me under his wing. So, I never regretted making those choices.”
Although she had a degree in music she had no teaching qualifications. No problem. She acquired those through UNISA and has now been imparting her knowledge at Frank Pietersen for the last 15 years. But her focus was still on being a drummer.
“I started playing drums during the year that I did my Honours degree. I was jamming on percussion with one of Ramon’s jazz piano students and she introduced me to a vocalist she gigged with.
“I got my first gig with her, on percussion, and then from there she booked me – I went and bought a drum set and just started playing. When I finished my studies that year, I had to start working the next year, and I was very privileged to just get enough part-time teaching work, to make a living from.
“This was a very difficult period for me. I just started playing but was forced into full-time teaching simultaneously. I never had the luxury of having those first few years in your 20s, to just play and gig as much as you can (as the young graduates have). I was literally only learning an instrument from the age of 22.
“For a long time, I was extremely frustrated with teaching. I really hated it. It was something I just had to do in order to make a living, whilst actually trying to pursue this dream of becoming a great drummer. Luckily, with age, that also changed up to the point where I can honestly say that I am very happy teaching at Frank Pietersen. I see the value now of being in position to influence children’s lives and to steer and nurture young talent. It is a great responsibility and I think that it is very easy to neglect your job if your heart is not in it. It is a sad thing when talent falls through the cracks because a teacher is not working properly. So, I try my best.”
Her first gig in the big “pop” world out there was with Ramon’s group at the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre under direction of Janine Neethling. “I wouldn’t see myself as a pop player, though I would love to do more gigs like that. Pop playing is extremely challenging, and I want to go as far as to say, if you can’t play pop music properly, you need to question your abilities on your instrument.”
Before stepping up with Ramon she had cut her teeth with Danelle De Vries’s outfit. “I literally learned to play on those gigs and it was just great to have someone who was so loyal to always book me.”
So, how does it happen that a classically trained musician makes a living playing jazz and ghoema – sounds somewhat removed from what she learnt.
“A fellow classmate involved with Ramon’s band at the time, ESP, they had a regular gig at a place called Die Bloukamer. She invited me to these gigs and it was my first live exposure to any other type of music. And I immediately fell in love with jazz! If I recall correctly, the first ever jazz song I heard there, was Blue Bossa.
“Ghoema is something that only came later as I started playing with Ramon and got more and more involved in his original music and projects and when I crossed paths with people like Jack Momple and Mac Mackenzie, to name a few.”
Her rise to prominence on the local scene has seen her much in demand, gigging in trios as well as big bands which she doesn’t mind but her preference is the former. “In trios, there is room for freedom and expression. More than in any other set-up.”
Most of her gigs are at jazz venues but she is quite firm about not wanting to be labelled. “I guess when I play, the most of what I play can be categorised as ‘jazz’. But I would prefer to not label music. I try my best to just play any music to the best of my ability.”
In her short career, she has already hit a few high spots, one of which was working and recording with Ibrahim Khalil Shihab. “It was an amazing experience working with that kind of musician and legend. I will always cherish those memories and have great fondness for him and the energy and connection there was between us when playing. That is special.”
Of the local drummers who capture her attention when she is not beating out a rhythm herself, Clement Benny is right up there.
“Clement has influenced and inspired me so much. He taught me a lot and was willing to teach me and spend some time with me. I think he is one of our greats. I also need to mention uncle Jack Momple, of course. Through watching him play and having conversations with him, I learnt about Cape Jazz and ghoema drumming the most. He has always inspired and supported me and there is just so much love and respect there. He is one of the people who impacted me the most. My all-time favourite drummer is [American] Jack DeJohnette. I also love Steve Gadd and Larnell Lewis.”
Annemie has also played at the biggest jazz opportunity in Cape Town, the CT International Jazz Festival back in 2016 .
“The first time I played there in 2016, it was the biggest moment of my career, but I love getting older and maturing and just realising that a gig is just a gig – whether it is in front of a 1000 people on a big stage or 10 people in a small room. It is all the same. If you are not touching someone’s heart in either venue, none of it is worth the effort.”
She doesn’t have favourite tunes but again stresses that she prefers the freedom of jazz. “I love anything that really stirs me and makes me feel, in that moment of hearing it, that I just want to get behind the drums and be a part of the experience!”
Annemie has no illusions about what her career as a professional musician entails and whether it will bring the rewards that are expected. But she knows what she will tell any aspiring young musician who wants to go down the path she has chosen: “I only started to really enjoy music once I started addressing the shortcomings in my personality and in my personal life. We cannot pursue music if we do not have a proper sense of self, of life and of our purpose here. There is no point in playing if you do not know why you are doing it or who you are. So, first sort yourself out as a person, the rest will then fall into place as it should. Also, forget about talent. I am living proof that a tiny amount of aptitude, half a brain and loads of hard work, will take you places.”
One last question for a muso who can do so much with sound, can you sing? “No, I wish I could.”
That there is Annemie Nel . . . classically educated musician who can play the piano, sax, percussion and a bit of guitar – but opted for that rare performer, a female drummer.
There was one other point about Annemie Nel that may have warranted a mention but for the love of me I can’t think of it now. Probably wasn’t, in the greater scheme of things, that important or significant.