Chameleon goes kerkorrel

Much of Chris Chameleon's success is down to his ability to musically emulate the creature he's named himself after – adapting to a baffling range of genres.

His new venture involves a collection of psalms and hymns and audience response is bound to include cynicism, as Chameleon has hardly been a poster boy for the Church in the past. Chameleon raises his eyebrows and shrugs.

“When I went from [punk band] Boo! to Ek Herhaal Jou [a collection of songs based on Ingrid Jonker poems], there was plenty of cynicism, as people didn’t understand,” he says.

“But generally speaking, the career of your average musician is more boring than someone in another field. Take a guy in banking: he’s a husband, father, friend, boss and employee, and those roles allow him to have different kinds of relationships. He can be tender with his kids, submissive at work and so on. Music is more limiting – you often have to commit to a persona.”

This hasn’t been a problem for Chameleon…

“No,” he laughs. “For me, expressing myself is natural. I’m an Afrikaner who’s as comfortable in a dress as I am with a hunting rifle; at a rugby game or in church. Cynicism often comes from a lack of understanding. I won’t subject myself to perceptions.”

That may be so, but making what is now vaguely referred to as a “faith music” album has required some mindset changes on Chameleon’s behalf as well.

“I’ve been approached a couple of times before to do a gospel album,” he says, “but I’ve always refused. It’s bad enough that any album is referred to as a ‘product’ when it requires so much emotional input. But when you include spirituality in the equation, it’s a more slippery situation.”

Trying to make some sense of this scenario led Chameleon in the direction he’s taking.

“I chose Psalms because it’s like a well-balanced diet. When you’re young in spiritual terms, you get the ‘Purity’ [baby food] version of your religion. When I was there, I sought certainty in these texts. And I found I could also accommodate them into my love for conservation – of nature and of poetry. I also wanted to make a musical contribution. Most of the music was written in places like Geneva, in the 1500s.”

Music is something that brings people together. Religion often causes rifts. How does Herleef address that discrepancy?

“In its most honest form, music is identical to religion,” says Chameleon. “When the two appear to be mutually exclusive, it means that the purest honesty has not been achieved in one or both.”

Another question is whether music being about Christian themes makes it worship music.

“I’m suspicious of the role of music in worship,” Chameleon says. “I went to the church where Whitney Houston started out, and what I saw worried me. In genres like R&B and soul, the focus is on emotion, and I saw young kids expressing themselves in the same way as the adults, when they were not emotionally capable of understanding what they were doing. I worry that when they get older, they’ll become alienated from the emotion in the music. People miss the point, and make the experience about them.”

Can Chameleon avoid that?

He grins. “I’ve made a career of making it about me. I’ll only know the answer to that question when I perform these songs in a church. It’s always been about me bringing the emotion to the audience. Now it’s about something bigger.”

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