Rebel woman: Breaking out of the covers

In Memoriam: Janine Bartlett


I wrote this profile in 2007 on promising musician Janine Bartlett. How sad to hear that she died this past weekend at the young age of 39. Janine was a special person and if you ever get a chance to listen to her music you’ll be touched by her combination of lively but haunting folk poetry, solid guitar playing and beautiful voice.

Cover of “Echoes off The Wall”, Janine Barlett’s debut album.

By Chesney Bradshaw

Janine Bartlett and her band Jamalru are experimenting with acoustic folk rock sounds that are wowing audiences in Bloemfontein. Now she’s working on her debut album and wants to spread her wings.

Janine Bartlett, short ruffled blonde hair, tight-fitting knitted mauve cotton vest and blue denim jeans, strums her acoustic guitar accompanied by a piercing violin. Her voice raspy but with the smoothness of bourbon floating down her throat bursts through the clatter of the audience at their tables with the opening lines of her new song, a reggae influenced tune called “Your soul”. The din dies as the Friday evening crowd takes note.

She began playing cover material with her band, Jamalru, but to stand out introduced a fresh style of easy listening acoustic music with a mix of string, wind and percussion instruments: guitar, violin, harmonica, and djembe. Jamalru’s polished music has attracted a grass roots following from young revelers at the many vibrant music venues and restaurants in the town to those with more discerning music tastes at the classy Sterrewag Theatre.

Janine, constantly experimenting with new instruments, has this year introduced her own songs. As well as “Your soul” there are “Going Places” and “Somewhere in Ireland”. Local audiences have responded to her demo CD; now she’s working on her debut album.

Brought together by their mutual love of blues and folk rock, the band’s name Jamalru combines all three musician’s names. For them it’s come to mean “live your dreams”.

Janine, 27, lead singer of Jamalru, formed the acoustic folk rock band in 2006 with Ruan van Dorsten, 25, a classically trained violinist, and Malcolm Aberdien, 47, a seasoned bass guitarist.

Janine was born in Bethal, Free State, but with her father being a Presbyterian minister the family “moved around a lot”. Her love of music began at five years old when her family moved to Gonubie, East London. She would play a tape recorder, use a table spoon as a microphone and stand on a desk in front of her parents, mimicking pop songs.

She was rebellious at home and hung out with the rebels at school. She ran away from home with a friend “but we got caught by the police and were taken home in two squad cars and a police bakkie”. “I was often called to the head master’s office during assembly.” 

Frustrated after she left school her parents encouraged her to go work in the UK in 1999. Her interest in the guitar was ignited when she saw a man playing the instrument on the beach in Newquay, Cornwall. “I bought a second hand guitar, quit my day job and taught myself to play.”

Back in South Africa she started playing with bands and solo at clubs and restaurants in the Free State and Swaziland. While music is her main passion, she’s completing a four-year degree in nursing. When she finds time to relax, she plays guitar in the bathroom. “It sounds wonderful and the echoes are beautiful,” she says.

Violinist Ruan is excited about what she does. He has played in several orchestras, is now with the Free State Philharmonic and has performed with Karen Zoid, Amanda Strydom and Mean Mr Mustard. “Jamalru is very earthy,” he says. “Janine’s vibrancy and energy is contagious.”

Hanelie Louw, 22, has a degree in drama and is now studying music for a degree at the University of the Free State. A regular with the Free State Philharmonic, she stands in for Ruan in Jamalru when the later is engaged with the orchestra. “I enjoy all the band’s improvisation,” she says.

Malcolm has been in the music business for 25 years, playing bass guitar and drums with many bands including Larry Amos from Baxtop and Wendy Oldfield. He formed Cape Town band, the Swamp Sunk Quartet and produced the debut album for the band Fetish.

Janine’s taut, energetic playing was sharpened by performing many late night gigs, working her way through small towns and seedy venues in Standerton, Bethlehem, Harrismith and Bloemfontein.

She says it took a while for Jamalru to find the right sound. They started out playing covers and still perform some to please audiences. “But it’s difficult trying to sing pop when you’re born to sing the blues,” she says.

The songs she’s writing now mainly come from her personal experience and experiences of people she knows. “They’re about being real … being yourself.”

 She composed “Your soul” during a two-month stay in Swaziland. “The song’s about what love should feel like,” she says during a break in the evening. The gutsy lyrics of “Going places” suggest her defiant side and attitude towards television and society.

 From an early age she was influenced by her parent’s music. The covers the band plays shows her pull of 1970s and 1980s sounds; Creedance Clearwater Revival, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Cat Stevens, and the Eagles. Bob Dylan has inspired her most. She enjoys local artists Arno Carstens, Springbok Nude Girls, Karen Zoid and DNA Strings.

Her main goal now is to complete writing the songs for her debut album. She’s written about half a dozen about relationships and “getting in touch with your own feelings and desires” and is excited about incorporating more instruments such as the banjo, flute, djembe and bouzouki.

Malcolm, Janine’s mentor, producer and sound engineer, believes her music has strong appeal. “She has a fantastic voice, a bit like Nora Jones and the music is accessible to many audiences.”

Janine, having proved that Jamalru is now making the music that she’s always dreamed of playing, trusts her creative instincts and is eager to get her first album out. With the band’s live energy and local credentials, Janine’s girlhood folk rock fantasy looks set to come true.

Chesney Bradshaw has written on music for national magazines and his feature articles have appeared in many publications.

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