Visit to Buskaid Music School

Soweto: 12th- 21st August 2019

Mary-Jannet Leith & Thomas Allery

My husband, Tom, and I arrived in South Africa on the 12th August, on a late-departing flight from Heathrow. We were greeted by a passport queue over 45 minutes long, but eventually entered South Africa successfully. After a few nerve-wracking minutes searching for our luggage, Patrick, Buskaid’s driver, who had been dispatched to pick us up in the VW Combi, found us, and drove us back to the music school. We had a lovely chat with him, and we were sad to hear that a young relative of Patrick’s had died the previous week. We realised quickly how common that this is in Soweto.

Patrick drove us straight to Rosemary’s house in Parktown. Although we had been prepared, it was still astonishing to see the level of security in the affluent areas of Johannesburg, with high walls, automatic gates, security beams, and guards at night. Having worked for Buskaid for over five years now, it was also rather strange for me to see the Buskaid office; I had a certain image in my mind which turned out to be quite different from the reality! We met Anne, Sonja and Lesego (again, wonderful to meet colleagues whom I have been in e-mail contact only for several years), and settled in to our lovely apartment. We also met Rosemary’s beautiful dog, Poppy, of whom we had seen many pictures, and who was very much a highlight of our visit. We had arrived at a time of activity; Rosemary and Sonja were choosing music for a Brazilian concert which was to take place in October. During our stay, we spent quite a bit of office time in the mornings constructing and correcting Sibelius/Musescore parts for the Brazilian works. For most of the our time in South Africa, we worked in the office in the morning, and travelled with Rosemary to the music school in the afternoon, except for Saturday, which is a full teaching day at the music school. During our car journeys to the music school, we learnt a great deal about Johannesburg, the strange ‘taxi’ system, and the ‘rules’ or rather lack of rules of the road! Many people drive through red lights in Johannesburg… At that time of year, some of the scrub on the sides of the road needed to be rejuvenated, so we were surprised to see huge fires from a distance, which occasionally get out of control.

Driving down into Soweto for the first time was quite an experience – turning off the motorway and straight into the township is such a stark contrast. When we arrived at the music school, it was in many ways very much as I had imagined it, but rather smaller – and it is incredible how everyone manages to fit in! There is a small entrance hall, where Gladys sits at the table, and many of the younger students wait for their classes or lessons, if they’re not having fun outside. There are always some students practising outside as well, particularly in the middle of the day, when it’s warmer. We were impressed at some of the very young ones, who had just started a few months before – a particularly small girl dragged her music stand outside and Tom and I helped her with her plucking!

At the music school, Tom and I lent a hand whenever we could in various ways. Both Tom and I accompanied some of the group classes on the piano: the Sheila Nelson method has some great tunes (personal favourite – “Half Past Three”) with excellent accompaniments. After some initial confusion as to which accompaniment matched which piece, I was particularly proud to manage a few tunes without too much embarrassment throughout the week (piano is not my forte!). The classes were so well organised, and the students so engaged, particularly the beginners. In the UK we would find it incredibly hard to maintain discipline so successfully – and we could see that it was primarily because these kids really wanted to learn! We were both very impressed by the group teaching by the assistant teachers, Keabetswe, Cecilia and Lesego. During the week, we were also able to see how the teachers are not always reliable (due to competing commitments, or sadly, family funerals) and did not always organise deputies professionally, making life difficult for Rosemary and Sonja. However, when teachers were away unexpectedly, we did notice that some of the other older students really stepped up and helped with the younger ones, which is, of course, one of the main strengths of Buskaid. Except for the real beginners, all the students really took pride in being able to help those less experienced than themselves, and you could just see that many were born teachers. Khotso and Mzwandile, though less keen to take group classes, actually came into their own when they were forced to take over!

During the week, a group from Princeton University visited the Music School. This was a great opportunity for us to see a presentation from the senior ensemble of Kwela, and a fascinating talk from Rosemary about the history and development of Buskaid from the very start. I, of course, knew most of the content, but Tom really appreciated the ‘back story’, and it was wonderful to see how impressed the visitors were by the performance of the students. The senior ensemble sounded brilliant, and on Saturday, we listened as they sight-read some of the Brazilian music! However, the main delight of our trip was getting to know some of the older students individually, particularly those who were taking ABRSM exams a few weeks later: Tshidiso (Grade 7 Violin), Kumo (Grade 8 Bass), Nati (Dip ABRSM), Soli (Grade 7 Violin), and of course Mzwandile, and Khotso, both excellent violinists. Tom very much enjoyed helping the ABRSM students with preparation for their Aural Tests – something many of them found difficult as they have not been culturally exposed to classical music in the same way as UK students. He also accompanied (often at sight) incredibly difficult piano parts of some of the older students’ exam pieces, which he found challenging but very rewarding. The students really responded well to suggestions in rehearsal, and he hopes that they benefited from the opportunity to rehearse a little extra with the piano before the exam. He certainly enjoyed encountering some repertoire which he had never played before, and developing the relatively new skill of piano accompaniment!

Over the week, we go to know Khotso particularly well, and I had a good chat to him at one point, when he was feeling a bit overwhelmed. As well as teaching at Buskaid, and performing, he is studying accountancy at University, and was losing sleep because of the number of assignments he had due in. Having been very much in that kind of situation myself, I hope my advice was of some help. Tom and I played some Scottish Baroque music with him one evening at the end of school time, which he really seemed to enjoy! I also chatted a bit with Mzwandile about his future plans. He seemed undecided, but asked me a lot of questions about what Music College was like, how much work it was, etc. Both of these students are so talented – but I realised how difficult it can be for them to make the decision to become a musician, either because their family do not approve, or because they simply are not sure whether how their future will unfold. It is a very challenging environment in which to promote music education, far more than the UK, where, even now, there is still a recognition that music is a valuable pursuit. We did see first-hand problems with some students having to attend school on Saturdays/later on weekdays when they usually would be at Buskaid, and that this situation may worsen in the future.

Towards the end of our stay, we gave a short concert for the older students, who seemed to appreciate our Scottish Baroque music. We also visited Sonja's workshop, which I was particularly interested to see, as I had ordered and shipped some of the materials from Germany when it was originally set up a couple of years ago. Sonja has made such a beautiful job of the container, and we learnt a great deal: she is so passionate about studying instrument repair further in future, and improving her work. She seems always busy in the repair workshop, and there is clearly so much to do, on top of all her cello teaching and performance with the JPO.

A trip to South Africa would not have been complete with a trip to the bush. On Sunday, Sonja and her partner Heather drove us all the way to the Pilanesburg National Park, where we spent a glorious day seeing all sorts of wildlife, and relaxing after a busy week. Sonja and Heather had prepared the most incredible feast, (along with a delicious cake donated by Rosemary), and we had a lazy braai under the hot sun. This, and the music school in the afternoon, are my abiding memories of South Africa; the warmth and friendliness. Despite such a clearly divided society (visible on so many levels even to an outsider) we were welcomed by everyone, and felt quite part of the family in Soweto after only a few days. We wish to express our sincere thanks for the financial support of BUK towards our visit, which enabled us to get a real sense of how Buskaid works, and the many challenges which Rosemary and the team face on a daily basis just to keep going, let alone at such a high level of musicianship. We are also incredibly grateful to Rosemary for hosting us during our stay, for making us the most delicious meals and lunches; we so enjoyed spending evenings with her and Poppy, even exploring new culinary territory in the form of an entire jackfruit! We very much hope to return soon, and perhaps to organise a more formal project between our ensemble and the Buskaid ensemble in the future.

Back to home