The unique intimacy and acoustic of St George’s are ideal for the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble. Although they went down a storm at the Albert Hall for the Proms a few years back, the contagious charm and bubbling vitality they communicate so powerfully will almost certainly be helped by the qualities of the building and the proximity to an audience that shows its enthusiasm with such an open heart.

I have never been to a Buskaid Ensemble concert that did not leave all of us who were there feeling uplifted. I have seen them bring the house down in a Johannesburg church and melt the English reserve of a group of City of London bankers.

What is it exactly, I wonder? They clearly enjoy what they are doing a great deal, but they also enjoy a proficiency that has been acquired against all odds and through a phenomenal amount of hard work and discipline. Most of them originally queued up outside the small music school that British viola-player Rosemary Nalden set up in the tough Soweto neighbourhood of Diepkloof. These are, in the main, not kids whose middle class or aspiring parents have pushed into learning an instrument. They come driven by some almost magical inner sense that this is what they have to do – and very few get in straight away. There is a long waiting list and only the determined get a look in. There are no fees, so absolutely anyone can join, regardless of income. Diepkloof has a varied population, and there are inevitably many single mothers whose men have been murdered, languish in jail or have just disappeared. There is a great deal of crack and ganja. One of the school’s stars was originally found as a baby abandoned on a rubbish heap. Another highflyer, one of the most difficult students has been in and out of serious drug addiction.

Although the Buskaid Ensemble may not have the sheer numbers and force of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, they may have benefitted from the fact they don’t have the support that El Sistema has produced in Venezuela. A struggle can pay off. This is a small-scale venture that packs a terrific punch musically, but also changes lives. And this is where Rosemary Nalden comes in. Some people who have seen the film I made about the project in 2006-2007, found Rosemary’s approach to the kids offensively authoritarian. Others went as far as criticizing the ‘neo-colonial’ or missionary zeal with which she was inappropriately ‘imposing’ European classical music on African children. It wasn’t quite a case of saying “Let them play their drums”, but almost. The truth of the matter is that Rosemary was asked to set up a school by the kids themselves: this was a cry for help from young people who desperately wanted to play Mozart or Bach. Rosemary dropped her safe career in the UK and moved to Johannesburg. Her courage and persistence in keeping the school going are extraordinary. Her leadership style goes along with a kind of tough love. She has no patience with lack of commitment, but she will also spend weeks or months helping one the students out if they have problems at home – as many of them do.

An evening with Buskaid always closes with some heart-warming kwela, the infectious and lilting rhythms of township song and dance. When you hear those kids surrender to the sheer joy of playing the old tunes they grew up on, it’s not difficult to see why they can bring the same deep feeling and exuberance to playing Rameau or Bach.

Mark Kidel, Director Soweto Strings (2008)

Mark’s moving and inspiring film is being screened at Watershed on Tuesday 1 July at 6.30pm. Visit watershed.co.uk for more information.

Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble

Live at St George’s Bristol Friday 11 July, 7pm.
Click Here to read more and to book tickets for this ultimate feelgood concert.