2014 marks the 20th Anniversary of Democracy in South Africa. Of the 28 young musicians playing on 11 July, it is worth noting that six were born in the 1980s and can clearly recall life in the township pre-democracy, ten belong to the so-called ‘born-free’ generation, and the remainder were just a few years old in 1994. The Buskaid Ensemble, founded in 1997, therefore represents two very distinct eras in South Africa’s recent past.

The story of how Buskaid began is one of strange chance and coincidence. In late 1991 British viola player Rosemary Nalden happened to hear a short clip on Radio 4’s Today Programme about the difficulties besetting a string project in Diepkloof, Soweto. A couple of months later, a similar report appeared in the Independent on Sunday, a newspaper which she read only intermittently. Responding to this double plea for help, Rosemary organised a ‘busk’ in 16 British Rail stations, with the support of around 120 professional musician friends and colleagues, to raise cash for the young African string players. A month later, in April 1992, on the first of many visits to the project (which was located in the washroom of a rundown community hall next to a sprawling squatter camp) Rosemary was overwhelmed by the wealth of talent and extraordinary motivation of the dozens of children coming in for lessons. Over the next few years, the UK’s Buskaid Trust (formed in 1992) organised further fundraising ventures, but by then the township project was running into unresolvable internal difficulties. In 1997, in response to requests from several of the children and their parents, Rosemary started a new project in a tiny dilapidated office attached to a priest’s house in Diepkloof. Around fifteen children from the original project formed the nucleus of this new venture; soon many more were applying to join.

In l999, with the support of a number of South African companies and trusts, Buskaid opened its own purpose-built Music School, also in Diepkloof. By now its numbers had more than doubled, and when word spread that the new school had opened, Rosemary was inundated with requests from many more children to join. The strange phenomenon of this fascination in the townships for playing the violin can in part be explained by a visit to South Africa in 1950 by Yehudi Menuhin, who, defying the terms of his contract, performed to a black audience in Sophiatown. In the audience was a young boy who was enormously inspired by Menuhin’s playing, and against all odds subsequently managed to find someone to teach him the violin. Four of his pupils eventually formed the Soweto String Quartet, many of whose children have studied at Buskaid.

In late 1999, Rosemary was joined by Sonja Bass, Buskaid’s current cello and bass teacher and its only other Johannesburg-based string teacher. Faced with the challenge of teaching ever-increasing numbers of children, and the reluctance of local teachers to drive into Soweto, in 2002 Rosemary and Sonja decided to launch an ‘in-house’ teacher-training programme. Since then, every child who is a member of Buskaid, apart from the newest beginners, has been encouraged to learn teaching skills and assist in classes. The Buskaid teaching staff now includes seven skilled young teachers, all of whom are performing tonight. The approach which every teacher uses is the same – namely a combination of the materials and methods used by both the late Paul Rolland and Sheila Nelson, who was Rosemary’s mentor for many years.

According to the World Economic Forum, South Africa now has the third highest unemployment rate in the world for young people between the ages of 15 to 24, with more than 50% of this age group unemployed. In its extremely modest way, Buskaid is addressing this catastrophic situation by offering full- and part-time employment to around 35 of its trained young musicians, as both teachers and performers.

Throughout the sixteen years of its existence Buskaid has many achievements to its name, including the production of several CDs and DVDs, of which the documentary Soweto Strings has been broadcast to great acclaim in dozens of countries; a total of some two dozen concert tours to countries as far apart as Colombia, Syria and New Zealand; a list of high-profile dignitaries for whom the Ensemble has performed, including the late Nelson Mandela, HRH Elizabeth II, HRH Prince Charles, Michelle Obama and many others; and a number of young musicians who have graduated successfully from both the Royal Northern College of Music, and – most recently – the Royal Academy of Music, London. Buskaid’s first graduate, Samson Diamond, now leads the resident string quartet of the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein.

In 2009 the Buskaid Ensemble was identified by the UK’s Gramophone magazine as one of the world’s ten most inspirational orchestras, alongside the LSO, the New York Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which is drawn from El Sistema, a project dissimilar to Buskaid only in terms of its numbers and the regular financial support it receives from the Venezuelan government (and of which, out of interest, the world was largely unaware until some seven years after Buskaid was founded!).

Such achievements are a tribute to the young musicians’ dedication and discipline, basic requirements for anyone wishing to master the complex skill of playing a stringed instrument. Inevitably this training has a powerful influence on all other aspects of their lives. Many are high achievers in their academic work. Those youngsters who battle with problems such as difficult home circumstances, drug abuse and bereavement, find both support and solace at the Music School.

Whilst providing a first-class training ground for the exceptional musical talent to be found throughout the townships, Buskaid also challenges its members to attain to high standards in all aspects of their lives, giving them confidence and a great sense of optimism about their future. In all senses they are role models and a fine example of how a modest endeavour can impact powerfully on both local and international communities.

When I taught privately in North London during the 70s and 80s, all my students came from ‘middleclass’ professional families. In most cases, parents attended their children’s lessons, especially in the early stages, helping them at home with their practice. Some of my pupils were the offspring of musician colleagues, which gave them an added advantage. Most, if not all, came from two-parent families. Whilst these children lived mainly in North London, few of them could walk to their lessons, and the area covered (from North Finchley to Camden Town ) was quite considerable. Many were talented and some have become professional musicians. One, a certain Meurig Bowen, is now Director of the Cheltenham Festival!

What is remarkable about Buskaid is that the area we serve is minute. The majority of our students walk to their lessons and most live in just three zones of Diepkloof, a suburb of Soweto divided into six zones. There are approximately 34 suburbs in Soweto, each divided into several zones. This statistic, combined with the fact that few of our students’ parents were given the opportunity of an education which might help them to understand the complexities of learning a stringed instrument, makes the levels of achievement and the concentration of talent which we encounter on a daily basis, nothing short of miraculous. We are currently teaching five talented children who are all closely related – and this is not unusual. Many of our children come from one-parent, unemployed families and many are being brought up by their grandmothers. When they first arrive at the Music School, unlike my London-based pupils, the majority of these children seem to find their way there by themselves, unaccompanied by an adult.

There are currently around 115 children and young people enrolled at the Buskaid Music School (which was built to house 35!); if we had been able to accept every child who has asked to join Buskaid over the past sixteen and a half years our numbers would by now run into thousands.

Rosemary Nalden, May 2014

The Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble perform at St George’s on Friday 11 July at 7pm
Click Here for more details and to book tickets…

Read the full programme here…