Art and the inspiration of freedom

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Glasgow is celebrating 10 years of South African democracy with writers, artists and musicians, writes Brian Hayward

Inspiration is not only the name of Glasgow's annual two-week festival for young people, but for seven years it has also been its aim as it tries to enthuse teachers and children with the excitement and possibilities of the arts.

This year the theme of the festival, running until November 5, is the celebration of 10 years of democracy in South Africa. While this may seem a less than obvious choice for pre-school and primary children, it belongs well enough in a city that campaigned vigorously against apartheid and is now confronting its own racism and sectarianism with the same energy.

The festival works on a very simple and effective principle, by bringing the right kind of artists - those that can teach and share - into schools and encouraging the partnerships to grow.

Maggie Singleton, the city's arts development officer, bewails the difficulty of getting a response to her programme from teachers, in spite of her best efforts.

"I could spend all year going around schools explaining what we're about," she says. "We have the arts wallet every term and twilight sessions in the afternoon once a month, and a programme goes to every school. We phone all the schools and the saddest answer we get is: 'It's on my desk but I haven't had time to read it'."

Among her successful contacts, she cites the visit of a Namibian University choir some years ago, which so inspired St Aloysius Primary teacher Carol Jamnijad that she has organised an African choir in her own school, which will sing at this year's festival.

The star guest this year is the renowned South African children's novelist Beverley Naidoo, who was exiled because of the frankness of her writing during apartheid and works in London. She is going into upper primary to discuss her books (such as Journey to Jo'burg) and their themes of exile and alienation. The P7 class at St Bridget's Primary in Baillieston has worked on The Other Side of Truth and for its meeting with the author will also invite last year's P7s, who studied her work too.

Sonny Masepe is a hugely genial performer of South African folk music, whether he is singing in his resonant baritone, hammering and caressing the drum or, best of all, demonstrating the stamping and castanet-like slapping gum boot dance of the miner. Now living in Fife, since September he has been teaching four classes every week in Glasgow's Sighthill and St Stephen's primary schools, preparing 120 children for public performance at the People's Palace on November 2 and at the Royal Concert Hall three weeks later.

As well as the gum boot dance, and its importance as a means of communication during the time of apartheid, the P7s have been learning the can dance, invented in the poverty of the townships by children who taught themselves to make music using drink cans.

On display at the festival launch at the Tramway last Saturday was the banner created to be a backdrop for the performances at this year's festival. It was made by Deborah Campbell (who is "fantastic with the kids", says Ms Singleton) with P6 and P7 children at Barlanark Primary over the past month, using batik, transfer paints and crayons to mimic the textiles and imagery of South Africa.

This mix of culture and technique was evident in Teresa Flavin's workshops on making concertina books, which the pupils illustrated with Xhosa myths and stories, at the beginning of October.

Naheed Cruickshank's music workshops for under-fives at the festival launch began quietly, with little rhymes for rhythms and the gentle turning of her rain-sticks (some as tall as their players) and rolling of her rain-drums.

With her friendly puppet to smooth the introductions, the group were soon wearing brightly coloured shawls and dancing, clashing cymbals and banging bongos as they unconsciously explored pitch, pulse and rhythm.

Next week her husband, composer and musician Andrew Cruickshank, will take his "African Sunrise" into special schools, where the pupils will be joined by classes from local primaries. This type of sharing worked extremely well last year.

"The primary activities are going well," says Ms Singleton, "but organising the secondary programme is not so easy and the school leavers are even more tricky. We have classes for DJs, film-making, dance and music. There is a lot happening, too much sometimes, so that we get in our own way and run short of venues and arts leaders. I'm looking forwards to rethinking the yearly programme."

Whatever changes she makes, they will not be cosmetic.

Glasgow arts development officer Maggie Singleton, tel 0141 287 9843

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