Tchaikovsky in the townships

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
On a two-week tour in South Africa, Haringey young musicians learned and shared skills and enthusiasm as well as performing, listening and making a lot of new friends. Hilary Wilce reports.

Leonora Davies, Haringey's music inspector, tried to videotape the jazz improvisation workshop that her young musicians took part in alongside their South African counterparts in a Salvation Army hall in the black township of Umlazi, just outside Durban, "but about halfway through, the video goes bananas because I was dancing around with the camera in my hand. I just couldn't stop myself. It is hard to put into words what happened when they all started to play together".

This was only the first day of the two-week tour in South Africa by Haringey Young Musicians last summer, but already her dreams for it had come true. "Right from the start we wanted to do everything in partnership. I'd already done a couple of international trips to Europe with the youth orchestra, and I was looking for something particularly exciting for 2000, which would have much more of an impact on them than just sitting on a stage in Italy giving a concert."

And excitement there was in bucketloads as the 70 musicians - symphony orchestra, percussion group and big band - made their way from Durban, via Pietermaritzberg and the Drakensberg, to Pretoria. "It was the most wonderful experience. Going with the orchestra like that gave me a view of South Africa that I couldn't see now, if I went back as a tourist," says trumpeteer Dan Gale Hayes, 17. "I loved meeting so many people, making friends, and I'm still in touch with some through e-mail and letters."

Like others on the tour, he was overwhelmed by the dedication of the young township players he met, who shared one instrument between 10, and carried it around in a black plastic bag because they couldn't afford a case. "And yet they were far better than me. I felt bad that I'd had all the opportunities and yet I wasn't anywhere near as good as them."

The Haringey musicians learned the Gumboot Dance from black private-school girls, played Tchaikovsky with mixed black and white musicians, presented books to a township school, were danced to in welcome in Daveytown, played jazz in Soweto, endured a stiffly traditional school assembly in Pretoria, played basketball, sang, ate, laughed. They discovered that in spite of South Africa's unhappy history, and continuing divisions and violence, it is also a joyful and open-hearted place, so steeped in song and rhythm that even road-mending crews can be found casually weaving complex harmonies as they work.

The participants, travelling in and out of manicured white suburbs and dusty townships, were so moved they wrote of it being an "inspirational" and "life-changing" experience, and will now play host to the jazz musicians of Umlazi, under their charismatic leader, Brian Thusi, when they come to north London for a return visit. Tickets are already booked and the Haringey team is committed to raising pound;21,000 to make it possible for a return visit of concerts, workshops and the experience of staying with host families this June.

So just how easy is it for a local authority to take a truck and a couple of coaches full of students and musical instruments to the far side of the world, and there organise so successful a tour that even seven months later participants struggle to find words powerful enough to express what they got out of it? Very easy, it seems - provided you and plenty of dedicated supporters are willing to devote the best part of a year to making it happen. "It was incredibly carefully organised," says Leonora Davies, pointing out that each leg of the tour - the places wher students would be staying, and what musical events would be taking place during their time there - as well as each transfer from one place to another, was minutely organised and then checked on the ground by he, before the tour took place. "We got lots of back-up support, mostly from committed parents and teachers."

The project committee also talked right at the start about the exact aims and outcomes it was looking for, which included the overriding desire to work in partnership with the young musicians they would be visiting, and to have local musical leaders take charge, wherever possible, of the concerts and workshops that would be taking place. It also wanted to organise a tour that would have a "life-changing" impact on the young people taking part.

Even so, there were parental objections to a tour around a country seen as dangerous, and three or four children were not allowed to go, although other parents relented after Leonora Davies visited South Africa in February and raced around the track of the tour, checking it out. "I did in a week what we eventually did in the fortnight we were there."

The idea of going to South Africa sprang from previous contact between the orchestra's conductor, Nicholas Wilks, and a well-known Soweto string group, Buskaid, and from a tour he had taken there with a group of Hampshire young musicians. "You only need one contact to get another one, and then another one after that," says Leonora Davies. "And e-mail makes setting something like this up much easier."

There was serious fund-raising to be done, much of it undertaken by supportive parents. In all, the group raised pound;24,000, and although the individual cost of the trip was pound;825, no child paid more than pound;600, and some were much more heavily supported. A lot came in from small grants, but a hefty pound;10,000 from the National Union of Teachers helped things along.

The group was put up by host families, and lucky enough to find a committed and experienced South African travel agent to handle all its plans. Leaders briefed children carefully on some of the experiences that might come their way, such as being served by black servants when they were staying with white families which, they were told, might feel uncomfortable but was an everyday fact of life in the still racially unequal country. They also made sure there were plenty of supervising adults on the trip, so that no one went missing in the scrum of an airport.

In fact, when they got there, the tour participants discovered they were not as far away from home as they might have thought. A local journalist dispatched to interview them turned out to have grown up in Wood Green, and they discovered that a number of prominent black South African leaders had made their home in north London during the apartheid years.

The tour was virtually trouble free, and memories are almost all happy or moving. The London musicians had rehearsed some South African pieces to play in their concerts and workshops. One, a swing band version of the national anthem Nkosi Sikelele Africa, was greeted with storms of approval wherever it was played. Another, a Zulu call-and-response song, Senzenina - "What is our sin? Is our sin that we are black?" - was played to a Durban audience that went so quiet Leonora Davies, looking around and seeing trumpeter Brian Thusi with his head in his hands, thought they must have made a horrible mistake and trampled over some hidden cultural divide. But afterwards Mr Thusi came on to the stage in tears. "I have spent my whole life among people who can't even say 'Good Morning' to me in Zulu," he told them, "and here you are singing in Zulu five minutes after you get here."

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