Breaking down barriers: The Buskaid Soweto String Project performs at a community concert in Soweto. It has developed a unique and joyful approach to music making, which motivates the students. Picture: GRAHAM DE LACY
Breaking down barriers: The Buskaid Soweto String Project performs at a community concert in Soweto. It has developed a unique and joyful approach to music making, which motivates the students. Picture: GRAHAM DE LACY

UK viola player Rosemary Nalden heard a 1997 BBC radio broadcast of a violin collective in Diepkloof, Soweto. The sound was so unique she visited the project and discovered the musicians practising in toilets.

A member of the English Baroque Soloists, Nalden mobilised her colleagues to raise funds by busking at London train stations. A site was identified next to a church in Diepkloof, a music school built and Buskaid was born.

"It has been a roller-coaster ride in the right direction. We have gone from being nothing to becoming a world-famous organisation," Nalden says.

"We’ve had parents going back to school as they have been inspired by the progress of their children. We have been also told by school heads that Buskaid kids stand out from the rest."

The organisation has taught music to thousands of Soweto children, affecting the entire community. Its success is built around Nalden’s unique teaching methodologies which embrace body movement and the natural aspect of circular movement. Her philosophy is that there is music within all children that needs to be drawn out and encouraged throughout the 10 to 12 years that it takes to become proficient on any stringed instrument.

Intense: English Baroque Soloist Rosemary Nalden, who initiated the project, conducts the Buskaid orchestraat a concert. Picture: GRAHAM DA LACY
Intense: English Baroque Soloist Rosemary Nalden, who initiated the project, conducts the Buskaid orchestraat a concert. Picture: GRAHAM DA LACY

"If children are talented at anything, you owe them the benefit of the best possible teaching and the highest possible standards they are capable of achieving," Nalden says.

Sonja Bass has been a cello teacher for Buskaid since 1999. "Rosemary is very driven and dedicated and an absolutely phenomenal teacher. She is able to create an environment where they understand the aspects of self-discipline and problem solving," she says.

By taking a holistic approach to education and development, Buskaid has affected some of the many different cultural, community and family issues in Diepkloof. Nalden and Bass have developed deep relationships with their students.

Music education contributes to holistic human development and teaches a variety of life skills from mathematics and motor co-ordination to team work. The lessons in discipline and awareness motivate the students to aim for success in whatever career they choose.

For Nalden, Buskaid has been a clear example of "giving is receiving".

"This has been a life’s experience for me. I get miserable, frustrated, angry, depressed. I feel cross that I can’t do things that my colleagues in England are still doing, like taking regular holidays," she says.

"Yet, there is a huge amount of satisfaction in helping young people to grow into something that you visualise."

The Buskaid orchestra has developed a unique and joyful approach to music making. Nalden believes her subtle and ironic British sense of humour may have rubbed off.

"If you can introduce a little humour into a serious working environment, it is essential and it comes out in their playing. In serious classical orchestras that is not always very obvious. They are inclined to sit there looking rather funereal," she says.

As every player has been taught with the same methodology to master the same technical aspects of music, every Buskaid performance is very cohesive and that makes the music making more exciting.

The spirited African energy of their playing and the expressive use of their bodies adds to the dynamic of the performance, making it every bit as good as any professional orchestra. Their repertoire of kwela, gospel, jazz and popular music brings out most of their dance moves while they play.

Buskaid, a favourite of Nelson Mandela, has performed for other heads of state and continually travels all over the world.

In 2007 it played at the BBC Proms as a stand-alone ensemble, and alongside the English Baroque Soloists. They have also collaborated with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Their performances draw compliments from audiences and musicians.

"Over the years we have been asked to collaborate with similar projects when we go on tour, and it usually ends up with our kids teaching the children we collaborate with, which is surprising," says Nalden.

The organisation’s 21st birthday will be celebrated with a unique collaboration between popular international pianist Melvyn Tan and the Buskaid orchestra. They will be collaborating on Mozart’s C major piano concerto, early baroque Italian composer Carlo Farina’s Capriccio Stravagante, and others.

"This is a life experience to hear a man in his 60s from Singapore playing with these young Africans, conducted by an elderly white Englishwoman — me! It sums up what the world should be about; collaboration and how music crosses all the boundaries and barriers."

Buskaid’s annual concert takes place on September 29 at the Linder Auditorium in Johannesburg.