There’s an air of expectation in the Johannesburg City Hall as the audience settles down prior to the arrival of the evening’s star attraction, Sergei Nakariakov. An attractive dark-haired young man in trendy clothes, Nakariakov looks as if he could be a contestant in Idols. But he is no short-term pop sensation. The young Russian trumpeter has been hailed as a musical genius in the class of Paganini and Caruso. International trumpet aficionados rave about his multiple-tonguing techniques and his effortless mastery of complex 18th-century concertos. My ears are dazzled by the fluid quality of the notes he coaxes from his instrument when he starts playing.
The inspirational effect of listening to a musical performance of this calibre is integral to the ethos of Music is a Great Investment (Miagi), the NGO that sponsored Nakariakov’s South African tour.
Miagi is the brain child of talented local tenor Rupert Brooks, who, along with many other local artists, left South Africa for Europe in 1979 in search of career opportunities not available in this country because of the cultural boycott in place during apartheid. After a successful musical career in Europe, Brooks returned to South Africa in 2000, fired with the belief that music could be a powerful tool to unite a divided society.
The audiences at classical concerts are predominantly white in South Africa and they are overwhelmingly exposed to Western music. They are disadvantaged by their lack of exposure to a similar treasury of indigenous music. Miagi’s goal is, therefore, to bridge this divide by making cross-cultural music education available to every child in South Africa.
Miagi supports more than 40 music-education initiatives around South Africa ranging from a strings project in Hout Bay to a brass ensemble at the Welcome School of Music in Soweto.
At the Johannesburg City Hall, Nakariakov shared the stage with an eclectic array of artists including a kudu-horn ensemble and a Venda ngoma drummer. There was a full house of nearly 400 people at the Baxter a few weeks ago where Nakariakov was one of the performers in a master class for brass players arranged by the School of Music in Cape Town. Many of those attending were students from the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University, but there was a strong contingent from the townships also, where brass bands are a thriving concern in organisations such as the Moravian Church and the Salvation Army.
It is hard to quantify the impact of exposure to the phenomenal skills of a player in Nakariakov’s class. Michael Blake, former trumpet soloist with the Cape Town City Orchestra and one of South Africa’s leading trumpeters, was awestruck by Nakariakov’s dexterity. ‘He’s almost super-human,” he laughs, gesturing in amazement. ‘To play a string concerto on a trumpet is a remarkable achievement but he makes it seem effortless.”
Blake is a keen proponent of the Miagi philosophy as he regards childhood experience as a critical ingredient in the development of his own career as a professional musician.
Blake was one of the initiators of Genesis, a programme designed to encourage the development of skills in music education in South African schools as early as 1991, but despite its early success, the programme has been discontinued. What factors must be considered to ensure that Miagi does not experience similar difficulties?
Blake identifies two key ingre-dients; inevitably, one of them involves funding. None of the educational projects Miagi operates can be self-sustaining as they all require skilled expertise and the provision of instruments. Although the latter is being addressed to some extent by the availability of cheaper options from Chinese suppliers. Miagi is made viable by funding from a number of sources; it receives government support from the department of arts and culture, which has identified a number of township schools as potential centres of musical excellence and is providing the capital to set up the necessary infrastructure. The Finnish Embassy provides foreign currency while Total, the official corporate sponsor, also contributes.
The second key ingredient, according to Blake, is the provision of skilled expertise, for example, through trained teachers. The Miagi project endeavours to involve local amateur and professional skills within the community and is essentially an investment in people. The scheme aims to provide individuals with the skills they need to start a cycle whereby they communicate these skills to an increasingly large number of people.
Progress in music education is without doubt dependent on the teaching skills available.
When Nakariakov is asked to explain his phenomenal success, he has no hesitation in attributing it to the quality of tuition he received. He is more fortunate than most because his teacher is also his father.
His father taught him that practice makes perfect. When his trumpet stops singing in the Johannesburg City Hall I rise spontaneously with the rest of the audience to give him a prolonged standing ovation at the end of his virtuoso performance.