Battle of the bands proves a more soothing gang option

It’s late afternoon in Scottsdene, on the eastern outskirts of Cape Town, close to the N1 highway. This is usually a restless time of the day with crooks and gangsters watching schoolchildren and workers like vultures as they make their way home.

In the past, it would be a time when gunshots would often ring out, but in Park Avenue, the guns have gone silent. Instead, the sounds of guitars, recorders and drums waft over the roofs of the modest, working-class homes.

It’s all because of a project called Join Bands, Not Gangs.

What started as a programme to occupy bored youngsters with after-school music lessons has turned into a project that could inadvertently bring harmony between rival gangs.

A battle over drug turf has turned into a battle of the bands, it seems.

Nicolene Botha co-ordinates the programme. Her son, Fabian, was one of the jaded young people who had few prospects after completing matric. These are the people who gangs prey on, offering them a way to earn money and a sense of belonging.

Fabian was the first member of the music project. His mother says: “I have seen the changes in my own house. My son is not a gangster, but he grew up with these boys. After matric he had nothing to do, but he had this passion to learn music.”

He has since become a “better person” and now “listens in church”.

“It has changed his whole life.”

The programme runs several workshops in under-resourced and crime-prone areas of Cape Town. But it’s in Scottsdene where the effect is tangible. Success has come in the form of participants going on to careers in the performing arts … and in gang members taking part.

Botha says this was a conscious choice: “We made a decision to approach gang members to join. I used to work at the high school, and I knew these boys from school and from the community, so they had respect for me.

“Because of issues of gang turf, we started by having to go to where they hang out. The 28s gang are more interested in playing the guitars. We take our instruments along and we teach them how to play. For the 26s, they didn’t want to play the guitar, they wanted to play the drums.”

Botha says it’s had such an effect that gangsters started venturing out of their territory to knock on her door — just to play more music. “They would ask to borrow one or two guitars, and then they take it back to where they sit and they would play. I hear one of them downloaded an app on their cellphone [to learn how to play], and now they are teaching each other,” she beams.

The project was founded by composer Karien de Waal who had struck up a friendship with Botha’s husband.

De Waal says: “The Cape Flats is a gold mine for talent. If you just look at the musicians who come from there, and so the heart of our organisation was born because of the amount of talent there is. But it is also a place where there is a lack of instruments.”

Like many community-based projects, Join Bands, Not Gangs has had to rely on donations: old, worn guitars are restrung. Recorders and brass instruments are cleaned and valves oiled. No used instrument is turned down

We have asked churches, schools, and whoever is in a more privileged position to give away instruments they are not using. We rely heavily on instruments, so we give out whatever we can get in,” De Waal says.

De Waal admits they’re not law enforcement agents; rather a group of music teachers more interested in chorales and concertos than crime-fighting. But the effect music has had on lives is noticeable she says.

“I’m not a police officer, I don’t look at the crime scenes, but from what I see there is a calmness in the neighbourhood and the people are more open to having conversations about peace and safety. Music has a calming effect. It is a distraction from [everyday life]. It’s a way of people talking to each other,” she says.

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Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

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