The harmony behind the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble

After travelling around the world 26 times, Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble returns to the Linder Auditorium — where it held its first performance — to commemorate 25 years of music making. 

Buskaid founder Rosemary Nalden reflects on the first time she stepped onto the Linder Auditorium stage to perform in Buskaid’s inaugural concert with 15 school-age children from Diepkloof, Soweto.

“The past few years have been action packed. We have encountered both good and bad things. Several times we have faced disappointments while also some positivity. We have done so much in this time. Sometimes I look at what we did and I can’t believe how we managed to do it with the difficult barriers we’ve encountered,” Nalden says.

Buskaid is known as the only South African orchestra to have played at the BBC Proms, an eight-week summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts held annually at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It has also been named as one of the world’s 10 most inspirational orchestras in the UK’s Gramophone Magazine. The team has travelled to the UK, France, the US, Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany to perform on some of the world’s iconic stages such as the Cité de la Musique museum in Paris 

On Sunday, 17 July Buskaid will return to the Linder Auditorium in Johannesburg where they had their first performance back in 1997.

British violinist Nalden says the dream 25 years ago was to channel opportunities for young people in the township to practise their creative energies by learning to play a classical instrument. Looking back now, she says that dream has become a reality. 

“Back in the 1990s when I came to South Africa I stayed because I saw something special. I cannot put it into words, oftentimes I find myself welling up during practice sessions just hearing how well the sounds come together. South Africans do not know the talent they are sitting on and how valuable it is,” says Nalden.

Nalden explains how Buskaid was found and the significance of commemorating their 25th anniversary at the Linder auditorium.

When was Buskaid found and how is it funded?

Buskaid was founded in 1992 in Diepkloof Zone 3. In 1998 we started building a school in the area and have been there ever since. We are funded by a variety of sponsors mainly in South Africa. Funding also comes from various UK trusts, individual donations, CD and DVD sales and performances by Buskaid musicians. I believe that Buskaid has helped to keep young people out of mischief and given them opportunities. Buskaid is a charitable trust register both in the UK and South Africa.

Can you comment on the growth of these young people and how Buskaid has shaped them on their musical journey?

Many of the children come to Buskaid at the age of 12 to 15 years and they tell me they saw a picture of a viola, cello or a double bass in a textbook at school and want to learn how to play the instrument. Some of these young people come from underprivileged homes and don’t have the opportunity to practise their creative skills because of a lack of resources at their schools. When they come to Buskaid the enthusiasm on their faces shows how eager they are to learn and grow their talents and skills. 

Buskaid houses 125 students and all have interesting stories about how they joined. One of them is our youngest soloist Mzwandile Twala, who was brought to Buskaid at the age of three by his foster grandmother [and] who just turned 22 and has a leading solo in one of our romantic pieces. … You can put large amounts of money on a table but it would never be enough to buy talent and these young people have proven that.

What are some of the commitments to joining Buskaid?

What many of the students who join Buskaid don’t realise is that with success comes sacrifice and hard work. It also often takes 12 years to be able to play an instrument, especially if you have never played it before. Many of the young people who join Buskaid don’t have the patience to learn for that long and some cannot commit to the practices, which results in dropouts. I take my hat off for the young people who have stayed and have committed to the course in the current ensemble.

Three of our students — Samson Diamond, Kabelo Motholomi and Tiisetso Mashishi — have achieved beyond Buskaid. Diamond has become the head of strings at the University of the Free State while Diamond and Motholomi have gone on to further their music studies in the UK.

What have been some of the reactions from the audiences Buskaid has performed for?

We have travelled around the world 26 times. Everywhere we go our music is enjoyed by all, especially because we play a variety of songs from different genres of music. These genres range from contemporary music to classic and afro pop. We also have a bit of jazz. Often our afro pop gets the audience dancing and we see them let their hair down. A friend of mine attended one of our concerts and was left speechless. He did not have the vocabulary to describe the effects the performance had on him. but did mention that it took him away from the hardships of life and allowed him to enjoy that moment.

This is Buskaid’s 25th year return to the Linder Auditorium, what can audiences expect?

Our annual appearance at the Linder is extra special for all of us as we get to play to our loyal, enthusiastic and supportive Joburg audience. Our innovative programme will highlight the diverse talents of these extraordinary young Buskaid musicians — a few of whom actually played in that first concert.

The performance will end with a selection of pieces by Northern European composers as well as a few new pop songs with the world premiere of Scarlatti in Soweto, a quirky, jazzy piece by the renowned British US-based composer Julian Grant, written especially for Buskaid. Also included in the billing is a suite by the French baroque composer Lully. We hope to have our audience dancing in the evening. The auditorium also has a generator as backup incase of load-shedding.

The Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble concert will take place on 17 July at the University of Witwatersrand Linder Auditorium. Tickets are R300 (concessions R175) and are available on Quicket.

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