The Strings Of Soweto

London Viola Player Opens Music School In South Africa

You've probably heard of Soweto, the sprawling black township in South Africa where the struggle against apartheid was born. That battle is over.

Today, Soweto is fighting against poverty, unemployment, and HIV. There are, however, signs of rebirth. And none more remarkable than an improbable little music school founded by a professional viola player from London.

It's called the Buskaid Soweto String Project, and it's led by Rosemary Nalden, who first came to Soweto 12 years ago and started teaching children how to play the violin -- an instrument many had never seen before. How are the kids doing? Correspondent Bob Simon reports.

Back in 1991, the young musicians were novices and they sounded like it.

BBC Radio stumbled upon them and broadcast a report. Tuning in that morning, in her London home, was Nalden, one of England's foremost viola players.

What did the music sound like? "Ropey," says Nalden. "Just a bit scratchy and out of tune, as I remember it. If it had been better, I might not have listened."

Nalden knew right away she wanted to help. A few months later, she rounded up her colleagues from symphony orchestras and had them play for money -- it's called busking -- at railway stations all across Britain.

They raised $10,000 from the commuters. So in 1992, Nalden took a trip herself down to Soweto to deliver the money. She became one of the few whites who dared to tread into the black township.

Waiting for her were young musicians in a bizarre location. The students had turned a community hall lavatory into their own Carnegie Hall.

"It was very tough because we started, we were playing in a lavatory," says student Lesego Makonoto. "There was a big piano there, and a couple of violins. It was neatly done."

"It was quite a shock, really," says Nalden. But to her, the toilets weren't as surprising as the talent. "The energy, the talent, the motivation. … I mean, they had nothing else to do."

For five years, Nalden commuted between London and Soweto. Then, in 1997, at the age of 53, she made the commitment of her life. She moved to Soweto and opened up a music school -- and that's where The Buskaid Soweto String Project was born.

"In a way, I had this wonderful sort of material, this clay that for the first time, I could really get my hands on it and get going," says Nalden.

But the kids were understandably skeptical, and didn't expect Nalden to stay and become a permanent fixture in Soweto.

Nothing in English life, however, could have prepared her for Soweto: the sprawling squatter camps, the poverty, and the legacy of violence.

There is a memorial in Soweto dedicated to the memory of a 13-year-old boy named Hector Pieterson. Hector had been shot by white policemen on June 16, 1976, the day young students here started an uprising against the apartheid regime. It was the day that made the name Soweto world famous.

In the decade that followed, Soweto was less a township than a battleground. Daily life consisted of riots, rebellions and brutal police reprisals. By the time Nalden moved here, the war was over, but desperation, drugs and misery lay in its wake.

"Sometimes it got so hectic that, you know, she would cry and you could see that in her face that she misses being in England," recalls Lesego. "I don't know what she felt she was trying to do. But it was big."

Teaching music composed by dead white Europeans to poor young Africans was what Nalden was trying to do. And she was taking the kids to a world they couldn't even imagine.

Nalden saw that music was so deeply embedded in life here, so she decided that classical music should not be performed in the classical way. She tucked the instruments under her kids' chins and told them to start moving, and to keep moving.

"The concept of a string player, a serious string player is that he sits in his chair with his music in front of him and all he moves is this. You know, he's very static," says Nalden. "And this is what appeals hugely to professional musicians, when they see these youngsters playing. The fact is that instrument is just part of the moving force of their body, and their inner rhythmic sense."

Did Nalden teach her students with patience, understanding and a soft touch? Well, not exactly.

"I can remember that they moaned about the fact that I was tough in 1997," recalls Nalden. "In fact, their parents came to me and said, 'You know, they're, they're complaining that you're, you're too tough.' And looking back at old video footage, I have to say I was not tough enough."

"She knows that she can get it out of us. So when she gets all worked up, it's for a reason," says Onika, a student. "But you never think, 'Oh, what the heck!'"

But there are some students who test her patience, and then there is Bafana, whom Nalden calls Boomerang.

"She calls me a boomerang because boomerang is something that goes and comes back. And I've been out and in of Buskaid, you know, probably two times, you know," says Bafana. "Maybe sometimes that's, I get fed up and just go out."

But true to his nickname, Boomerang, who lives in a one-room tin shack, always comes back. And Nalden admits that she's fond of students like Bafana.

"I love them, yes. And very often, not always, but very often, they're the ones that play the most exciting music," says Nalden. "What goes on in their lives, when it's painful, comes out in their music. And I think that is absolutely true."

In a room filled with strings and Stravinsky, you sometimes can forget you're in Soweto.

But lead violinist Kabelo is the son of a man who's been jailed for murder. Lesego, her longtime viola player, was stabbed in the chest with a scissor. And Nalden has been mugged twice.

Buskaid may be a refuge of sorts from the harsh realities outside, but the walls are thin. "I saw this youngster eating a lemon. And I just, you know, I thought this was a bit of a joke," says Nalden. "And I said, 'You know, why on earth are you eating that lemon?' And he said, 'Rose, because I'm hungry.'"

So imagine what rich, white audiences in Johannesburg must have thought when Nalden first brought these black kids from Soweto to play Bela Bartok.

"People would look at them in – with such amazement and astonishment, as though they'd flown in from outer space," recalls Nalden. "Because they couldn't really relate to the fact that here were talented children who were very dedicated and devoted."

Johannesburg was just the beginning. Nalden took the kids, now referred to as the ensemble, to London, where they played in great cathedrals.

They also played before Queen Elizabeth, who made Nalden a member of the Order of the British Empire. But a much bigger deal for the kids was playing before their leader, Nelson Mandela.

"He did his famous dance," says Bafana. "The one that goes with the beat, you know. …That's a day that we'll never forget."

Nor will they ever forget their trip to a place called California. It was a visit arranged by one of their biggest fans, Hollywood celebrity Gillian Anderson. She heard about Buskaid from a friend, and became a supporter.

"It lifts your heart when you hear them play, when you see them play, too," says Anderson. "They're incredibly talented. And the music just comes alive."

The kids themselves come most alive when they play their own music. It's called kwela, it's unique to South Africa, and like so much else in that country, it was born in pain.

"Kwela began in those apartheid days," says Lesego. "They would throw you into a police van, and they would say to you, 'Kwela, kwela.' Kwela actually means 'climb in.'... Climb into the van."

Now, they're climbing in the music world. Two of Nalden's top students are attending music college in England. And not surprisingly, Buskaid is now swamped with kids who want to join.

"I would love to teach all of them. But I'm afraid we're full to bursting, and we can't take you," says Nalden, who has had to turn away thousands over the past seven years. "You turn them away and you wonder who they might have been."

Nalden already has 75 students, some as young as 4 years old, who need special care. But they're not the only ones.

"She is some sort of mother to me because, I mean, almost every difficulty that I've been through, she's been there for me," says Bafana.

"Well, it's very touching," says Nalden. "What, with everything that means, of course."

During the struggle against apartheid, terrified blacks would seek shelter in this church, only to be assaulted by henchmen of the regime.

What a difference a decade makes. What a difference one person makes.

The music. The joy of this totally African scene was made possible by one English woman who came down here as a music teacher, and ended up becoming so much more.