An explosion of Bach in Soweto


Members of Soweto’s Buskaid music school hone their performance of a Bach concerto, guided by mentor Rosemary Nalden, preparing for Johannesburg’s International Mozart Festival in February

IT’S a half-hour drive on a Saturday morning from St Mary’s school in the mainly white, upper class neighbourhood of Waverley in northern Johannesburg, to the tiny Presbyterian Church on the corner of Tebogo and Mphatlalatsane Streets in Diepkloof, Soweto, where Buskaid’s music school is based, in a black neighbourhood consisting of masses of very modest houses crammed tightly together. St Mary’s is an old, expensive private school with a British colonial feel to it. It has a beautiful auditorium, which is where the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble, consisting of musicians from a far less privileged community, will be performing as part of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival in February.

On the hot summer’s day of this visit to interview Buskaid’s director, Rosemary Nalden, two tall, elegant women dressed in bright African fabrics, carrying umbrellas against the sun, were standing talking together at the church entrance. The receptionist at the door of the small building across the driveway from the church itself, sat at a desk by a wall on which posters advertising Buskaid concerts were mounted with tape. She said with a friendly smile: “Rosemary is in that room there. Open the door and go in.”

The first thing that happened when the door opened was that the melodic, lilting sounds of one of Bach’s Brandenberg concertos burst through into the foyer. Inside the room itself – a humble, rather dilapidated space with windows looking onto the street – ten black youngsters with violins, violas, cellos and double basses encircled a grey-haired white woman sitting bolt-upright on a high stool, conducting and issuing stern instructions as they played. The youngsters were dressed casually in T-shirts and sneakers, contrasted by the sense of preciousness of the instruments they played.

The woman was Nalden who, since 1997, has painstakingly built Buskaid into an internationally known music school which has performed for Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth and the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Its idealistic ethos is the polar opposite of the racial antagonism and negativity dominating the headlines in South Africa these days.

The school has 115 black youngsters ranging in age from five to thirty-three. It teaches them Bach, Bruch, Rameau and other European classical music, as well as fostering local South African genres such as kwela. Some of its graduates have gone on to study at international music schools in the UK and elsewhere. The ensemble has toured internationally in the UK, USA, France and other places. Last year it accompanied world renowned pianist Melvyn Tan in a special concert at the Mozart Festival.

Nalden is the driving force. Born in England, she studied at the Royal College of Music in London, then freelanced for 30 years, and has played the viola under renowned conductors such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Sir Simon Rattle.

There have been several similar institutions in the arts in South Africa which were built by charismatic white visionaries for underprivileged black youngsters, which achieved the highest levels of artistic proficiency. At the Johannesburg Art Foundation, for example, created in 1971 by artist and teacher Bill Ainslie, many of the country’s best black and white artists got their first training under his mentorship. But after he was killed in a car accident in 1989, the institution declined and eventually died, despite efforts by disciples and colleagues to keep it going. Without the master, the inner fire was lacking.

Arts people in Johannesburg ask today whether this will also happen to the Market Theatre in Newtown, created in 1976 by the late theatre guru Barney Simon as a venue for anti-apartheid protest theatre, and where the finest actors were tutored by him. Today the atmosphere at the theatre suggests that its heyday has passed. Will it die, now that the master is gone? If it does, will it be with a whimper, rather than the bang it had in its heyday?

An inspiring event involving another institution took place late last year, when renowned choreographer Sylvia Glasser was ‘danced’ across President Street in Johannesburg’s CBD on a Sunday afternoon by a festive band of twenty young black protégés, after a farewell tribute to her at the Dance Factory in Newtown. They sang joyously and called her gogo – a South African term of endearment meaning grandmother.

Glasser is a dancer who in 1978 – in the heyday of apartheid – started a mixed-race dance company called ‘Moving into Dance Mophatong’ in her garage in the white neighbourhood of Victory Park. It was illegal at the time for blacks and whites to even share a performance stage, but she ignored this and led MDM to become the premier contemporary dance company in South Africa.

She retired last year after nearly four decades of her career, during which she nurtured several generations of the country’s best dancers, who have won almost every major award in the country. At the tribute at the Dance Factory, she recalled scary incidents from the past where black dancers who lived in Soweto had to sleep overnight in her garage after practice sessions because they didn’t want to risk travelling home at night in case the police stopped them for being unlawfully in a white area.

After leaving the Presbyterian Church and Buskaid in Diepkloof on Saturday, the sounds and spirit of Bach and the incredible energy of the youngsters led by Nalden continued to resonate during the drive back to northern – mainly white – Johannesburg along the M1 highway.

What about Buskaid’s prospects for the future? All signs are that this inspiring institution has been put on such a firm footing by Nalden that it will endure and thrive long after she has left. May it be so. The country needs it.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email


One thought on “An explosion of Bach in Soweto

  1. Pingback: Strings that can move heaven and hell | My View

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