Hamburg’s got talent!

| September 9, 2019 | 0 Comments


There’s an orchestra of budding young musicians playing full tilt in a remote village on the Eastern Cape’s Sunshine Coast.

The upbeat sounds of the Soweto String Quartet’s ‘Millennia’ float down the passage and make me wonder what these musical celebrities are doing in Hamburg, a rural backwater tucked into a broad curve where the Keiskamma River meets the sea, midway between East London and Port Alfred. Strolling into the rehearsal room at the Keiskamma Music Academy, I find a bunch of upbeat teenagers in school uniform, making beautiful music on their violins and cellos. It’s 16:00 on a Friday and I’m blown away by their dedication and love for their instruments. They switch to the ‘Marry Me Suite – At World’s End’ from Pirates of the Caribbean as music teacher Max Khang conducts, coaxing each one to give of their best. ‘We teach them to play everything from kwela to jazz and classics,’ an exuberant Khang tells me after the performance. ‘They do the London Trinity College music exams and, when they finish here, they can apply to study music at any university’.

Musical training a good preparation

A number of their graduates are already at university, studying not just music but also science and accounting. ‘Music is good training for whatever they want to go into. It builds confidence,’ declares Khang. Just over a year ago, they were invited to tour Britain with an orchestra of 16 and played at music schools and churches in Birmingham, Manchester and Oxford, and at Belton House, the Duke of Buccleuch’s posh mansion. Their performance of traditional and classical music at the Royal College of Physicians in London strengthened ties with the prestigious body that commissioned a large tapestry from the Keiskamma Art Project. The dynamic music teacher introduces me to the lead violinist and lead cello player. ‘It was amazing when we played “Danny Boy” at the music school. They sang to our music. We’d never had that happen before,’ says Lelethu Kila, a pupil at St Charles Sojola High School, who was just 16 when they toured the UK and was amazed at how beautiful the lights in the cities were at night. Now in Grade 11 at school and Grade 5 at the music academy, her favourite piece for violin is the Soweto String Quartet’s ‘Zebra Crossing’. Lead cellist Qhama Nongce, 18, was fascinated at how different life was in the UK, even the transport by trams. The versatile performer, now in Grade 12 at school, plays both cello and saxophone. ‘My favourite for cello is “Mangwane”, a popular song at weddings, and for sax it’s Bach’s “Prelude”,’ says the talented musician, who aims to continue his music studies at university. ‘The experience of the tour and seeing the appreciation from other people made them grow so much and our standard of music has got even higher,’ says Khang, adding that the academy has two students on an exchange programme with a non-profit organisation in Hamburg, Germany. ‘We have built up good relationships there.’

A branch of the Keiskamma Trust

The Keiskamma Music Academy was launched in 2006 as an initiative to uplift the community. It is one of the branches of the Keiskamma Trust, co-founded by Carol Hofmeyr; others are the Keiskamma Art Project, a care project and the health and education division, which have done much to help the community deal with the scourge of AIDS. The music academy is a life-changing opportunity for rural youth and is the brainchild of Helen Vosloo. A flautist with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, she was so moved when she saw the Keiskamma Art Project’s 50-metre long Democracy Tapestry on exhibition in Johannesburg that she offered to start the music academy in this remote area. ‘I was transfixed by the tapestry depicting their lives 10 years into democracy. We’d lived in Finland for a while and, coming back to South Africa, I wanted to extend music education to children who had been denied it,’ explains Vosloo from her home in Johannesburg. ‘The first years were hard,’ she recalls. Vosloo regularly travelled to Hamburg during school holidays and taught recorder to a handful of pupils. Weekly lessons with music teachers in East London were ditched because of problems with transport and amazingly the teachers agreed to travel to Hamburg instead. Slowly they made progress, assisted by volunteers and four founder students who were leaders among the youth. ‘They really got what we were creating,’ says Vosloo. ‘Research shows that if you start a music school in a rural area, it’s very difficult to get buy-in. But Carol and the Keiskamma Trust were already there and people trusted her. And they had seen the transformation art had brought to the community.’ Soon students who scored perhaps 30% at school and felt worthless were getting 90% for their international-standard music theory exams. More affirmation for the students came when they played in the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) Great Hall on an early tour to Johannesburg and received a standing ovation from the audience, many moved to tears. ‘It was a mirror for them, showing an image of their own beauty and skills,’ recalls Vosloo. ‘It showed them another world’. For seven years, Vosloo travelled between Hamburg and Gauteng, where her family lived and she continued playing in the Johannesburg Philharmonic, while she built up the academy to the point where she could hand it over.

Discipline and skill

‘The aim is to give kids more activities and to build their confidence,’ sums up Keiskamma Trust CEO, Zuko Gabela. The discipline and knowledge required to become highly skilled musicians, as well as the sense of fulfilment and achievement that comes with creating beauty, enrich these students’ lives immeasurably. The academy’s outreach programme visits primary schools as far away as Peddie and accepts learners based on their interest and available funding. The building they now occupy was a joint project of the National Lotteries and the local district council of Ngqushwa, but raising operational funds is an ongoing job, explains Gabela. ‘We knock on many doors’. His background as an accountant working for non-profit Christian organisations has proved invaluable to the Trust, ensuring they have clean audits and report regularly to donors. This year, the academy has 33 students playing in its orchestra and an enrolment of 130. ‘They start on the recorder, then progress to violin, flute, viola, cello and so on,’ says Khang, the sole full-time music teacher. He’s assisted by a team of part-time external teachers on stipends who specialise in different instruments, plus senior pupils coaching the newcomers. ‘It gives them the skill of teaching’. They’re also fortunate to get students from Germany taking gap years, who share their musical skills. The Music Academy’s performances at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (Grahamstown) are always popular and they are often invited to play at Eastern Cape festivals, such as the Queenstown Jazz Festival that celebrated the centenary of Albertina Sisulu’s birth last year.

Hamburg is now home

Both Gabela and Khang left the bright lights of big cities to come and work in the little hamlet of Hamburg. Mthatha-born Gabela was looking for a way to escape Johannesburg after his wife landed a job at a bank in East London upon completion of her studies. He responded to the ad for CEO at the Keiskamma Trust, but the 15km gravel road linking Hamburg to the R72 south of East London was so bad he nearly turned back on his way to the interview. More than a year later, he’s glad he persevered. ‘They gave me a short first contract in case I didn’t like it here,’ he grins, explaining that he goes home to his family in East London at weekends, reversing the more usual patterns of the migration of labour from rural areas to cities. ‘It’s been very fulfilling here. I find here my skills are needed and used, so I find fulfilment and purpose. Also, one’s impact is big here. The Keiskamma Trust drives the local economy, so it’s a key project in a community where migrant labour is common and women are left to care for the kids. If people can work here, it builds family units, so the Trust’s contribution is outstanding.’ Khang joined the academy in 2015 after being recruited to start the strings section of the orchestra. The Bloemfontein violinist was a member of the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic. ‘As a performer, your job is to perform, but I always wanted to give something back and pass on what I learned from my teacher and mentor in Bloemfontein, Peter Guy. ‘This was a big change from city life, but when I saw the kids here, I knew we could build something here. And the community was very welcoming,’ says Khang. Which is the most popular instrument among the pupils? I ask. ‘It used to be the violin, but it’s now turning towards the saxophone,’ answers Khang. And how on earth do kids at these remote rural schools even know what a violin is?

Community concerts

‘I play violin for them,’ grins the livewire music teacher, ‘and everyone wants to join us. And we do concerts in the community where people can come and watch us.’ There’s talent everywhere in South Africa, he adds. ‘Some just don’t get the opportunities in rural villages like in cities. The presence of this project opens their awareness.’

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine (see: We are grateful that we are able to feature it here.

Category: Spring 2019

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