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BBC News
February 20, 2004

Soweto's sweet sound of music
By Franz Kruger

In the shadow of a huge mine dump, residents of a typical street in Johannesburg's huge, impoverished township of Soweto go about their business.

Traffic passes, a man washes his car, children play. Yet carried on the slight breeze is the genteel and unexpected sound of violins.

The sound comes from a tidy brick building next to a township church.

In fact, there are not just violins.

It is a whole ensemble, about 20 teenagers playing violas, cellos, double basses, as well as violins.

Led by a determined Englishwoman, the Buskaid Soweto String Project keeps teenagers off the township's streets, by teaching them music.

And just like the Soweto Strings Quartet, the professional group whose name is very similar, the Buskaid group has become a musical force to be reckoned with.


Rosemary Nalden is a no-nonsense, white-haired English viola player who some 10 years ago heard about a struggling group of young Soweto musicians who were looking for support.

She decided to help through fundraising, and then with teaching.

There are now about 80 youngsters involved in the Buskaid Soweto Strings Ensemble and thousands more have had to be turned away.

She says there is tremendous enthusiasm and potential among Soweto's youth.

"In the townships, there is a huge amount of talent. I don't think it's ever been harnessed. Press the right buttons, and they take over, you can't stop them, and that is just miraculous, that's wonderful," she says.


Cecilia Manyama, a bubbly 13-year-old, plays second violin.

Her friends find it hard to understand how she can prefer classical music to kwaito, the jazzy township music that is all the rage here.

"I used to say that at first, when I first joined Buskaid I wanted to quit because it's boring. But now I realise that it's much more fun than Kwaito," she says.

Unsurprisingly, she now wants to be a musician.

"I prefer classical music because it gets into you, you get to think about so many things, unlike being in a party and dancing and all that. You get to think about what you want to be and how you are going to get where you really want to be when you listen to classical music."

Rosemary Nalden says the project keeps the teenagers off the township's mean streets, with their dangers and temptations of truancy, drugs and crime. She says several lives have been turned around.

"You can't play well if you don't practice a lot, and you can't do that if your life is in a mess," she says.

"This is why this project is so glorious. In order for them to really come in and contribute positively and not be a pain to everyone else, they really have to clear up the other messes in their lives".

The benefits of staying the course are substantial.

Two members of the group have gone on to study music in Britain, the orchestra has released several CDs, and Nelson Mandela and the UK's Queen Elizabeth have been among the celebrities who have heard the group play.

Most concerts move from serious music by Western greats like Handel, Mozart or Grieg, to township kwela - an improvised style that allows the students to do their own arranging.

Already, there are plans for a trip to Britain later this year - to record the group's fifth CD.

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