On a very cold, dark morning in December we were visited by a group of young musicians from South Africa.
NCS was the final stop in their first trip to England - a tour that took in Manchester, London and Oxford - and they shared with us the music that is part of their weekly music-making in Hamburg, South Africa. And what colourful, vibrant music it is!
The first piece, Whistling Song, used a bass recorder and djembe ostinato (a continuously repeated musical pattern) over which alto and descant recorders played a melody. To evoke the sounds of the forest the musicians then took their recorders apart and used the top joints only to make the bird songs and ‘whistles’ of the title, and, as the snow began to descend outside, we in the school hall were transported to the warmth and fragrance of South Africa. We all loved the string piece that they played next with its infectious groove that the players danced to as they performed, and the bluesy jazz piece for three saxophones that followed was another, delightful, contrast.
The morning wasn’t simply about us listening to them though. We collaborated: with Christmas not far away we sang O come, all ye faithful and the Keiskamma musicians played and sang along, and the Pre-prep performed their number for the school carol service - Gatatumba - with the Academy providing the accompaniment. We also played to them: SL-J’s string quartet (Messrs. Brain, Barry, Chen and Simpson) played Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. And then they taught us by ear their uplifting string piece, with the whole of Year 7 keeping time on the djembes.
Through our morning of music together the riches and rewards of music and music-making were clear. Music can lift spirits, transport across continents, express culture and identity, give pleasure; it can unite performers in a shared goal; music demands listening and cooperation, and is more than the sum of its parts. After I had thanked him for all that his musicians had done over the course of the morning Max Khang, the music manager and director of the Academy, brushed my thanks aside. ‘Please thank your boys,’ he said, ‘for showing my students the dedication and practice that is required to reach such a high standard. We have learnt a lot by coming to visit you.’ How wonderful that we all felt richer for our morning together.
The Keiskamma Trust has set up health, art, music and education initiatives in the communities that live alongside the Keiskamma River in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The village of Hamburg, already a poor area, has suffered terribly with HIV/AIDS and the Music Academy meets there on Saturdays to provide training for any local children who want to come. Through the dedication that learning an instrument demands, the Music Academy aims to teach its students that success in life is possible through hard work and striving for excellence.