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Making Music in Mpumalanga

Alison Feuerwerker is a violinist and music teacher from Ontario, Canada, and she was a PAA music volunteer in South Africa in January and February of 2016.  

On a January morning I am singing along with Toto’s song “Africa” while I do dishes. My heart sings too, and my feet dance at the kitchen sink. This afternoon I fly out, and tomorrow night I will land on my beloved continent, Africa. Though I have lived in Tanzania and spent time in Rwanda and Ghana, my destination this time is South Africa – a brand new country for me. I am going to volunteer for three weeks with the Casterbridge Music Development Academy, based in White River, Mpumalanga, South Africa. This opportunity has been arranged through Performing Arts Abroad.

A violinist and music teacher by profession, an African music enthusiast who also plays djembe, ukulele, and Reggae keyboards, I am looking forward to connecting with musicians and music students, sharing what I know through teaching, learning from everyone with whom I come in contact, and experiencing life in a new country. I do not really know what I’ll be doing, and I have no specific attachment or expectations. I am eager to plunge in.

Beauty of surroundings

Two days later, after an enjoyable overnight stay in Pretoria with friends of friends, I disembark from a small commuter plane in Mpumalanga, a province in north-eastern South Africa. I am met at the airport by Mike, director of the CMDA. During my time in White River I will experience the wonderful hospitality of Mike and Andrea in their peaceful home – peaceful despite (or perhaps because of) the three dogs and three cats who are part of their family. I have the weekend to settle in and catch up on sleep. Mike and Andrea take me for a drive in the country on one of the days and I am awed by the beauty of my surroundings. Monday begins my first week of work.

The Casterbridge Music Development Academy is a non-profit organisation providing young people aged 12 to 25 years the opportunity to learn music. Its central office is in White River. Six “hub” centres offer music programmes in local communities, mostly in the townships. I soon find a pattern for my days. Mornings I spend at the office, assisting with proofreading and editing music theory learning materials. These music theory materials are being created by local music teachers, carefully following the school curriculum set by the South African government. They are part of an online platform called 2Enable, designed to deliver educational content at no cost to all South Africans, in particular those in rural areas.

Each afternoon I visit a hub with CMDA staff members Mpho or Trevor. The hubs are located in schools or community centres. Students arrive after school for lessons in music theory, guitar, piano, recorder, marimba, percussion, and for band practice. Every day is different and each hub has its own flavour. One day, I assist with teaching music theory to a group of high school students. Another day I get out my violin and jam with an enthusiastic and well-trained marimba ensemble.

marimba ensembl

On yet another day I find myself playing djembe with a group of young percussion players. I am given opportunities to speak with students about the benefits of music education, to answer questions, and to offer encouragement. Everyone is so welcoming and I feel very much at home.

That is the pattern of the first and third weeks of my stay. I spend the middle week in Mashishing, a mining community high in the mountains. The Mashishing hub’s full time coordinator, Themba, is developing a music program to take into public schools in the area. Mornings, I visit classrooms with Themba and we teach a basic music class, mostly focusing on rhythm.

focusing on rhythm

We start with some simple clapping exercises, move on to more complex divisions of the beat and to counter-rhythms, and I throw in some music notation to show the students a visual representation of the music they are making. We bring marimbas and djembes with us, and the students tumble over one another and almost come to blows in their eagerness to have a turn to play. I am thankful for Themba’s kind but authoritative presence and carrying voice. In some classes, the students end up singing and dancing to the beat – one class evolves into a Zulu break-dancing competition!

After school, students come to the Mashishing hub in a local community centre for music lessons: music theory, recorder, piano, marimba, and brass instruments. There is a violin at the hub, though no one to play it, and one day I ask all the kids who are interested to line up, and each gets a chance to try the violin.

Chance to try violin

Everyone wants a try, but several kids are particularly interested and on another day I teach a few students and one of the teachers some basics, including the first few phrases of ‘Nkosi Sikele’iAfrika’, the South African national anthem. I also enjoy helping with recorder, piano, and music theory lessons. The busy days fly by, and at night I am grateful to rest and recharge at the guest house where I am staying for the week.

So many memories stand out from my three weeks in South Africa. Meeting and jamming with Danmora and Tendayi, two brothers from Zimbabwe who teach at the CMDA. Playing violin with the marimba ensemble at Masoyi Hub. Teaching a group of several hundred students outdoors early in the morning with Themba in Mashishing.

outdoors early in the morning

Riding out to the townships with Mpho and Trevor and chatting about our lives as musicians. Jamming with Mpho and Trevor in the CMDA office building. Meeting an elephant up close at Elephant Whispers.

Elephant whisperers

Touring a huge cave with Mike and his daughter Samantha. Spotting wildlife from a safari vehicle in Kruger National Park.

Kruger 2 Kruger 1

Quiet early mornings and spectacular sunsets. Knowing that I have been able to contribute at least a bit to the work of an organization that is changing the lives of young people in South Africa.

Too soon, three weeks have passed and it is time to depart. Andrea drives me to the airport, from which I will fly to Tanzania. I plan to spend a week in Tanzania visiting friends and doing some recording studio work before returning home to Canada. Goodbyes are hard. It is the other side of the world, and despite the best of intentions I do not know when I will be back. Musicians’ hearts connect so easily. Even though we live in very different cultures, there is so much we share. I want to stay and perform and jam and record and teach. At the same time, my life in Canada awaits and I am eager for that too. I am grateful for the experience, grateful to Performing Arts Abroad for organizing it, and to the CMDA for welcoming me. And to all musicians: if your heart is drawing you toward an overseas experience, go. We all – the worldwide community of musicians – will become richer for it.


Music Education in South Africa

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