A beautiful noise

2012-08-18 14:56

Charl Blignaut visits the Field Band Foundation, which uses music to transform lives. Muntu Vilakazi took the pictures

There’s the sound of a trumpet as we walk on to the field of Joburg’s Alex Stadium.

A small group of boys hang out, one on trumpet while his friend raps, freestyle, over the brass notes.

The photographer introduces himself, chats.

The trumpet kid shrugs.

“Sure. Course, what we really want is our photo in Daily Sun.”

Young people arrive, carting instruments on to the field – marimbas, snares, cymbals, djembes, steel drums, even a great big tuba.

Spotting some unbroken chairs, I sit at the top of the stands with Phumzile Twala (38).

She’s the project coordinator, social officer and big sister in residence of a 250-member band that makes a whole lot of beautiful, thumping noise when they play, dancers adding spectacle.

Twala raises her voice above the warm-up cacophony to tell me it’s the final rehearsal before the Field Band Foundation’s regional competition.

It’s a big deal to win and get into the national finals.

We can see a good part of Alex from our seats, sardine-packed blocks of RDP houses and shacks.

The field is losing its battle against winter, but in the rest of the township there’s barely place for pedestrians, let alone grass.

The band members range in age from seven to 20, recruited from nearby schools and trained to play the instrument of their choice.

But what’s really going on isn’t about music.

After 15 years, there are 38 bands like this across all nine provinces, headed by a board chaired by Black Like Me’s Herman Mashaba.

What they do is use music lessons to teach life skills through peer education – HIV awareness, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, punctuality, group dynamics.

“About 70% of the members come from disadvantaged households. Each one of them has different issues,” says Twala.

“Unemployed parents, alcoholism, sexual abuse … it’s common. I know, I talk to them, do school visits and home visits.”

Quiet counselling and practical help – like medical treatment and applying for grants – is part of the project.

So is creating skills and employment.

Each section of the band has a tutor who helps guide the members – in music and in life.

They’re trained at the Field Band Academy near Umdloti, outside Durban.

Next to what was once a nunnery in the lush green grounds of the ancient Oakford Priory is a building housing
the academy.

When I visit, a new intake of 41 tutors in training has just arrived, speaking a range of languages and aged between 19 and 23.

They all rose through the bands to win a year here and a job in the field afterwards.

To accentuate the diversity, the rooms are named after foreign cities.

The principal resides in Nairobi.

Assembly is held in Athens.

I join an orientation session in Tokyo, the computer room.

There are many passionate individuals who stand and speak about the first 10 days of their academy experience – though none as striking as a camp young man in a woman’s wig with the nickname “Malema”.
 
He has plenty to say about his right to be respected for who he is.

Sharing and respect are the standard here, as is a demanding schedule.

The syllabus ranges from HIV education to spreadsheets, workplace safety to human rights, disability sensitivity to music theory.

“I joined the band in East London when I was 10,” says trumpeter Sikho Bevu (23) when we chat later.

Raised by a single mother, he says his male tutors in the band replaced the father he never knew.

“Where I live, in Mdantsane, the coolest thing for a young person to do is to smoke weed and be a drug smuggler. They think you’re stupid when they see you carrying a trumpet. But only until they see that you are progressing in life while they are still standing on the corner selling drugs.”

Softly spoken Keneilwe Dipheko (21) from Postmasburg says she’s here to learn leadership to be a good music teacher.

Deep into our conversation she shares part of her story.

“When I was growing up I never joined art projects. I was just a shy girl, alone the whole time. My stepfather was working but he got fired because of alcohol issues. I was 18 when I joined the band because of the bad things that happened at home. My stepfather was abusive with me.”

She gets tearful and I turn the conversation to the music.

“I play marimba. When I play I feel … excited and I feel happy … The rhythm is beautiful. You lose yourself.”

Before I leave I stop by a full band rehearsal.

The students are in a circle facing an Asian conductor from the Academy’s exchange programme with Norway.

It starts slow and brassy, and then explodes into percussion.

There are solos and freestyles that give way to singing and dancing, a controlled jubilation and beaming faces.

It’s the same back in Alex, pride shining from the band members as they unleash the music.

“You know what it’s all actually about?” says Twala next to me.

“Self-esteem.”


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