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Tshwaranang – the Buskaid Soweto Strings Ensemble calls for unity

Updated on October 5, 2012

Uplifting music

Driving in my car a couple of years back and listening to the local classical music radio station Classic fM I heard a song that just, as the saying goes, blew me away with the beauty of the singing and the haunting tune. A crystal clear soprano with a beautifully-orchestrated string ensemble made an indelible impression on me.

When the announcer said what the song was and who it was playing, I was totally impressed. It was the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble, he said, playing and singing the song “Tshwaranang” which means “unite” in seTswana.

I had heard of the Ensemble but had not really taken much notice before. But this song was just so incredibly beautiful I had to go and find both the CD and more information about the Ensemble.

This is what I found.

A young violinist from Soweto. Photo from the BuskAid Facebook site.
A young violinist from Soweto. Photo from the BuskAid Facebook site.
The Ensemble practising. From the BuskAid Facebook site.
The Ensemble practising. From the BuskAid Facebook site.
More practising! From the BuskAid Facebook site.
More practising! From the BuskAid Facebook site.
The Projest's Vision and Mission.
The Projest's Vision and Mission.

“When Africans are happy, they sing. When they are sad, they also sing!”

Back in the early 1990s an English viola player by the name of Rosemary Nalden heard a BBC report about a group of young musicians in Soweto, Johannesburg, who were struggling to get instruments and tuition, and becoming frustrated by the struggle. She was moved by the report and decided to do something about it.

What she did was to call on a number of her musician friends and colleagues in the United Kingdom to do a simultaneous busk at 16 British Rail train stations. This action, in March 1992, raised £6000, which was added to by a number of other musicians who participated in another four similar “busks” which made possible the start of a music school in Diepkloof, Soweto.

Housed first in a little church office in Diepkloof the school was soon too large for these modest premises and needed to find a more congenial premises.

Meanwhile Rosemary Nalden came to South Africa permanently in 1997 and set up the Buskaid Soweto String Project (BSSP). By 1999 sufficient funds had been accumulated to build a permanent, purpose-designed music school in Diepkloof. This building has seven studios and a large rehearsal room, and a music library. The Project has in the meantime also acquired a neighbouring house to be used as an instrument repair facility and practice rooms.

The music school offers tuition in all stringed instruments to about 80 young people drawn from its immediate surrounds. In fact, entrance to the school is based more on the young person's proximity to the school and the parents' circumstances than on musical ability per se. In spite of this the school has already produced some highly promising musicians. One of them, the incredibly talented Samson Diamond was accepted into Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music from which he has since graduated with First Class Honours. He is now following a free-lance music career in the UK. Samson is one of the stars on the Ensemble's third CD, Tshwaranang.

The Ensemble has so far released five CDs and has appeared before many distinguished people. It also has the enthusiastic support of famed British musician Sir John Eliot Gardiner. The Ensemble performed in Gardiner's domaine privé at the Cité de la Musique, Paris, in 2007.

The Project, though, has wider aims than just the development of musical talent.. As Nalden told an interviewer from the BBC recently: “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.”

The implication is that the discipline and strictures of making music well leave no time for the other destructive distractions that face the young people of Soweto, like drugs and crime: “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. This is why this project is so glorious.,” Nalden said.

In response to criticism that the project taught a “foreign” or “irrelevant” style of music, Nalden had a typically no-nonsense answer: she invited a reporter who wrote a criticism of the project along those lines to come to the school and discuss the issue with the students. “For me and for the kids I teach that’s complete nonsense. People are passionate about classical music in Soweto, so I’m sure the kids will roar with laughter,” she said.

The music on Tshwaranang is an explicit contradiction of that criticism also. The music on this CD is “kwela” based. It is music of the townships, played with verve, skill and spirit by children of the township, on classical western instruments.

To counter the shortage of music teachers the project has deliberately followed a policy and practice of teaching senior students to be teachers themselves. As as result, says Nalden, “We’ve begun to produce extraordinarily competent music teachers. That’s the legacy of Buskaid.”

Tshwaranang – the CD

One of the fascinating features of most music making in South Africa, at least of any worthwhile and meaningful music making here, is that the very diversity of cultural backgrounds and influences to which musicians are exposed makes for a richness and depth in approach and skill development that is not evident in the music making of other places, in my view. It is not possible, given this situation, to make music that is entirely academic, nor is it possible to escape the discipline of the academic in the music.

Music making in South Africa is therefore a cultural activity that is always exploring the boundaries and pushing the limits. This CD is an excellent example of this. The source of the music is the indigenous culture of the black people of South Africa, played with a sensitivity and discipline which comes straight from the Western classical tradition. It is not a cultural colonialism or exploitation, but a process of mutual enrichment which is highly exciting.

As Nalden wrote in the CD cover about the music and the musicians on this CD: “...their instinctive musicality, combined with their irrepressible energy and originality, shines through as always. But there is also an overlay of musical discipline which they have gained from their now quite deep and extensive knowledge of western classical string repertoire: the music of Biber, Bach, Handel, Corelli, Mozart, Grieg, Elgar, Bloch and Schnittke is as familiar to them as their own music, and I believe adds a dimension to its execution; whilst their classical repertoire in turn benefits from the freedom and raw energy which infuses their kwela. For them there is no distinction, and they respond to all music with respect, love and enormous spirit.”

The title track, perhaps the most outstanding of the 20 tracks on the CD, is the one which for me, at least, exemplifies this “respect, love and enormous spirit.” As violin player Jackey Masekela wrote in the liner notes for this song: “South Africa is very diverse and full of different cultures and yet every day we are starting to understand each other. The concept of Ubuntu brings us closer to each other and it's better understood in this Zulu phrase: 'Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu', which means that a person is only a person through his/her interaction with other people. Hence we say 'Tshwaranang! You need Ubuntu to Unite!'” The lovely voices on this track belong to Mathapelo Matabane and Teboho Semela, and they are truly a joy to listen to.

Mathapelo is also heard on another truly wonderful track, “Baba Khuluma Nam” (Daddy talk to me), of which Nalden wrote: “ day they played me a new piece. It seemed uncharacteristically dull and rather pointless, and I dared to comment on this. 'But Rose, you must wait for Mathapelo!' was the response. At our next rehearsal the same piece was played. This time Mathapelo rose up from the viola section, opened her mouth and produced a glorious mezzo, not unlike her viola sound.” Dull and pointless it certainly isn't!

Some of the other outstanding tracks on the CD are: a highly original take on the song made famous by Miriam Makeba, “Uqonqothwane” (“The Click Song”); a wonderful rendition of Solomon Linda's equally famous “Mbube” (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, also sometimes called “Wimoweh”) which appropriately, as it's the last track, ends with the ensemble singing “Bye Bye!”; a very moving version of the traditional song “Gabi Gabi”.

Altogether this CD is an amazing celebration of South African culture in so many ways.

The Videos

Watching the accompanying videos is eye-opening. For me there is something so incredibly uplifting and beautiful in hearing the music played so competently.

Soweto is a gritty, though lively place, with a long history of violence and cultural displacement. It is home to people of very different backgrounds and cultures. And of, course, the people are still very conscious of the painful past and in particular June 1976 Students' Uprising.

The first video captures this lively mix of cultures and has a great insert from Samson Diamond telling briefly the story of how he came to be involved in the BSSE. I love the interplay between the Brandeburg Concerto and the scenes of life in Soweto - “very alien” as Samson says, and yet it becomes very natural.

The second video (and apologies for the German voice over – I couldn't find an English version on YouTube) shows the Ensemble setting a church alight (not literally!) with a spirited rendition of “Mbube”, which makes me wish I could see the whole concert, which must have been wonderful. Then it shows part of the Cité de la Musique, Paris, concert in 2007. African traditional dances being performed to classical music must be something of a cultural first! Absolutely breathtaking.

I have no words to express how moving I find it – just let the music speak to you!

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      C est sur que c est largement mieux les chtans des supporters comme a Marseille et surtout dans les stades anglais Mais le proble8mes c est que dans les match internationaux il n y a jamais dambiance donc pourquoi pas des nouveaute9s. Bon apre8s faut pas aller trop loin, le0 les vuvuzela sont inssuportables surtout dans les bars ou sur les grands e9crans of9 le son est a fond!!

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Pelsicco - thanks for stopping by and leaving such a great comment. Glad you liked what you read.

      Love and peace


    • pelsicco profile image


      7 years ago from johannesburg

      coming from the township reading this hub realy gives me hope for the future...we need more of these stories!an inspirarional read

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Tammy - thanks for the visit and the comment. I too am passionate about music and found this Project so inpsiring both from a musical and a developmental perspective.

      Thanks again

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      Tammy Lochmann 

      8 years ago

      What an inspiring story. I love classical music. Even when my young son plays his violin even though he is just learning I love to listen to him. Music is the international language. Also there is nothing better than a teacher who is passionate about teaching and Ms Nalden certainly has that. Thanks for sharing.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Micky - you are always such a welcome visitor! Thanks for the kind words. And I love to present such beautiful things especially to those who appreciate them!

      Love and peace


    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 

      8 years ago

      Very nice Tony! Very nice as always! Thank you for presenting such beautiful treasures of your homeland!

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Dimitris - thanks for the kind words. They are kashmar! Thanks for teaching me that great new word!

      EA - thanks so much!

      Nellieanna - I'm very glad you liked this and saw the deeper meaning! I'm just very sorry I couldn't find "Tshwaranang" on YouTube! If I knew how to do a vid like that I would do it myself!

      Sandy - thanks for the compliment.

      Ruby - it is the vision that makes things happen, for sure! And Rosemary Nalden sure had vision, thank God!

      Thanks again everyone for dropping by and commenting. I deeply appreciate it.

      Love and peace


    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      8 years ago from Southern Illinois

      The music is so beautiful, what a glorious accomplishment,

      reminds us that it only takes one person with a vision to start something so amazing.

      Thank you for sharing

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      Wonderful hub.

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 

      8 years ago from TEXAS

      Inspiring! The music is gorgeous, and knowing the miracles it's wrought in the lives of the talented young folks who would surely have remained undiscovered and possibly "lost" without this music, it is heart-warming as well as thrilling to the senses. Thank you, Tony! You do indeed bring us such delightful things - much appreciated!

    • Earth Angel profile image

      Earth Angel 

      8 years ago

      Blessings to you Tony for sharing this lovely and inspiring story!! Earth Angel!!

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 

      8 years ago from UK

      Wow! Wow, wow, wow! You have made me want to visit South Africa again after all these years, just for the pleasure and the honour of being able to watch this miracle in person. What a good subject you have chosen here Tony! As my wife says, "KASHMAR"!!!! It means terrible, but wonderful terrible, or terribly, uniquely, wonderful. KASHMAR!!!, then!!!! :-))

    • equealla profile image


      8 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      Thanx for the info, Tony. I'll check it out.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Francis - thanks for visiting and commenting. If you are interested in hearing them they are doing a concert in August at Holy Trinity Church in Braamfontein. Details on the Classic fM site.

      Love and peace


    • equealla profile image


      8 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      Tony, I am glad to see you back. By following the music, doing this article, you must have been distracted a bit. Therefore we can forgive you for having forgotten about us for a while.

      Curios about the remarks of the critics. I never thought music, whatever kind, belonged to a certain culture. Music is suppose to be the universal language. It does not come from the head, but from the heart and soul.

      This was excellent. I've heard them before, but did not know the full story behind their origin. One day I will go to a live performance, as well. (On my bucket-list)

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Dave - thanks for visiting and commenting! These young people are simply amazing!

      Love and peace


    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 

      8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      As you said, very uplifting. Thanks for posting this one!


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