Buskaid’s 21-year legacy is a unique coming-of-age story; from humble beginnings to today’s thriving Academy of String Teaching and Performance, a world-renowned music ensemble situated in the heart of Soweto.
As so often, it is the passion and dedication of an individual person that drives a project to success and recognition. In the case of Buskaid, this person always has been, and still is, Rosemary Nalden MBE. In 1992, Nalden, a British viola player, organised a fundraising event for 120 professional musicians, her close-knit group of friends who all regularly played together, to ‘busk’ simultaneously in 16 British Rail stations across the UK. This fundraiser was in response to a BBC radio interview that highlighted the difficulties of a group of young string players in Diepkloof, Soweto.
Nalden has explained before that there was something novel about being a professional musician and going out and playing in a railway station. Nothing like that had happened before on that scale. That it was for young children in South Africa at a very sensitive time really captured people’s hearts. When she took the initial monies raised out to the original school in 1992, the country was still coming to terms with the official end to apartheid. She has since described her first visit as ‘a mutual fascination’ that snowballed as her relationships with the children deepened. She was fascinated by the whole phenomenon of these incredibly talented children who were so thirsty for violin lessons and couldn’t turn back, although she says that she doesn’t remember making a conscious decision. ‘I was just captivated and had this feeling that after having shown them what was possible, I couldn’t walk away.’
At the time, Nalden had her own illustrious career, playing under such conductors as Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Roger Norrington, Sir Simon Rattle, Christopher Hogwood, Frans Brüggen and Gustav Leonhardt. Her incredible success, both in her own career and with Buskaid, is truly remarkable.
Teaching has always played an important role in Nalden’s professional life and she employs a highly specialised teaching approach, pioneered by the late Paul Rolland and developed by her close friend Sheila Nelson, the distinguished British string pedagogue. Her combined interest in performance practice and teaching has placed her in a unique position to develop the innate musicianship and stylistic flair of her young South African students.
After the initial busk, the Buskaid Trust was formed in the UK in 1992 and further fundraising ventures were organised over the next few years. But when the township project ran into unresolvable internal difficulties, Nalden started a new project in one room in a tiny, dilapidated house in Diepkloof in 1997, in response to requests from several of the children and their parents. Around 15 children from the original project formed the nucleus of this new venture; soon many more were applying to join.
With the help and support of a number of South African companies and trusts, Buskaid opened its own purpose-built music school in 1999, also in Diepkloof. By then, the number of students had more than doubled, and Nalden was inundated with requests from many more children to join. Today, the school has grown to accommodate 128 students and twelve teachers, of whom the majority are Buskaid musicians.
In late 1999, Nalden was joined by Sonja Bass, Buskaid’s current cello and bass teacher. Faced with the challenge of teaching ever-increasing numbers of children, and the reluctance of local teachers to drive into Soweto, Nalden and Bass decided in 2002 to launch an ‘in-house’ teacher-training programme. Since then, every child who is a member of Buskaid, apart from the newest beginners, has been encouraged to learn teaching skills and assist in classes.
It is Nalden who, since 1997, has built Buskaid into an internationally known music school that has performed for Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth and then First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.
In 2002, Nalden was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, and in 2003, the University of Auckland’s Distinguished Alumni Award. In 2003, Buskaid was named the joint winner of the Most Successful Arts & Culture Trust-funded Project.
In 2006, Nalden was Highly Commended in the category of Community Builder for the UK’s prestigious Beacon Fellowship Awards. In October 2007, Buskaid won the Arts & Culture Trusts (ACT) Arts Education Project Award.
In 2009, The Buskaid Ensemble was listed by Gramophone Magazine as one of the world’s ten most inspiring orchestras, alongside the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar.
In 2013, the Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) announced that it awarded its most prestigious honour to five musicians to mark its 200th birthday. Nalden was given an Honorary Membership for having made a ‘profound difference’ with her work. This is a rare and highly prestigious award that has been granted to fewer than 140 musicians in the past 200 years.
In 2015, Buskaid was chosen to receive the 2015 Art Award from the Turquoise Harmony Institute.
Over the past 21 years, Buskaid and its partners and sponsors have been nominated for and won numerous Business and Arts South Africa (BASA) Awards in recognition of the incredible work that Buskaid and its sponsors are doing to uplift and grow the arts in South Africa.
In the school’s profile, Nalden shares that over the past 21 years, The Buskaid Ensemble has undertaken 26 highly acclaimed international tours and is the only African classical orchestra ever to have performed at the BBC Proms (2007).
The Ensemble is well-known for its knowledge of stylistic performance practice, and its unique format of performing classical, classic pop, Afro-pop and township kwela in one concert is a great attraction for its public concerts. Ensemble members have also created the largest collection of string arrangements of traditional township music in South Africa, and this is a continuing process. Buskaid musicians are known for their ability to memorise entire classical works and perform them with choreographed actions: a further innovative approach to classical performance. In breaking the conventional mould, Buskaid has thus introduced new audiences to classical music.
Such achievements are a tribute to the young musicians’ dedication and discipline, basic requirements for anyone wishing to master the complex skill of playing a stringed instrument. Inevitably, this training has a powerful influence on all other aspects of their lives. Many are high achievers in their academic work. These young musicians, who battle with problems such as difficult home circumstances, drug abuse and bereavement, find both support and solace at the Music School.
While providing a first-class training ground for the exceptional musical talent to be found throughout the townships, Buskaid also challenges its members to attain to high standards in all aspects of their lives, giving them confidence and a great sense of optimism about their future. In all senses, they are role models and fine examples of how a modest endeavour can impact powerfully on both local and international communities.
Buskaid has also enabled seven of its most talented students to undertake tertiary study at both the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, and Royal Academy of Music, London. One of these, Samson Diamond, who gained his BMus with Distinction, is now the leader of the University of the Free State’s resident string quartet.
Twenty-one years later, Buskaid will once again be performing their annual concert on 29 September at the Linder Auditorium in Johannesburg.