International Youth Orchestra Bridges 2023
The aim of IYOB is to break down barriers and achieve all the positives of performing music. By travelling to South Africa, we hope to show the young musicians a country that is both similar to and different from the UK. We hope to inspire them with new cultural experiences, new performance venues and audiences. The project is also a wonderful opportunity to make real connections through music with other young people from the UK and South Africa.
Ishani comes to stay for the weekend to give a recital at Barkham. We’re having a long overdue catch-up and I ask her about IYOB and what it’s all about. She explains how the idea had evolved during the pandemic, when so many orchestras were working online and musicians began to invite international communities to join them, virtually. As Patron of the West Coast Youth Orchestra, which she could not reach at that time, it occurred to her that this could be an ideal moment to explore partnering with some U.K. students. When, a few months later, Ishani had to relocate to Los Angeles, she decided to embrace the global scope of being online and ‘International Youth Orchestra Bridges’ was born.
By the time she arrives at Barkham, Ishani has realised she ought to check out the venues herself and meet the people with whom she has been communicating in-person in order to shape up the proposed Summer 2024 orchestra which already has a first-rate conductor enlisted, along with students from the U.K. and Los Angeles.
“Do you fancy coming out with me to see what it’s like? We can go and visit schools and music centres, play concerts, do side-by-side rehearsals and do some sightseeing, too. You can meet some of my family and we’ll have a great time!”
Within about five seconds, I seem to have signed up to this completely unscheduled adventure. A few days later, we book the best value return flights to Johannesburg that we can find and scheduling an itinerary begins in earnest.
On asking Ishani for details of the itinerary for our upcoming trip, I find myself included in a WhatsApp chat introducing many South African telephone numbers and almost no names. Everyone sounds really friendly, and says ‘Hi’ but I have no idea who they are. By this time, some Airbnb accommodation seems to have found its way on to my online calendar, but there are also some nights with nothing noted. Ishani has suggested that we might stay with some family, but who they are, or where they live is unspecified. The first four nights look set to be in Johannesburg, when we’re apparently going to “drive Erica crazy”!
…and we’re off! The overnight flight to Johannesburg, via Zurich, passes remarkably smoothly and suddenly, it's......
As we emerge sleepily from our travels, we are pounced upon by numerous offers of transport. The Uber app refusing to work, we climb hesitantly into a taxi. Immediately, it starts clanging and rattling. Luckily, the driver accepts this is not a good state of affairs and finds us alternative transport in a large people-carrier. We set off from the airport for our first night’s accommodation; upon reaching crossroads, there are no traffic lights (‘robots’) working and it’s a total free-for-all, with vehicles swerving to avoid others as they attempt right turns. Traffic moves on the left in SA, but overtaking happens in any lane, enabling all drivers to move haphazardly at their own preferred pace.
Our accommodation is in a pleasant suburb, albeit behind security gates, as is the norm in this city. We head out for provisions in the local Spar supermarket, then have a quick nap before the feted Erica appears, laden with bags of provisions with which she proceeds to prepare us a delicious supper. As she is getting things ready, the power goes off - ‘load shedding’ is a national issue, with a state of disaster having been declared, and Johannesburg is one level above the rest of the country, meaning there are more daily power cuts there than anywhere else. Luckily, the house has a gas cooker and there are rechargeable lights; Erica has also thoughtfully brought some candles and matches with her, so we have a very pleasant evening. Erica, it transpires, is to be the IYOB tour manager. She has a wealth of experience in this field and is full of helpful tips and ideas.
One of the driving forces behind Ishani’s wish to get U.K. students out to South Africa is for them to begin to appreciate what challenges this country’s citizens have endured in the recent past. The IYOB tour will allow time for some sightseeing and, with this in mind, we set off for the Apartheid Museum.
This sits on a site adjacent to the Gold Reef City Casino and came into existence because, in 1995, the South African government came up with a process for issuing gambling licences which required bidders to include ways to generate tourism. This seems an extraordinary reason for designing a lasting tribute to such a tough subject. The space is light and airy, with much audio-visual interaction and, in some ways, this sits uncomfortably with the painful tales it attempts to illuminate.
Luckily, we had planned to enjoy a free day for more sightseeing; the dreaded load shedding, combined with an exhausting battery, meant that the alarms in our accommodation rang all through the night. Even more luckily, we managed to transfer to some rather more peaceful accommodation a short distance away. We headed across to the Constitutional Court - designed from a 1997 brief to give a fresh start to the newly-democratic society.
We rose very early and headed out with tour manager, Erica, to the Morris Isaacson Centre for Music in Soweto. The roads became noticeably dustier, less green and leafy and we passed countless minibuses which serve as taxis for the shanty communities as we headed towards this infamous township. The students arrive at 8am, mainly accompanied by parents, many of whom were sitting outside in the courtyard, socialising. We met, and worked with, students from a wide variety of backgrounds at very different stages of their musical journey. Group string classes had some of the youngest mixing with much older students and all were responsive to their tutors’ suggestions. The classes we joined were using much of the material U.K. students and teachers might have met through the books of Sheila Nelson, her Tower Hamlets project and, latterly, the Essential String series devised by her in collaboration with the Guildhall. We also met some more advanced students who were nearing the end of their time at the centre and looking to study at leading South African universities, some to pursue music and some following other disciplines. One particularly gifted young musician told us they hope to go to Berklee in Massachusetts.
Travel Johannesburg-Pietermaritzburg to stay with Ishani’s cousin, Bunny, who is a director of African Link Tours as well as running Ghandi South Africa and The KwaZulu Natal Freedom Route. Heavens above! This absolutely delightful lady seems to have as many plates spinning as Ishani! We immediately feel immensely welcome and safe in her presence.
Having arrived in Pietermaritzburg - a few hundred miles south of Johannesburg - the previous evening, we headed out through the lush, green countryside until, at the end of a bumpy track, we reached Drakondale School of the Arts. This relatively new institution - founded in 2017 - complements the renowned Drakensburg Boys' and Girls' choirs by offering a semi-specialist music/drama/arts education to a small cohort of boarders. We were wowed by their performances of choral offerings, along with songs and dances in a variety of traditional styles, and felt very humble offering some Bach, Elgar and Bartók in return. It felt like an inspirational school in an inspirational setting and it will be fascinating to see what avenues these talented youngsters go on to pursue.
We made the short, very beautiful journey from the school to the site of Nelson Mandela's roadside capture, now commemorated with both a stunning outdoor memorial and a very informative, well-presented museum.
From the capture site, it was a short drive back to Pietermaritzburg and the Project Gateway Christian School. This is a registered independent primary school, on the site of The Old Prison, that aims to provide ‘good quality education at affordable fees for ‘any of the children in the local area who would not normally have access to such a level of education’. By the time we arrived, it was almost the end of the school day, so we found ourselves giving two more impromptu performances in an outdoor area by the car park: the first was for several classes of children who were passing through and the second, for a number of staff who seemed delighted by our efforts to cheer them up. We then enjoyed tea with the school’s head, followed by a tour of the Old Prison.
Time to relocate ourselves for a few glorious days by the sea in the Durban suburb of Umhlanga.
‘If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys’. So goes the saying upon which the cheekiest non-human inhabitants of Reddam House Umhlanga seem to base their lives. We arrived in good time for the 07.30 orchestra rehearsal (U.K. students take note of how this country makes use of natural daylight hours!) and were surprised to find the beautiful grounds teeming with marsupials whom, we were advised, were extra-enthusiastic at break-times, when students appear outside with their lunch-boxes! We headed indoors and joined the string section of the school’s orchestra for their run-through of the first movement of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony and some lighter numbers, the parts for which they kept on their iPads. We were invited to introduce ourselves at the end of the session and to play to them and were delighted when one student came over to try, and enthuse about, a viola; at well over six-foot-six, they looked way happier and more comfortable than they did on their violin! Reddam House in Umhlanga is one of a group of schools in South Africa and Australia sharing the same foundation as a school of the same name in Berkshire and appeared to share the ethos of many U.K. boarding schools, with enthusiastic children appearing happy and well-looked-after, some of whom will come from more considerably privileged backgrounds than others.
In the afternoon, we headed out of town to a very different school: Seatides School is a public (‘state’) school taking all comers from reception through to Grade 12. Ishani has a cousin on the staff there and it seemed the perfect excuse to pay a visit. We were ushered out into an empty playground, perched our music on our instrument cases and admired some baboons which were jumping out of the bushes. It was eerily quiet and we weren’t sure what to expect. Suddenly, a bell went off and nine hundred children appeared, all chattering excitedly, eventually pushing and shoving as only youngsters will, until the entire area was ram-packed, our music and cases were squashed against our thighs and we could see nothing but row upon row of eager faces all jumping up and down. Ishani was then asked to climb up on to a solid concrete podium immediately behind us to play some Bach and introduce us both. She explained that she was a cousin of one of the staff and immediately the whole area erupted into peels of laughter. Ishani had forgotten the golden rule that children only know their teachers by their surnames; she couldn’t remember that of her cousin so had revealed their first name, instead! This immediately broke down any barriers of shyness and the children listened, enraptured, first to Bach, then a Mozart duo and some Bartók duos. When it was time for the children to go back to class and pack up for the day, we were amazed to find dozens of youngsters forming queues in front of us, all asking for our autographs! They all told us how much they had enjoyed our playing, never previously having heard anything like it, which seemed a fitting conclusion to what had undoubtedly been an unforgettable experience.
A quieter day, with time to explore, have a leisurely beachside lunch and chat with local friends and family, rounded off with a visit into central Durban to enjoy a performance by the region’s KZN Orchestra at their temporary home in the Playhouse. It was a pleasure both to hear this ensemble and to observe the enthusiastic responses of a culturally-diverse audience, all of whom seemed very comfortable listening to a fairly standard programme of Western European music.
Another travel day, as we flew westwards to Cape Town, then drove up the west coast to the sleepy beachside town town that is Langebaan. Much of the residential neighbourhood is within a gated complex leading on to a private beach. Whilst very beautiful, it felt strangely lonely to wander its boardwalk in order to admire the sunset. At the far end of the beach is a more public section, with a lively cafe welcoming all-comers, which I resolved to visit the next day.
We finally got to meet members of the West Coast Youth Orchestra, spending the morning variously playing, watching and directing the students in some lively South African favourites of theirs. The orchestra was led by a former student and tutors sat amongst the youngsters, offering their support. It was because of Ishani’s association with this ensemble that the idea of IYOB came about, so it was really special to meet the people who have inspired this collaboration. Over lunch with some of the staff and parents who form the orchestra’s committee, we learned that some of the students are funded not only for lessons and instruments, but also for shoes and clothing, so that they won’t feel different to any of their peers. It is truly remarkable that, when making music, it is impossible to be aware of the very diverse backgrounds of the youngsters and this is something to be treasured. As we were leaving the compound, we popped into the large, adjacent hall, where dozens, possibly hundreds, of children were engrossed in a chess tournament. For some reason, it felt really surprising to witness this hive of activity in such a remote part of the country.
Ishani bravely drove us down to Simonstown, narrowly avoiding a tortoise which was crossing the road outside our house; more alarmingly, as we headed south on the main highway, she managed to swerve in order to avoid a man who had leapt across the central reservation and was running across the three lanes in our direction with a wheelie-bin. Others were also crossing our tracks, unencumbered, appearing to be heading from the shanty town on one side to the church on the other. We found ourselves wondering whether this was representative of a typical Sunday morning in this part of the world.
Having come all this way, we decided we ought to do some touristy sightseeing. Our Airbnb was high up, overlooking Boulders Beach, famous for having the largest penguin colony in Africa, so we headed off to check it out as soon as it was opened to the public. We weren’t disappointed! This small enclave of beaches was the base for thousands of tiny creatures, many of which were being protected by their mothers. Others were waddling down for their morning swim, whilst still more were coming in from the sea.
From there, we drove down to Cape Point; again, because we were so early, there were remarkably few visitors to the continent’s most south westerly point. Ishani steered expertly around countless baboons, some of which were carrying their young on their backs. As we navigated our way round the Cape of Good Hope, variously by car and on foot, we also passed numerous ostriches and, looking out to sea, saw what appeared to be sharks creating turbulence in the water. We felt immensely privileged to be able to enjoy such spectacular scenery and wildlife, providing an absolutely extraordinary contrast to the bustle of nearby Cape Town to where we then headed for the following two nights.
We headed out of the city in the morning, in order to check out Stellenbosch. We were lucky enough to meet with staff of both the conservatoire and of a regional music festival, and our tour of both the music school and of the town was very enjoyable. The town felt as though it revolved around the university; we were saddened to learn that the student intake is rather less diverse than it should, ideally, be. The facilities looked tremendous and this corner of the world appeared tremendously bright in the sunlight.
It would have been rude to waste both the wine-tasting vouchers we had been offered with our morning coffee, so we headed off for lunch in one of the many vineyards which surround the town. We made an excellent choice and enjoyed some fabulous food and drink. As driver, Ishani couldn’t do more than taste each offering, so we were very amused when our server insisted we should retain our vouchers for a future visit, when not driving, reducing our bill to just that for the food.
For our last full day, we decided to explore Cape Town on foot. We were extremely impressed with the guide we were offered for free as he let us combine the two advertised tours and took us for a couple of hours around many parts of the city we might not otherwise have discovered, imparting an impressive depth of knowledge at every corner. We had barely touched the surface of what this extraordinary country has to offer, but felt deeply enriched by the experience and extraordinarily lucky to have had the benefit of so many kind hosts on our all-too-brief trip.