This is the sound of souls singing and lives saved by m… – Daily Maverick | Start Classified

Rosemary Nalden remembers her first encounter with Mzwandile Twala.

“The memory is burned into my brain,” says Nalden. 19 years ago, Nalden, the founder of Buskaid, led a rehearsal with a group of musicians at the Buskaid Music School in Diepkloof, Soweto. As the musicians played, Nalden saw a three-year-old boy, beautifully dressed, with huge glasses that magnified his inquisitive eyes, standing alone in the doorway.

“Who does it belong to?” asked Nalden, who thought one of the musicians had brought a little brother to rehearsal.

“He’s mine,” came the reply from an older woman. The woman was Mzwandile’s foster grandmother and had put the boy in music school after seeing a report about Buskaid on TV.

“I saw you on TV and I want my grandson to learn the violin,” Grandma said to Nalden. Today, 19 years later, the music school is celebrating its 25th anniversary and Twala, now 22, has blossomed into a tremendously talented violinist, just as his foster grandmother had hoped all those years ago. Getting to this point, however, has not been easy for either Twala or the Buskaid organization.

Koketso Mphela plays the cello during a Buskaid performance at a church in Diepkloof, Soweto. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

Born in England, Nalden moved with her family to New Zealand where her father was a music professor at Auckland University.

“I grew up in a musical family. Ever since I was growing up, music has been everything and everywhere,” says Nalden.

Nalden later obtained a place at the Royal College of Music in London, where she became a proficient violist.

After graduating, she embarked on a successful music career that has resulted in her playing in ensembles and orchestras around the world. In November 1991 she found herself at her London home listening to the BBC’s Radio 4 reporting from Soweto on a music project teaching township children to play the strings, but struggling to get funding.

A few months later, Nalden found another story about the project, in The Independent.

“It was just by coincidence that I heard the show and then I bought the paper and I saw the same story and I thought, you know, that’s a bit strange. I think that story kind of haunts me,” says Nalden.

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Drawing on her networks in the music world, Nalden convinced 120 of her peers to take part in a large-scale music project that saw musicians busking at 16 train stations to raise money for the Soweto Music Project.

Nalden first traveled to South Africa in 1992 when apartheid was dying and democracy was struggling to be born. Soweto, where she wanted to help children with music lessons, was in the grip of violent clashes between the ANC and the IFP, fueled by the apartheid government.

“When I arrived I was staying with some activists. I got a real taste of it – I mean, it was kind of dramatic. It was almost like stepping onto a movie set,” she said of her first experience in Soweto.

In the years that followed she returned to Soweto to help with the music project and traveled to and from England where she still worked as a musician.

The original music project Nalden had fundraised for had fizzled out, but by that point she was captivated by the energy of the township.

“You know, in Soweto there’s always this kind of vibrancy and life and laughter and excitement. It’s very magnetic. It’s almost hypnotic,” she says.

And so, in 1997, Nalden returned to set up her own music school with the help of friends. Originally she was only planning to stay for a while to help set up the school, but 25 years later, Nalden can still be found in Diepkloof full of life and love, passing on her passion for music to the children she teaches.

In 1998 a piece of land was purchased in Diepkloof and a larger school built, and years later there was three-year-old Mzwandile Twala standing in a doorway watching Nalden leading a lesson.

Twala has no memory of that day and doesn’t even know why he chose the violin, although he believes it was the smallest instrument and would accommodate his tiny hands.

In his earliest memory he played at about five or six years old in Buskaid’s annual concert – the same one recently held to mark his 25th anniversary.

Some of the younger music students laugh before a performance begins at a church in Diepkloof, Soweto. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

“He was so much younger than everyone else. He was a nuisance, you know: he couldn’t concentrate, wouldn’t sit still,” says Nalden of Twala, who began his musical journey under the tutelage of music teacher Keabetswe Goodman.

But after a while, Nalden realized that “something special was going on” with this kid. “He was just amazing, really, and continued to develop by showing great dedication and focus.”

Lots of questions, no answers

Away from music school, Twala grew up in a tiny house in Rockville with his foster grandmother. He says, “You know, she wasn’t doing well financially; She only got government grants. So Rosemary really helped too and made sure I had everything I needed at home and at school.”

As he got older, Twala came to terms with the realization that growing up without knowing his parents made him feel “different” from other kids. By the time he hit puberty, that trickle of unresolved emotion had turned into a downpour.

“I was very emotional growing up. It was a difficult time, I had so many questions but not many answers. When I was young, it only got worse. I was actually seething because of the questions I had inside me.

“,Where is my mother? Why am I alone?’ and all that stuff,” says Twala.

Mzwandile Twala (left), then nine, is shown how to teach by Rosemary Nalden while his foster grandmother looks on. (Photo: Pierre du Toit / Buskaid)

He describes his emotions as “overwhelming sadness” that desperately needed an outlet. This release came in the form of his music. Twala channeled all of his emotions into the strings of his violin. “I could only express myself through music. By channeling my emotions into my playing, I think people can hear my feelings through my music,” he says.

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Twala grew up in difficult circumstances while grappling with the unresolved trauma of parentlessness and trying to withstand unhealthy peer pressure, and Twala appeared to have little chance of success. But Buskaid not only provided him with a place to learn music, but also security and community, which helped him manage his emotions.

Despite the challenges he grew up with, Twala expresses his gratitude for how his life has turned out so far.

“I’m really thankful for how things happened, the good and the bad. Because I would not have been in Buskaid; I wouldn’t have met Rosemary and wouldn’t have had the chance to be a musician,” he says.

Something special… again

The development of the children at Buskaid is something Nalden likens to planting a small seed and watching it grow into a beautiful tree. Another small seed was sown a few years ago when Nalden conducted a performance by Buskaid musicians at a church in Soweto.

A tiny three-year-old boy strolled into the church, sat in the front row and stared in rapt at the musicians playing. After that he approached Nalden and said he wanted to learn the violin.

That boy is Khumoetsile Legoale and although he is at the beginning of his musical journey, he has already performed in front of hundreds of people at last weekend’s Buskaid 25th anniversary concert.

Mzwandile Twala performs at the Linder auditorium in concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of Buskaid. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

And just as she sensed “something special” about young Twala all those years ago, Nalden senses the same specialness about young Khumoetsile.

And how does he feel when he plays the violin? Khumoetsile, now eight, replies with the simplicity of a seasoned philosopher: “It really makes me happy.”

The journey of the past 25 years has not been easy for Nalden, her staff, students, musicians and the Buskaid organization. Last weekend, during the 25th anniversary concert in the packed Linder Auditorium, she told the audience a story that sums up the history of Buskaid and goes back 25 years in the same hall where Buskaid gave his first anniversary concert.

Among the Buskaid musicians playing that day were two amazing talents, Samson Diamond and Gift Moloisane, aged 12 and 14 respectively. Established as a world-class violinist, Diamond is now a lecturer at the University of the Free State, leader of the award-winning Odeion String Quartet and concertmaster of the Free State Symphony Orchestra.

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Moloisane developed a drug addiction. Although he successfully rehabilitated, he was later found dead at his home in Soweto. Between the contrasting histories of these two men lies the story of the ups and downs of Buskaid’s leadership over the past 25 years, Nalden said.

love and pain

After Nalden’s speech, Twala played a solo violin piece, Romance in F minor by the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. Twala had done some research on Dvořák and found this out as the composer was writing Romance in F minor By 1877 he had already lost three of his young children. This deep sense of loss and sadness was something Twala could identify with.

The Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble, conducted by Rosemary Nalden, on stage at the Linder Auditorium during the Buskaid 25th Anniversary Concert. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

Thus, on a late winter afternoon in Johannesburg, the music of a gifted Czech was played by a gifted young man from Soweto, forging his musical style in a furnace of love and pain.

He swept the audience with the sound of his soul and as he played the last note he received a long standing ovation from the lucky ones who were there.

As Twala looks to the future, he sees himself advancing his musical education. He received a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions put a damper on his plans.

But if he looks into the past, he can draw a confident balance of his path so far.

“Music definitely saved me. It saved me from myself,” says Twala. DM168

Haffejee is a writer and photojournalist.

This story first appeared in our weekly newspaper Daily Maverick 168 Newspaper available nationwide for R25.

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