Les ailes de la musique – du bidonville aux salles de concert

Film et texte en anglais: In 1976, Kolwane Mantu started to teach four children in his mother’s kitchen; today he has 148 students who are regularly invited to play in big concert halls. How an orchestra spreads hope in a South African township.

publié par Peace Boat en anglais au 14 janvier 2013 >>

“You are making noise! Go and play outside!” When Bongani Kunene started practising the cello with the African Youth Ensemble (AYE) in 1992, his family was not happy at all. He grew up in a shack on the poorer side of the Soweto township near Johannesburg/ South Africa. His mother had passed away and his father was struggling to raise him and his siblings. Food and jobs were scarce and the roof could not keep the rain outside. “Find a real job first” his father asked him. “Music doesn’t pay.” But it was too late, he had already fallen for classical music. Two decades later Bongani Kunene joins Peace Boat with the AYE, and is according to his teacher Kolwane Mantu “probably the most requested cello player in South Africa”. The 34-year-old employs his own manager, has his own recording studio and even his own label. He extensively tours abroad and is currently working on his own album, “Skho Momo”.

Bongani Kunene’s teacher, Kolwane Mantu, who came onboard Peace Boat’s 78th voyage as a guest eductor with Bongani and three other AYE members, still seems to be surprised by the success of his project. When he talks on stage to Peace Boat participants about the orchestra’s founding years, he occasionally falls silent, choked with emotion. “I started out of desperation” he recalls. In 1976 violent riots threw the South African township of Soweto into a state of emergency. The apartheid government intended to replace English with Afrikaans at schools, and students protested against what they felt was another attempt at isolating them from the rest of the world and imposing the colonizers’ culture onto them. The police and the military fired at protesting pupils and the government closed schools for two years. “Children were idling in the streets. By then I had given up, I thought our nation had fallen apart” said Kolwane Mantu. But having studied the violin for years, he clung to his music. “I started to teach kids in the neighbourhood to play the violin in my mother’s kitchen.” When the room became too small for his growing number of students, they continued to rehearse in a public toilet, keeping their music a secret during the apartheid years.

When Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, journalists from all over the world made their way to the notorious township where they “discovered” the orchestra which practiced in a toilet. “We became famous over night” Kolwane Mantu remembers, smiling broadly. “As a consequence we got assistance from sympathizers all over the world, everything that we had needed for nearly twenty years suddenly came very fast. Still, Peace Boat is the sole organisation that is responsible to have kept the AYE going for so long” Kolwane Mantu said. The NGO has been affiliated with the orchestra since 1999: Peace Boat participants have regularly visited Soweto in the past during visits to South Africa and Peace Boat volunteers have been collecting string instruments through the United People’s Alliance (UPA) program. Yet after many years of collaboration, the 78th voyage was the first time for the AYE to travel with participants onboard.

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“When I first saw Kolwane Mantu on TV, I was very amazed” remembers Bethuel Rametsi, one of the students onboard with him. “Wow, I thought, a black person can actually play that instrument.” Bethuel joined the orchestra in 1998 and is today one of seven assistant teachers, as Kolwane Mantu can no longer meet the demand on his own. Playing the violin has become “cool” in Soweto. Today the project has 148 pupils, who are divided into a beginners’, children’s, junior, ladies’, senior and a professional alumni orchestra. Their repertoire ranges from European composers such as Vivaldi, Handel and Grieg to their own arrangements of African music. Top world class orchestras such as the English Chamber Orchestra and many individual musicians visit South Africa to perform with the AYE. With his passion for classical music and his social visions, Kolwane Mantu has turned Soweto upside down. Everybody in the township affectionately calls him “Bro K.”, short for “Brother Kolwane” – even his own daughter. He doesn’t charge his students any fees; he makes a living from his work as a concert musician and his assistant teachers are paid by the South African MIAGI (Music Is A Great Investment) project.

“My teaching method is completely different from what I learned during my music studies in Scotland” Kolwane Mantu shares. The project has other goals than producing classically trained musicians. Many of his students have lost their parents to HIV/ AIDS and are brought up in in economic hardship like Bethuel Rametsi. “We might not produce the best string players in the world, but music helps them to calm down a little. We help people to find a direction in their lives and become good citizens. Playing the violin keeps a lot of them off the street.” With his teenage students he openly talks about HIV/ AIDS, drugs or relationships. “Until now, my students have all at least finished high school and we have not had a single teenage pregnancy in all these years” Kolwane Mantu says. The fact that, of all people in the group, his own daughter Khothatso Mantu does not pursue a musical career does not seem to bother him. “I like to have a plan B for my life and try something else” the 22-year-old says. She has been learning the violin with the AYE since she was six years old, but she is now studying to become a financial accountant.

As Kolwane Mantu and the four young musicians learn some basic Japanese from Peace Boat participants, their faces show the same degree of concentration and sincerity that they apply to their music with Bethuel Rametsi, to everybody’s surprise, even giving a part of his farewell speech in Japanese. “Before I started to play the violin I was academically average” he confides. “But with music, my discipline and my state of mind improved and I became a better student.” As for Bongani Kunene, his father passed away in 2007. When he heard about his tours and his financial success, he immediately wanted to hear him play. “Don’t quit it any more” he told his son. “It takes you somewhere.”