Decoda. Picture: Caroline Bittencourt

New York-based music collective Decoda, who are also the first Affiliate Ensemble of Carnegie Hall, are currently in the Western Cape for the final leg of their South African tour. 

The tour, which has also seen them travel to Gauteng, Free State and KwaZulu Natal, sees Decoda partner with various music organisations for a range of concerts, workshops and interactive performances throughout the month of June.
They are currently at Stellenbosch University launching the Decoda Institute South Africa (DISA) Residency in collaboration with the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival.

On Wednesday, the Decoda Institute South Africa will be hosting a Creative Performance at Youngblood Gallery in Cape Town, and on Thursday they will be at the Hugo Lambrechts Music Centre in Parow, CPT for a teaching and performance residency.

James Austin Smith, co-artistic director of Decoda and the man tasked with leading this tour, broke down the mission of the ensemble: “Decoda’s mission is to bring meaningful musical experiences to as many people as possible regardless of circumstance. So the idea is that we have approximately 30 highly trained, highly experienced professional chamber musicians who are first and foremost performers but are also all really unique advocates for the artform that we spread. So what that means is that the ensemble takes just as seriously any performance in a community centre, shelter, hospital, prison or school as we do our performances on the main stage in a traditional concert hall.”

James Austin Smith. Picture by Riehan Bakkes  

Smith explains how he observed some amazing community projects during the Durban leg of the tour and how his desire is to add a bit of spark and inspiration to increase their engagement in music making. 

“It’s been going really well. I've been very lucky in that I've personally been coming to South Africa for the past seven years teaching and performing in Stellenbosch at the Chamber Festival. So I was fortunate to have a kind of background understanding, not just of the music scene and education scene of this country, but also some of the politics that drive the music and art industries and therefore kind of have a leg up and figure the best way to engage nine American musicians on a three-week tour all around the country. The vibrancy of the music and arts scene in South Africa was one of the main driving forces in the decision to come and tour here."

He also commends the quality of the community music programmes around the country and stresses the importance of having young people involved in sports and the arts as it teaches a kind of empowerment, courage and discipline that stays with them throughout their lives. 

He explains the purpose of the Decoda Institute South Africa Residency which they are currently launching: “The Institute is an institute for interactive and creative performance. We’re bringing in 20 of the finest, young South African classical musicians to Stellenbosch and we’re going to spend time with them really exploring the art of interactive performance. How do you make classical music more accessible to larger audiences.” 

He uses the analogy of how cricket isn’t well understood in America and how that makes cricket uninteresting to them. 

“If you don’t have a little bit of an instruction book, background or a little bit of guidance, you're gonna have trouble finding a way in so that's what we practice as an ensemble and we’re looking to impart some of those skills in the young, bright future of classical music in this country and so that they can continue doing the work after we leave to spread the music.”