The Miagi tour presented a very different image of South Africa to the daily news reports of strikes, protest demonstrations, crime, unemployment. Young musicians are a nation-building force, says the writer.

SA’s fine youth orchestra, known by its acronym Miagi, has just completed a stunningly successful month-long tour of Europe, says Allister Sparks.

Cape Town - If President Jacob Zuma is truly interested in good stories about South Africa he could do no better than encourage his Department of Arts and Culture to give greater support to the country’s fine youth orchestra, known by its acronym Miagi (Music is a Great Investment), which has just completed a stunningly successful month-long tour of Europe.

The country’s image is looking none too good right now. The ratings agencies have downgraded us, our economy is strike-ridden, our politics corruption-ridden, our growth rate has fallen way behind the rest of Africa, and our soccer team couldn’t even make it to the World Cup never mind perform decently there.

Yet here we have 77 young musicians of all races who have brought more than 12 000 people to their feet at all of the 11 concerts they have performed in a continent with the most discerning audiences in the world.

These young people, in their teens and early twenties, have been a travelling sensation. They have been acclaimed by critics everywhere in language verging on the ecstatic.

“A Revolution in the Concert Hall,” ran a headline in the German newspaper Tagesspiegel after their first concert in the Berlin Philharmonic Hall. “The rituals of the concert-going public were turned on their head. What a pleasure to experience this!” wrote another, commenting on the wildly enthusiastic, 15-minute standing ovation our young musicians received at that famed venue where, after leaving the stage, they continued playing for half an hour in the foyer while hundreds of audience members stayed and danced along with them.

“I have never seen anything like it,” wrote a member of that normally staid audience in a letter to his newspaper.

“A smashing, wonderful concert. Sensational!” was the verdict after they performed at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Hamburg. “Fantastic – what fun!” was an accolade after a concert in Stockholm.

What has made this group of young musicians such a sensation in culturally sophisticated Europe?

I have followed them for several years and attended two of their European concerts this month, in Berlin and Amsterdam, and I would say, firstly, it is because they are different from the usual classical diet these audiences are accustomed to, highly professional though those are.

They have a youthful enthusiasm and vitality that is infectious and that jolts these staid audiences out of their seats. There is an African – or maybe a specifically South African – joyfulness about them. The players obviously enjoy what they are doing and they show it. Their conductors interact not only with the musicians but with their audiences, joking and jesting with them.

Secondly, their music is different. Although they are technically proficient in performing regular classics, as they showed in their rendering of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Suite for Jazz Orchestra No 2 as the opening piece of their programme, what makes them special is that they are presenting a new and specifically South African musical genre.

This is a classically trained orchestra but it is infusing elements of African jazz and traditional forms into new compositions that are vibrant and exciting. It is the emergence of a new form of classical music and is being recognised as such by these highly discerning audiences.

Moreover, I believe it is a genre that will catch fire in South Africa as people here come to recognise that it is creative and innovative – and of our people rather than remote and culturally alien.

Thirdly, I believe it made an impact abroad because the orchestra itself, together with its music, captures the essence of the rainbow nation – and so evoked the magic of Nelson Mandela that so captivated the world 20 years ago. The concert tour itself was to celebrate our 20 years of freedom, and the Amsterdam concert, which I attended, was on Madiba’s birthday.

Moreover, these young South Africans, young men and women of all our races, black, white, Asian and mixed, are also visibly a closely bonded unit. “We are a family,” conductor-composer Tshepho Tsotetsi tells everyone, and I think this came like a breath of fresh air to a troubled Europe which is experiencing its own nationalistic tensions.

The Miagi tour presented a very different image of South Africa to the daily news reports of strikes, protest demonstrations, crime, unemployment and a growing disillusionment with the fruits of freedom.

Projecting their PR role further, the Miagi group also attended Sweden’s Almedalen Week, a democracy festival of political speeches and debates attended by 25 000 people on the island of Gothland, where they were accompanied as their special guests by Struggle veterans Ahmed Kathrada and Barbara Hogan, both of whom spoke there.

The value of all this to South Africa in terms of goodwill and image creation is incalculable, infinitely greater than all the expensive advertising, public relations efforts and ministerial junkets combined. Yet government support for it is minuscule.

The other sad factor is that while the Miagi orchestra now has a considerable international reputation, it is almost unknown at home. Some say this is because there is no real taste for classical music in this country; that it is too Eurocentric for our people.

I don’t accept that. Firstly, it is too sweeping a dismissal. There are many forms of classical music, a smorgasbord for different tastes. Also, having grown up among rural black people in the Eastern Cape, I believe music is in their DNA. What we have here is an emerging new musical vernacular influenced by that very culture.

Thus Tsotetsi’s compositions are moulded around the sounds and themes of his township life. A Swedish composer, Anders Paulsson, who has worked with Miagi for the past year, has composed a piece in five movements called Celebration Suite, inspired and partially built around the freedom songs of the Struggle years – with Paulsson himself playing generous solo parts on a soprano saxophone.

Here one hears themes from the popular Shosholoza; from Thina Sizwe, a lament about the loss of tribal land; themes from some of Miriam Makeba’s a cappella folksongs and riffs; and, most intriguing of all, a bluesy piece drawn from a Shangaani tribal theme originally played on kudu horns.

Behind this whole venture is South African-born opera singer Robert Brooks, who has spent most of his life living in Vienna but who happened on a trip home 14 years ago to be asked to help adjudicate some black musicians.

He was so fascinated by the abundance of natural musical talent that he became drawn into coaching small groups, and so, eventually, into forming the Miagi group, that now includes Tsotetsi’s own unit which goes by the hybrid name of The New Skool Orchestra – a fusion Brooks says is part of Miagi’s expansion programme to foster innovation and musical originality.

The unit’s full name reflects Brooks’s belief that music is indeed a great investment, educationally, culturally and socially. It should, he says, be taught in all schools, beginning at pre-school.

Not only is it culturally enriching, he says, “it even teaches you to count. From when you are four years old, you have to count those bars.”

It is colour blind, socially stabilising and even the poorest kid can learn to play a penny whistle. A nation-building force.

* Allister Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Times