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Soweto Strings: Democratising musical knowledge

Egypt's Faculty of Music Education recently screened South African film 'Soweto Strings,' which examines the casual relationship between music knowledge and the development of economic and social conditions

Mina Ibrahim, Monday 24 Jun 2013
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Still from documentary 'Soweto Strings' (South Africa, 2008)
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The Faculty of Music Education in Zamalek screened the film 'Soweto Strings' on Monday at 11am. The 90-minute film, directed by award-winning filmmaker Mark Kidel in 2008 in South Africa, is the second of four films to be screened at the faculty's auditorium from Sunday to Wednesday at the same time.

The three other films are 'El-Sistema' from Venezuela (2008), which was shown Sunday; 'Rhythm is it,' from Germany (2004); and 'Kinshasa Symphony,' from the Democratic Republic of Congo (2010), which will be shown on Tuesday and Wednesday consecutively.

This comes in the matinee film series 'Music: Together we uplift,' which attempts to "illustrate the huge potential of music with regard to social development and transformation," according to the event's Facebook page.

Monday’s film, 'Soweto Strings,' tells the story of the 'Buskaid' music project launched in 1997 by 'white' British viola player Rosemary Nalden at the 'black' South African township of Soweto located next to Johannesburg.

The project gave the opportunity to many children in the poor town to learn classical stringed instruments. This has had a huge impact on the lives of these youngsters, turning them into musicians of international calibre, who have performed at some of the most famous and prestigious concerts in the world.

One of the two main administrators of the event is Claudia Gross, who is an experienced and a well-known German management trainer and organisational consultant. She has been living in Egypt since 2005.

Before screening 'Soweto Strings,' Gross told Ahram Online that the main purpose of the event was to "inspire students of the faculty, or any other people familiar with music, about the importance of using their knowledge to support others."

Gross added that "improving the social and economic conditions of societies, therefore, is possible not merely by governments and formal institutions, but by ordinary people initiatives that are carried out in the name of spreading awareness about the significance of music education within undeveloped communities."

Gross’s people-centred, bottom-up argument is very consistent with what the Indian scholar Amartya Sen talked about in his piece, 'Development as Freedom.'

Sen, in short words, has argued that one should be completely free so as to carry out and to be able to achieve what he/she wants to do. The 'Buskaid' project has provided the children of Soweto not only with freedom from their poverty but also with a liberty that has allowed them to express and manifest their unexposed talents.   

Within a similar context of Sen’s 'Development as Freedom,' there are the human and social capital approaches of development studies, which argue that one should have the necessary skills as a means to accomplish the aimed development. It is true that the 'Buskaid' project has offered the children of Soweto the elementary skills through which they have been enabled to find cures to their community's social ills.      

The second administrator of the event is Angi Adawy, an associate professor at the Faculty of Music Education. Adawy spoke with Ahram Online about a vital theme that should be well understood in all the films: 'the democratisation of music knowledge.'

According to Adawy, "All four films projects have proved that the knowledge of music should not be confined to specific social and economic segments and classes." The 'Buskaid' project in particular has been an artistic and cultural outlet for the socially excluded, the economically impoverished, and, most important, the racially discriminated.    

The timing of the project is very significant. This is because it was initiated after the apartheid era in South Africa that was conducted against the 'blacks' until the beginning of the 1990s. Therefore, it has been an efficient, powerful mechanism that has constructed a basis of equality that, in its turn, has consolidated the political democratisation process in the African country.

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Part pf the brainstorming discussion that followed the film screening (Photo: Mina Ibrahim)

The 'Buskaid' project could be repeated by the students of the Zamalek Faculty of Music Education, who represented the majority of the audience at Sunday’s and Monday’s film screenings, and throughout Egyptian society during these days to consolidate the current political Egyptian democratisation process.

This is what the brainstorming and discussion that followed the screening of 'Soweto Strings' focused on. It is the mission of these students to think about similar initiatives to that of Rosemary Nalden, or to those embedded in the other three films.

Furthermore, the administration of the faculty, in addition to all professional musicians, should work on diffusing music knowledge outside the walls and the gated communities of the specialised institutions and centres. Their new targets should be the inhabitants of the slum areas, who might have potential musical talents, through which their economic and social conditions could be "together uplifted."     

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