The similarities are striking. One began his project with 11 young people rehearsing in a garage, the other by persuading and cajoling a slightly larger group of 120 professional players to play in freezing cold train stations around London. They are both passionate, determined, committed, tireless, inspirational leaders of music education projects for the disadvantaged, and both, having toiled over a period measured in decades, have achieved social and musical results beyond belief. They have spawned generations of players who perform at the most spectacular level but impress as much with their demeanour and their values as their music. Both operate substantially outside of what we think of traditionally (and naively) as western nations, yet both their musical cultures are deeply European whilst happily sitting alongside a real respect for indigenous music and dance. Both inspire deep affection and burning admiration, and neither has got used to taking no for an answer, not from anyone, anywhere.
There are also differences. Venezuela’s Maestro José Antonio Abreu – known increasingly throughout the world simply as ‘El Maestro’ – is at the head of an international movement of millions, a regular at the ears of Presidents, Prime Ministers, film makers, thinkers and monarchs, recipient of more prizes than Haydn wrote symphonies, and rumoured to be in the running for the big one: the Nobel Peace Prize. A cross between a Mother Teresa and a Renaissance Pope, he is one of the most singular human beings alive on the planet today.
Rosemary Nalden, on the other hand, is a name you may well never have heard of. Particularly as her project, Buskaid, is somewhat smaller than El Maestro’s. Remember it. Whilst he has anything up to 400,000 playing in hundreds of orchestras nationwide at any one time, and thinks nothing of fielding thousands on one platform, Nalden has painstakingly grown her Soweto township school from a handful of children in 1992, to its current 100 four to thirty year olds. Her results though, are no less admirable. Whilst Abreu reinvents the wheel daily, Nalden has instead created a small burnished jewel of an organisation, able, due to the lack of size, to remain in control of everything. (And I mean everything. If you see Buskaid in concert, don’t be surprised if she pops onto the stage at some point during the performance to remonstrate with one of the players for anything from playing that displeases her, to encouragement to get them – literally – dancing in the aisles). It’s the original family company that has never wanted to go public, or grow beyond the reach of its founder.
I went to hear a small ensemble from the group play last week whilst Nalden was in London to give a Tedex talk, and was utterly headspiningly unbelievably indescribably blown away. As usual. Apologies here for my English reserve. Really. It’s like medicine for life. Like the Venezuelans, they play with unabashed joy, and watching the lithe and beguiling virtuoso fiddle player Simiso Radebe dance his way through Biber and Boccherini with his dreadlocks flying, or listening to Cecilia Manyama and Mathapelo Matabane singing township and jazz standard arrangements, you could have been at Lincoln Center, Ronnie Scott’s, or the Royal Festival Hall in front of thousands, not in a humble church well off the international culture circuit. Here they are in concert:
Had you seen them a few years ago you would have been cheering Samson Diamond on violin. Next year it will be someone else. And yet the beauty and the connoisseur like playing and the finishing of every concert with a standing ovation is not actually what I want to alight on. Nor is it the fact that all of the group, every last one, impresses by their hunger and desire to play and to communicate.
So, what’s my point here? Well, just this. Here are two special individuals who have the power to change and to improve lives. And nothing of what either does is from the textbooks or the national plans or the ‘academic expert consultant driven think tank think-ins’ that have ended up running so much of our lives, and often the parts that in fact turn out to be boring, joyless and meaningless. We cover our fear in regulations, spreading it over our institutions like thick slow drying oil paint, and then wonder why we end up feeling empty. Yet, these are two people who just got on with it, trusting to their common sense, humanity and sense of justice instead of the rules that happened to get handed out at the time. We all have an Abreu or a Nalden inside of ourselves, and I often wonder how simply wonderful our societies would be if we had the courage to let their type of approach take over, at least a bit more of the time. Oh to be able to tell the Camerons and the suits to simply pack their bags.
Apparently we get the leaders we deserve. But here, for a change, are two we can really be proud of. And whilst I could mention half a dozen more of people in this line of work, my point is this; three cheers for Rosemary Nalden and all that she has done and continues to do. We all know about Maestro. Now let’s hear it for La Maestra. And don’t forget to give generously – whether it’s money, free teaching, happily clapping like mad at the end of one of those concerts, or just plain spreading the word. Every little helps when the consequence is this amazing.