Music Review: Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble – Anniversary Acoustics, Or A String Theory Proved

March 28, 2022

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Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble: 25th Anniversary / Director: Rosemary Nalden / Linder Auditorium, Parktown, Johannesburg


Buskaid, borne of the charitable instincts of English musician Rosemary Nalden a quarter of a century ago and now a sophisticated and sustainable foundation for ongoing fundraising for the teaching of young Soweto musicians from impoverished backgrounds, is a feelgood story made cultural force.

For all of the layers developed over 25 years, the ever-changing cast of players – youngsters are drafted; more experienced musicians move on, following new opportunities – means that the orchestra is a changeable organism, with the relationships between the musicians understandably altering as they learn to play alongside newcomers of varying levels of experience.

In this particular concert, that may have been the reason for the only shortfall in the performance: unpredictable gaps and uncertainty between pieces in a generous programme featuring 19 pieces, some of them medleys of different compositions. The collective playing displays excellence in timing, expression and technical mastery of the range of instruments used, but when the music stops, there seems to be hesitation about linking to the next composition – who needs to move where if they’re not playing that particular offering, or perhaps who is responsible for introducing the following number. Nalden’s onstage input is motherly rather than authoritative or directorial in the theatrical sense. No doubt, in the context of the school and the training behind the young musicians’ expertise, this is effective and appreciated, but for a major concert like this, tighter links between songs would have made for a more flowing audience experience. In mitigation, the disruptions imposed by the pandemic must be taken into account, and the combination joy and musicality emanating from the stage makes up for any distractions when the playing stops.

In a set that combines instrumental versions of contemporary pop hits and more traditional tunes from a range of cultural backgrounds. The arrangements used are superb, and well-chosen for this ensemble’s structure, making relatively fluffy material like Shut Up And Dance as exciting and textured as a medley of Queen songs or La Paloma (The White Dove), now nearly 150 years old.

Ensemble leader Khotso Langa is a wonderful violinist, capable of eye-widening complexity and a strong guide for his colleagues in terms of tempo and feel.

There’s a strong ending in an Afro-jazz and gospel medley arranged by the ensemble themselves (the latter gets the loudest cheers of the concert), in which three of the instrumentalists – Cecelia Manyama, Mathapelo Matabane and Vurhonga Ngobeni – sing in beautiful harmony.

An important milestone, marked with warmth and skill.

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