Boogie Pilgrim: Part 2

Editor’s note: In May and June 2014, flutist Laura Barron traveled to South Africa to observe music education programs devoted  to fostering positive social change. For the first three Fridays in December, we are pleased to present her recollections of that  experience in a multi-part series. Read Part 1 here.

Boogie Pilgrim

An exploration of the solitary soul enchanted by the primal, charged, intimate encounter of naked sensation with the astonishing world.

Part 2


MAY 27: Similar to the challenges of the Saint James Music Academy, where I teach in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, it is often problematic for township students to take instruments home (due to the threat of theft, or even parents struggling with addiction who are at risk of selling them for drugs).  Fortunately, my second week has exposed me to programs where students have access to instruments throughout the week (safely stored in school, church or community centre spaces).  This, of course, dramatically improves the amount of progress that these young musicians can make, and subsequently I heard some tremendous talent.  Most memorable was the diminutive Huamani, a precocious 10-year old who bled music out of his every pore. As serious and focused as he was curious and playful, this killer marimba player picked up new melodies in seconds.  His every movement embodied the groove of the music he played.  And often, he deftly assumed leadership over his much older peers.  Also impressive was Masalino Felix, an official youth leader, trained by Music Works.  He skillfully leads three marimba bands in Heideveld (two for girls only), using the most structured disciplinary style I’ve seen in South Africa so far.  Having grown up with these students, mostly 10 years his junior, they showed him deferent respect and responded well to his firm but friendly style.  I, on the other hand, when given the treasured chance to play along to their Africanized version of “When She’s Gone”, was shaking in my boots as he reprimanded me for slowing these young keeners down with my lazy left hand technique!  I might have earned some cred because several kids mistook me for colored.  But unfortunately, my “white folks can’t swing” genes were revealed when my instrument had to be played by a mallet 12 inches away from my hands instead of right under my fingertips.

MAY 28: Something I could not have expected from this experience was the in-depth education I received daily, during our two-hour car commute from the NGO offices (where I bused) to Cape Town’s outer communities.   What a privilege it was to see the townships from the perspective of the Khosa community musicians, (employed by Music Works), who grew up there themselves, and continue to live in the neighborhoods where they teach.  From them and other Music Works instructors, I gained a more nuanced understanding of certain realities than I could have surmised myself.  Monday, one facilitator explained that we might have been unable to reach our program that day.  Since a taxi driver conflict, over “stolen” fares, had occurred in that area the night before, resulting in several deaths, she was concerned that it would be deemed unsafe.  However, we proceeded to the gang-ridden Lavender Hill with ease.  On our way home, another facilitator commented on the quiet behavior of a normally effusive youth leader in that neighborhood’s program. Apparently, he had been offered an important promotion, with substantial added responsibility for Music Works’ programs, only the week before.  But she suspected his low self-image was causing him to doubt his ability to “step up”.

So, he was avoiding any decision-making.  Mark, a Khosa leader from Khayelishta, who brings years of experience as a therapeutic wilderness facilitator to Music Works, offered fascinating insight to the different collaborative skills I observed between programs in Khosa or colored communities. The former, which I heard in Nyanga, possessed an innate ability to listen, groove together and make facile cooperative choices.  Conversely, while the Heideveld students still played at a quite a high level, it took considerably more time for them to find each others’ beat, or to agree on style and tempo. Mark attributed this to communication and learning styles that were deeply ingrained in these disparate cultures.  Interestingly, this Khosa talent was recognized and supported by Canada’s own Sarah MacLachlan Foundation, who helped fund a tour of the Nyanga marimba band to Toronto last year.  Of course, my mind is already spinning with ways to bring them to Vancouver as soon as I can.

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JUNE 2:  No one here seems to bother with idle chit chat.  Life in South Africa is deep and complex, as is every conversation with passing strangers.  A street cleaner shared his doubts about the effectiveness of outreach programs that reach only a scant few while thousands ofyouth go unattended.  A friend of a friend, and black immigrant to South Africa, mentioned her frustration with beggars, seeing as she came here with nothing and always did whatever it took to fend for herself.  Another Khosa local described the social barriers that make it difficult to set up community gardens in townships riddled with hunger.  He felt that his own people ultimately hold a “fend for themselves” attitude in order to simply survive in this culture of such huge wealth disparity.  Consequently, he believed they would even steal food out of the earth from their own neighbors.  I cannot verify his perceptions, but I was encouraged to see some Khosa community members finding solutions to such problems.  Four mothers from the township of Nyanga, outside of Cape Town, independently established their own, now very successful community centre which houses one of the music outreach programs I visited.  It also offers many other social services including food, sports programs, and a lush garden that the local youth reap and sow.  My favorite memory from this Etafani Centre was the moment when, for about five minutes, a half dozen mothers broke down and boogied to one of the student’s marimba tunes.  Can you ever imagine such a thing happening at a conservatory in North America?!   It is precisely this music and dance that pulses through the veins of South African people which drew me here.  And it is what already makes me want to return.



For thirty years, Laura has enjoyed a international performing and teaching career as a concert flutist that has taken from the Yukon to New Zealand. Since her solo debut with the Boston Symphony, at age 17, performance highlights have included appearances in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Centre, and Kennedy Centre, as well as collaborations with the Minnesota, Vancouver, and Phoenix Symphonies. With a doctorate from McGill, she also formerly served on the music faculties of the Universities of Oregon, Wisconsin and Northern Arizona. In 2010, with the intention to deepen her commitment to Art for Social Change, Laura founded the Vancouver-based non-profit, Instruments of Change, which leads numerous arts-based community development initiatives. Their longest running program is Women Rock, which offers rock music and songwriting instruction to women in prison and in marginalized communities. National CBC radio also recently aired a 17-minute documentary following their project Voice to Voice, a collaboration between Downtown Eastside poets and UBC classical composers. And now they have begun to take their work abroad. This has allowed Laura to travel throughout South African townships to study at-risk youth marimba programs, a consequence of which has been their new program, Stick Together, offered at the Burnaby Youth Detention Centre. Laura has also traveled to India, Nepal, and soon Columbia, to offer songwriting and interdisciplinary art projects that allow Canadian youth to collaborate with students abroad. These global projects focus on a variety of social issues through arts engagement, and use trash to make instruments, puppets and costumes for the students’ created narratives. Also based on a ‘repurposing’ theme, Laura’s latest and most ambitious endeavor, the Binners Symphony, will bring together Vancouver’s binners (our city’s most valuable and visible recyclers), members of the general public, and professional musicians to perform a large-scale, found-object, community music percussion piece, to be premiered at Vancouver's 2017 World New Music Days. Laura’s additional collaborative facilitation work brings her into several BC schools, leading cross-curricular Artist in the Classroom projects for ArtStarts, for the Vancouver Biennale’s Big Ideas program, and as a Vancouver Opera Music Champion. Also a writer and interdisciplinary artist, Laura frequently collaborates with the interdisciplinary artist team, Something Collective; tours with her original musical theater piece and arts advocacy fairy tale, Captain Creative; and is working on a new collection of short stories.

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