Music Changes Lives- the Hout Bay Music Project and André Rieu

Maastricht, Netherlands, July 2010
Lwazi Mkula, aged 18, greets a visitor in the bustling lobby of the Vrijthof Theatre in Maastricht, Netherlands on a warm summer evening. A courteous young man with a level gaze, Mr. Mkula was born under apartheid in South Africa. Since joining the tiny Hout Bay Music Project seven years ago, however, his life has taken a remarkable direction thanks to remarkable teachers and his dedication to classical music studies. Today, Mr. Mkula is the first member of his family to attend college. At Cape Town University, he is majoring in music and law, and is teaching younger children at the same Music Project in the Eastern Cape Informal Township that is his home. By all accounts, he would not be where he is today without the support and music education he received at the Hout Bay Music Project.

At the moment, however, Mr. Mkula has other immediate things on his hands. Streaming into the Theatre close on his heels come a gaggle of energetic children, supervised by a few exhausted-looking adults. After a day of playing football outdoors at a nearby Limburg farm, these young members of the Hout Bay Music Project need to have dinner, focus their attention and prepare for their featured role in this evening’s concert on the Vrijthof plaza in Maastricht, with world-famous Dutch violinist André Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra.

Maastricht is known as the most Burgundian of cities in the Netherlands, with its multicultural history, large international population and a love of gatherings of any kind. The fact that it is also the home town of Mr. Rieu, who grew up in Maastricht and still lives there, makes it the perfect location for this lively concert series that dominates the old section of the city for two weeks in the summer and thousands of attracts visitors from all over the world. André Rieu and the Orchestra are well known for their ability to get the audience on their feet, singing along and dancing in the aisles. What might be less expected is that a small group of children between the ages of nine and eighteen, from a rural area of the Eastern Cape, would also be so joyfully confident performing in front of an audience of 10,000 each night during the concert series titled “My African Dream”.


The Hout Bay Music Project Trust, like most successful creations, is based on a brilliantly simple idea - that music changes lives. A non-profit organization founded in 2003 by Leanne Dollman, a cheerful young woman with an infectious laugh, the Project now provides music education, life skills training and preparation for British Music Examinations to about 100 children in the Imizamo Yethu Settlement and Hangberg Harbor community in Hout Bay, South Africa. The Project offers daily music classes in a former bowling green clubhouse in Hout Bay, or outside on the grass. Every day, students experience the joy of music through classes in violin, cello, double bass, marimba and drums, as well as training in dance, singing and life skills. The Project is proud of its 100% pass rate in all practical and theoretical examinationsthrough the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music, UK, which has helped the first cohort of students enter university this past year.

A classically trained violinist who has performed as a freelance artist with symphonies and chamber groups, Ms. Dollman tells an interviewer she initially “wanted to teach about 3-4 children.” In 2003, she visited the Moravian Primary School in the Imizamo Yethu Informal Township to talk about starting a small afterschool program. As she relates the story, all of the students were gathered and standing outside the school. When asked by their principal how many students would be interested in learning to play the violin, all 800 children enthusiastically replied that they would! Ms. Dollman explains that music is a big part of the culture for these students, who speak Xhosa “click” language at home as well as Afrikaans and English. The children, who at that time were mostly still living in shacks in this rural area on the Eastern Cape, thought they would each get a violin. She laughs as she describes the school principal’s initial puzzlement at her plans to teach 800 students without having any instruments available for them at all!

Ms. Dollman persisted and obtained Chinese violins made from kits. Initially she started teaching about 25-30 children, and now has 100 students ranging in age from three years old to 18, some of whom have studied music for six to seven years. With the growth and success of the program, the Project now has two other part-time faculty who teach double bass and cello. One faculty member, John Ntsepe is the first Black pianist with a Master’s Degree in Music in South Africa. In addition, a Dutch violin teacher will spend the next year in South Africa on a fellowship. The Music Project has gained a degree of renown in South Africa, has enlisted consistent supporters including Trevor Manuel, Minister in The Presidency, and has performed for G-20 Summits and other high-profile events. Fundraising and paying for staff and instruments remains a constant challenge for the independent non-profit.

Ms. Dollman describes being contacted by a member of Mr. Rieu’s staff during the Johann Strauss Orchestra’s first South African tour, in May of 2010. The Maestro and several staff and orchestra members visited the little music school between concerts. The children performed some music and dance numbers, and Mr. Rieu and his entourage were charmed and invited to the entire group to Maastricht to perform with the orchestra in July. The fact that the students were not sure where Maastricht was located, or even Holland for that matter, did not dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.

The next two months were filled with the challenge of obtaining passports for the children, many of whom had never been registered at birth, and many of whose parents had never married. Despite Mr. Rieu’s speaking with the Dutch Prime Minister to enlist his help in expediting the passports, Ms. Dollman and a lawyer friend spent countless hours knocking on doors of homes that lacked telephones to gather the necessary paperwork. Finally, 20 children and five adults arrived in the Netherlands on July 6, 2010 to start rehearsals for the series of performances on the Vrijthof Plaza.

When asked how the children reacted to traveling in Europe for the first time, Ms. Dollman smiles and quotes Project supporter David Juritz, Director of Musequality UK, who says they "range from enthusiastic to irrepressible”. She says the children enjoyed not only performing in the Netherlands but also the catered meals (very different from the mostly meat they usually eat at home), staying on a farm and visiting local attractions courtesy of André Rieu. Ms. Dollman expresses her gratitude to the generosity of the Rieu organization, which not only brought the Music Project to the Netherlands for the concert series but also plans to continue to help them with instrument donations and other ongoing support and collaboration during future South African tours.

Ms. Dollman says that Mr. Rieu had spoken to the City Council in Hout Bay to assist with putting up more buildings for classrooms, and had also said in television interviews that he plans to start a miniature Johann Strauss Orchestra for the children. It remains to be seen whether Rieu, who constantly tours several continents with his 55-piece orchestra and issues several chart-topping recordings each year will be able to devote that much time to the fledgling orchestra himself. This is, after all, a tiny non-profit with little government support, very unlike the wildly successful “El Sistema” that was started in Venezuela and now is being replicated in the United States. But Mr. Rieu’s interest in making music more accessible for all in South Africa seems genuine, and it is possible that the grassroots nature of the Hout Bay Music Project is its greatest strength as it enables it to attract a variety of supporters while retaining its original form.
“A Very Emotional Tour” ...

In June 2010, during the Johann Strauss Orchestra’s American tour, André Rieu described their first engagement in South Africa, just a month before, as “a very emotional tour”. In a prior promotional visit to South Africa, Mr. Rieu had sensed racial imbalance, and decided to recruit a Black South African soprano to join the South African tour. After viewing her audition tape, the Maestro brought the classically-trained Kimi Skota to Maastricht for rehearsals. Rieu proudly stated of the shy young woman with the operatic voice “I discovered her.”

However, the white supremacist Terre Blanche had been murdered just two weeks before the Orchestra arrived in Durban, and Rieu was not sure how Ms. Skota and the Orchestra would be received. Rieu described himself as being “very nervous” until Ms. Skota stepped on stage, at which point the audience gave her a standing ovation before she even started singing.

Mr. Rieu said that his wife Marjorie had asked the singer during rehearsals, “Don’t you know a song that everyone knows, both Black and white?” Kimi Skota had chosen a lullaby that Black nannies used to sing to the white babies in their care. As Rieu described it, he looked out into the auditorium during the first concert in Durban and “the whole audience was crying. So of course, seeing that, we started crying too!” The concert series was a smash hit, and Mr. Rieu felt he had achieved his goal in South Africa, that of bringing people together to enjoy music regardless of color. He decided to engage Ms. Skota for the American tour and beyond. And he decided to bring the Hout Bay Music Project to Maastricht, along with the Bloemfontein Children’s Choir to support the Michael Jackson song “Heal the World”. The series of concerts in Rieu’s home town of Maastricht began to take shape, under the title “My African Dream.”


Back on the steps of the elegant Vrijthof Theatre in Maastricht, music fans from many countries have gathered on this balmy summer evening, awaiting the start of one of the annual outdoor concerts on the huge plaza. Cameras ready, fans chatter in many languages as they hope to catch a glimpse of the famous violinist and a few members of his orchestra. A sudden shower, however, sends them scurrying for shelter; some make their way into the lobby of the Theatre where they are met with piercing and joyful singing, whooping and clapping that echoes from above. Voices of children swell in distinctly African tonalities as they rehearse on a loggia above the lobby. Next they break into a rousing rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, with handclaps and African drums. The Hout Bay Music Project is warming up.

The rain passes and the fans make their way outside again. Maestro Rieu and a few elegantly-dressed musicians from his orchestra step out and begin tuning their instruments. Cameras click and fans smile and wave. Rieu staff members hover nearby, along with members of a German television crew filming the concert. Each musician tunes his or her instrument in turn to Mr. Rieu’s Stradivarius. Just above the Theatre entrance, the children from the Hout Bay Music Project are clustered on a balcony, shyly regarding the crowd below. Their faces are decorated for the performance with tribal markings. When they spy a couple with a South African flag, the children wave and their countrymen wave back. As Maestro Rieu passes the crowd on his way to the stage, he salutes the South African couple as well. Eric and Marie Dyer of Durban tell a visitor “Mr. Rieu has a very kind heart” for assisting the Hout Bay Music Project. They quote a South African promoter who said that “André Rieu is not aware of the happiness he has brought to South Africa” with his recent concert series.

By 11:00 p.m. that night, the rousing concert is almost halfway through. The sun had come out again and then slowly set in a long midsummer sunset. The huge audience has already been on their feet several times, for lovely clarinet and cello solos, a lively version of “O Sole Mio” by the Platin Tenors, and a moving rendition of “Ave Maria” by Kimi Skota, complete with a projected backdrop of stained glass windows. With visible pride, Maestro Rieu introduces the Hout Bay Music Project from South Africa and describes how impressed he is by their “talent and enthusiasm.”

Holding their instruments and wearing colorful outfits and headbands, the children file onstage and begin to play. They perform a creditable rendition (for their ages) of the Pachelbel Canon in D, with assistance from Ms. Dollman and a few members of the Johann Strauss Orchestra strings section. For the final few bars, the younger children join in softly on African drums. Next, they turn up the heat. The group breaks into African song, dance and drumming numbers which bring the audience to their feet again. One lively girl of twelve mesmerizes the audience with her natural solo voice and African dance moves. Against a backdrop of an African sunset, the song “My African Dream” led by sopranos and tenors, with the Music Project and Bloemfontein Children’s Choir ranged across the front of the stage, is cheered by the huge audience.

After the concert, Eric and Marie Dyer from Durban said “We enjoyed the show tremendously. We were particularly touched by the African theme coming from South Africa. There were many tears during the show.” The collaboration between the European orchestra, originally known for its popular renditions of Strauss waltzes, and the South African children studying European classical music appeared to be a rousing success.


The Hout Bay Music Project appears to have a future as bright as that of the children who study there. Thomas Diamandis, the choreographer for André Rieu who worked with many children’s choirs in three continents during the orchestra’s recent tours, feels the Hout Bay Music Project is something special and has a big future in the music world. He says the Project “is just amazing ... there are no words to explain it ... and as performers they remain in your mind.”

Upcoming plans for the Hout Bay Music Project include a collaboration with the composer Michael Blake, who will compose a piece about the history of the Hout Bay area, with the students composing a part of it. In October 2010, the students participated in the Spielhaus Fesitval at the St. Polten Theatre in Austria, which includes 300 children from all around Europe. And in March of 2011 André Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra, with guest artists likely to include the Hout Bay Music Project, will appear again in Cape Town where Nelson Mandela spoke at the end of apartheid 16 years ago.

- Jennifer Dawson writes about children in the arts, and is based in Boston, USA.