After 12 years in the Field Band Foundation (the FBF), the first female band coordinator in the organisation is moving forward into a new and challenging chapter of her life. It is with a bittersweet tone that Thandokuhle Butelezi or Miss Tee, as her Field Band kids call her, will be leaving the FBF this month. We met Thando on her last day of work. She was busy packing up and finishing her final tasks as part of the economy department. She is striving to complete her work correctly before she leaves, but makes room for a short chat with us from PULSE.
Becoming a leader for the first time
Growing up in a musical family, Thando started her career early as a singer in many different choirs. She was spotted by a field band tutor in church and asked to join the field band as a dance and steel-drum tutor. She took the challenge and realized she even had to teach kids her own age. She had to become firm and self-confident to manage.
“The first time I was a leader, I was terrified.”
She explains how the experience of being a leader helped her develop beyond all expectations. Thando tells us that she changed from being a quiet girl with strong opinions to a person who was able to convincingly express her views. She recalls one of the first times she recognized this change; it was at a FBF meeting:
“I would have an opinion, but I would never voice it out. I would sit in the back and never say anything, but one time I was sitting in the back and I opened my mouth for the first time and Retha (the FBFs Chief Executive Officer) actually said that she was very amazed by the way I spoke.”
From that moment on the Executive officer and the rest of the FBF leaders started to view Thando differently.
“I was treated as a senior person, even though I was not; it gave me confidence.”
Becoming a band coordinator
Thando realized her opinions mattered, were heard and were important. She developed as a leader quickly and soon became the Band Coordinator for the field bands in Kwa-Zulu Natal.
“There was an open spot as a BC in our band and nobody applied for the job. So us tutors, we started rotating on being the leader for the band. The rotation stopped at me.”
Through this new role as a band leader, Thando discovered other unknown passions in life, like choreography. These passions motivated her and made her work even harder for developing her band.
“I would get up at 12 O’clock midnight if I had an idea and record it, try out a dance move, write down my ideas.”
Suddenly she was an “all in one toothpaste”, filling the role as the band’s teacher, creative leader, choreographer, nurse, mother and psychologist. Thando says this made her more open-minded, more tolerant and more caring. She learned to handle her temper, pick her battles and listen to the members. She also realized that she had a great love for children.
Winning against all odds
Her work as a BC was not always easy. In 2007 before the National Championships, Thando experienced a lot of opposition from the community. Thando was the only girl in a pack of men, in a region where men do everything. She was met with distrust and scepticism.
“Who are you and where do you come from? What are you gonna come up with? What are you gonna bring?”
Thando imitates the community’s reactions to her with a smile and admits that sometimes she could be quite a demanding leader. She had many great visions for the band and would not let anyone stop her from achieving them. Many were not happy with their kids rehearsing 24 hours a day. Moreover the band was criticized for making a lot of noise and keeping the children from going to church. The community was also closely tied to their Zulu-culture and heritage. They preferred traditional music. In contrast, Thando wanted to think out of the box and introduced new music to the band for the first time.
“I kept the Zulu cultural thing going on right through the show, but at the end I threw in a bit of hip-hop and a modern twist and the last piece was written by us, the tutors”.
She recalls this period before the 2007 championships and explains how many either didn’t like or understand the show. Despite the negative responses from the parents, Thando refused to let go of her ideas and at the competition all the hard work paid off. Thando and her band won!
“We surprised everybody that year. “That is a work of a woman! That was a woman!…” Yes I was a woman and we still managed to pull it off!”
This was one of her best experiences during her years in the FBF. It was an empowering moment and she proved to herself and the community that anything was possible, even for a woman and even when nobody else believed in her.
“Let the girls play Brass!”
Thando explains that a common view in many field bands is that women belong to the steel-drum and dance section and that they are not capable of playing any other musical instruments. Thando has strong opinions about this attitude and is eager to tell us about how she prevented her sister from starting in the field band as a dancer.
“My sister wanted to join the band and she wanted to dance. She cried and cried for months, but I said: “over my dead body – you have to go play the Baryton!””
We ask her why she believed it was so important that her sister did not follow the rest of the girls in the dance section. Thando explains that she thinks that one important way to get rid of stereotypical ideas about women is to encourage girls to think in new ways and challenge the prevailing stereotypes. Make girls stretch beyond the cultural norms that society expects of them. Although Thando emphasises the importance of challenging girls, she stresses that the most important way of empowering girls is to focus on the men and their attitudes towards women. Men also have the power to empower.
“Most of the tutors in the FBF are men and they have to encourage girls because girls themselves, they are afraid of trying.”
Starting an all-girls band
In 2009, during Thando’s last year as a BC, she did one more thing to challenge the established stereotypes of women.
“We moved to a girl’s only school, to push girls to play the trumpet and drums to show them that girls can do anything they put their minds to.”
Thando then entered with this all girl band in the National Championships. The girls were actually capable of playing all the instruments themselves. They put on the entire show and managed to impress everyone, they were the 3rd runners up that year. With a proud smile and a thrilled voice she says about the girls:
“They blew them out of their mind! Women were playing all the instruments, trumpets, everything, including 3 women playing the tuba !!!!!”
After this last stunt as a BC, Thando was offered work at the Head Office. With a sad tone in her voice she explains that this transition made her feel like she was abandoning her kids. However, her move to the Head Office challenged her in new ways and she stayed in the economy department for 4 years. Now she has managed to get a new job as a Junior Company Secretary in Highway Corporate Services (PTY) Ltd in her home city of Durban. She is still so passionate about the struggling bands near her home in Durban that she promises to return to the FBF after settling into her new job.
“If you build a house, and you come back and the roof is gone, you still want to fix it even if you have a new house, my heart will always be in the field band.”
Written by Lisa Svendsen