Being a PULSE participant in South Africa

Every year since 2001, young Norwegians and South Africans have switched places to learn from each other’s cultures and ways of teaching music. This is what it is like to be a PULSE participant in the South African music organization Field Band Foundation.

Being part of an exchange project is quite a unique experience. You pack your bags and move to a new country and a new culture, usually quite different from the one you have spent your life surrounded by up to this point. This might sound like going on a really long vacation. But as an exchange participant, you are going abroad to work. So, in a way, your everyday life ends up being quite similar to your life back home. You wake up early, have your coffee and breakfast, go to work, and you usually come home about eight hours later. After work, you sometimes just want to spend the remainder of the day on the couch. This sounds like a normal day in Norway, and it is also partly how it is to be a PULSE participant in South Africa.

However, what you actually do in those eight hours of work is what makes the distinction. The FBF shares certain similarities with the Norwegian band tradition but is still rooted in a completely different philosophy. The main reason for this, I think, is because the Field Band Foundation (FBF) works with quite non-Norwegian issues.

Why are we in South Africa?

The FBF´s modus operandi is to ensure safe spaces rooted in musicking, where young people can foster personal development. It might not sound so non-Norwegian. After all, we also want to give our youth safe spaces to develop themselves, and we even try doing this through school bands and other music activities.

Sheet music is rare to find in a regular rehearsal, but staff in the field bands still learn to read music.

But if you have ever set your foot into the rehearsal of a Norwegian school band, you might have a mental image of a local high school auditorium filled with chairs and sheet music. The conductor goes on and on about the importance of practicing between rehearsals, and the band members even get private lessons in the local music school to improve their musical abilities. Everything is set up perfectly to train a new generation of brilliant musicians. And for many bands, training a new generation of virtuosos is their primary goal.

Now, let us move to the opposite side of the earth and the South African field bands. Here, you won´t find neither chairs nor sheet music. After school, children run out into the school yard or to a local community center. At the speed of light, tutors are putting the members to work with unloading instruments from the truck, so that they can finally start playing. For the next couple of hours, the members are taught through a “show and tell”-method more resembling a rock guitar player learning a song than any European brass or wind band.

South participant Lesley in action during a band visit to Springs Field Band

Even with these differences, the biggest difference from Norwegian bands is what the band members are encountering outside of the rehearsal. In Norway, the average child or youth at one point or another need to choose which leisure activities they wish to keep practicing. They will have to choose between band or football, dancing or horse riding. Some people skip all extracurricular activities to focus completely on their academic ambitions. They might prioritize going to a gym for health, wellbeing, and aesthetic purposes, or they might focus all their spare-time on a part-time job.

And there are activities like these in South Africa as well. Still, an enormous percentage of the youth end up spending their evenings out in the streets. In disadvantaged communities, the road from street life to drugs, crime and violence is terribly short. This shows in some of South Africa´s bleak statistics. 33 percent of the population is unemployed, and among people between the age of 15 and 24, that number is at 53 percent. A large number of South Africans are living with HIV/AIDS, and the prevalence of violent crime is quite shocking to the outside world. In addition, social ills like drug abuse and teenage pregnancies are flourishing. This is all surrounded by a context of extreme social differences, where the split between poor and rich is immense.

What do we do?

The FBF primarily operate in these disadvantaged communities, where the needs for safe spaces and good role models are huge. However, the mission of providing these safe spaces and role models demand a variety of skills and tasks to be accomplished. This is reflected in the work week of a PULSE participant.

Even though the majority of our work is done in the office, we still spend quite a bit of time out in the field.

We awake to the beauty of South African sunshine, make our coffee and breakfast, before we drive to our head office. From here, we try to do our part in bettering the services that the FBF is offering to band members and the communities around our bands. Planning workshops, writing music theory manuals, designing e-learning courses, and providing general support to the staff in different bands is all part of the job.

While we are working in the head office, the staff in bands all over South Africa is planning the day´s rehearsal. Tutors and Band Coordinators are running through the music, while the Project officer is taking care of logistics and other administrative tasks. Instruments have to be transported back and forth, and reports must be written frequently. Meanwhile, the Social Officers are doing their job to ensure the wellbeing of band members. They are planning how best to teach different life skills during the upcoming rehearsal, while also doing home visits and following up on band members to make sure they are safe outside of the rehearsals as well.

Members of the Birchleigh field band ready to perform

The work we do as PULSE participants is all in order to support the activities that are happening out in the bands, or in the field. The goal of this long-lasting exchange project has been to better the holistic learning environments in both the FBF and in the Norwegian Band Federation (NMF) through mutual exchange of knowledge. To make this happen in the FBF, we rely on the brilliant execution of our administrative work at the head office by the staff in the field.

What do we do after work?

An equally important part of our work in South Africa is to learn from the actual culture of this beautifully interesting country. This happens when we have vetkoek for breakfast or cow head for lunch. It happens when we go to a concert Wednesday afternoon or enjoy a glass of Cape wine with dinner. When Friday arrives, we put aside e-learning, blog posts, event planning and reports to enjoy a proper South African weekend. The weekends showcase the vibrance of this country, with markets and “braais” around every corner.

Enjoying some South African food, like chicken feet, is just part of the job.

As a Norwegian, I am amazed by how early in the morning South Africans are starting their Saturdays and Sundays. The malls and shopping centers are usually packed before the average Norwegian has even considered leaving their bed. By 10 o´clock, the suburbs are full of people enjoying their brunch, and the public braai stands are already smoking in every village and township. The city centers are filled with markets showcasing the finest of African culture, whether it be food or arts and crafts. In Norway, Sunday is a day of calmness and hiking. Here, the fire is burning hotly all the way to Monday morning. As PULSE participants, we take the term “when in Rome” to heart, and our Sundays have gotten a lot busier since moving south of the equator. And we love every second of it.

We are about halfway through our year as PULSE participants, and the stream of impressions and core memories seem never-ending. Images of smiling children at rehearsals, dedicated colleagues going above and beyond for the FBF, and the smell of spiced meat on the Braai stand will be staying with us for as long as we live. Despite all the challenges that South Africa is facing, you can´t help falling in love with such a vibrant nation. And it is a true honor to have the opportunity of making this beautiful country a slightly better place for the generations to come, one PULSE team at the time.

Written by Sondre Aksnes Yggeseth
Photos by Sondre Aksnes Yggeseth and Franqo Ntshole

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