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Sharon Katz

Sharon Katz


The world needs more women like musician and social activist Sharon Katz. Born and raised during South Africa’s apartheid regime, and inspired by by Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, she made history of her own when she brought together 500 black, white and Indian children to form the country’s first ever multi-cultural and multi-lingual choir. She took that musical message all over South Africa, and what followed was Sharon Katz & The Peace Train. She continues to spread the message of peace and reconciliation through performances and workshops around the world, the story documented in the film, When Voices Meet.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][mk_toggle style=”simple” title=”Transcript”]Sandi:                       Welcome to another edition of Sandi Klein’s Conversations with Creative Women. Meet Sharon Katz. Born in Port Elizabeth South Africa, now known as Nelson Mandela Bay. She grew up under the old regime. As I teenager, she hid under blankets in back seat of her friend’s car, sneaking out to the blacks only townships. There she met with the now famous actors in the Atol Fuguards Group and began her lifelong mission of using music to break down racial barriers.

                                 In 1992, inspired by Mandela’s release from prison. Sharon made history of her own. The singer/musician brought together five hundred black, white, colored and Indian children to from the country’s first ever multi-cultural, and multi-lingual choir. The group’s first performance was at Durban City Hall and the production was called When Voices Meet. While that was huge, it was just the beginning. She wanted to take that musical message, promoting a peaceful transition to democracy all over South Africa. So what followed, was Sharon Katz and the peace train.

Which has continued spreading its message of peace and reconciliation through performances and workshops around the world. The story is documented in the film aptly titled When Voices Meet. Share also composed and directed Crossing Rhythms. A music and dance production that featured more than 200 performers from across the African Continent and had South Africa’s Philharmonic Playing African music for the first time in history. With proceeds from CD sales and contributions to her non-profit organization, Friends of the Peace Train, Sharon has established music therapy programs for those impacted by HIV/AIDS, conflict resolution work and violence ravaged regions, the building of schools and community art centers and she also conducts workshops in schools and universities across the United States.

Sharon. Welcome. What a history! What a story! I can’t wait for you to fill in all the details.

Sharon:                    Oh, thanks Sandi. Thank you so much. It’s really a pleasure to be with you on the show. Thank you very much for having me.

Sandi:                       Well, let’s start by talking about those teenage years. When you hung out in black only townships. How did you pull that off?

Sharon:                    I could say that I was really fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. [Laughing] At the age of fifteen, I was in a basement of a church in Port Elizabeth. At a show. A play that was being produced and it was very much under cover, under wraps kind of. Literally underground because it was in the basement of the church, but it was underground in the sense of, that play could never have been shown on the big stages in the theaters. Because it was a group of actors, as you said in your introduction that were working with Athol Fugard the renowned South African Playwright. They were doing a production of an adaptation of an Albert Camus play actually called The Just, but they had adapted it for the South African situation. Being as young as I was, and already hating the government. The apartheid regime at that age already, I was totally conscientized by this play and very, very moved by the actors and there were four black actors. Two males, two females. John Kani and Winston Ntshona were actually, they’re very famous today, but back in the day, they weren’t very much heard of except that they were working with Athol. I was just so moved, that I ran up to them after the show, and made plans to get together and illegally, secretly met up with they’ve become very good friends. That’s how I made those sort of forbidden soirees after the townships was through the now very well-known John Kani and Winston Ntshona. We became very good friends ever since.

Sandi:                       Yes. But come on, Sharon, what you did was really unorthodox. How did you pull that off? Who supported you? Did your parents know what you were doing?

Sharon:                    No, No. My parents knew nothing about it. I just was this willful kid. I don’t know how to explain it, Sandi. I’ve always been an individualist. I’ve always been a rebel. I was really into music from a very young age and I’m more than, I’m just a person that loves people. I basically fell in love with these actors. I used to go downtown. Take the bus into town, into Main Street Port Elizabeth, I guess you could say it was early 70s. Late 60s really.

Sandi:                       Um Huh

Sharon:                    Unbeknown to my family, and I used to go and meet up with Winston, who was one of the actors. He’s still acting today, and his wife. Veulla, she worked as a “tea lady” in one of the white company. I used to go and have tea with V and sit and talk to her. Then I would say, I would love to meet your family. I was very upset as a child about the conditions of black people were living under. That, women would work in the city, the towns, in the suburbs and they would hardly ever see their children. Here was an opportunity for me to relate on a human level. On a normal “normal” level.

Sandi:                       Um Hmm

Sharon:                    To a black woman. We were friends. We became friends. The black people of South Africa, I just have to say, there is something special about South Africa all together. Just preface all my statements by that because by her befriending a white girl, my age. I was young. I was fifteen. Anyway one day, she was so warm and so loving, and one day she said okay, alright, we’ll meet up with Winston after work and you’ll come with me home. Then, we’ll bring you home, we’ll bring you back again. It was literally, we actually portray this in the documentary. Because we interview John Kani for the documentary and I’m still friends with John today. He talked about all of this and described it. That’s basically what happened and I then I would go in the car. In the back of the car, they would cover me over because there were always police barriers at the entrances to townships in those days.

Sandi:                       To black only townships.

Sharon:                    To black townships at that time.

Sandi:                       Yea.

Sharon:                    You had to have a permit, if you were white. I guess doctors, certain businesses, adults could get permits. But this was, without a permit, so they would hide me. I would hear, I would literally hear the officers. The policemen asking to see a pass. Asking my friends to show their passes.

Sandi:                       Were they much older than you?

Sharon:                    Yea. John’s probably about ten years older. Ten or fifteen years older than me.

Sandi:                       They just took it with you showing up as just par for the course in a sense?

Sharon:                    Well, I used to go and visit them in other situations which were legal. I used to go to the hospital with a, the Livingston Hospital, where they would rehearse. I used to get myself to Livingston and watch them rehearsing at Livingston. They used to perform plays in other sort of like a Jewish Center.

Sandi:                       Mm Hm

Sharon:                    Once in a while they would perform the play there. So, we became friends and then also, I invited them. This was strictly legal. I would invite my friends, my black actor friends, to come to my house when our parents were out.

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Sharon:                    I would be like, I would serve them tea. Because this was illegal. This was one of the apartheid laws. You were not allowed to drink tea with black people.

Sandi:                       That’s just

Sharon:                    Can you get your mind around that?

Sandi:                       No, I cannot. I cannot understand that.

Sharon:                    So, as a fourteen, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year old, to me it was sick. I’m Jewish. I grew up learning about the holocaust. To me, this was a holocaust. It was a holocaust. You can’t underestimate the cruelty and the viciousness and the brutality of the apartheid regime.

Sandi:                       Your parents were clueless about what you were doing.

Sharon:                    They had no idea. None. I didn’t tell my parents anything.

Sandi:                       You’re a ballsy broad, Sharon Katz.

Sharon:                    Many years later when they read about it in newspaper articles. No, I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t want to endanger them. Also, I didn’t want to worry them.

Sandi:                       Sure.

Sharon:                    It was important to break the laws actually at that point. Because, how else was there going to be a change. If white people weren’t conscientized like me.

Sandi:                       Right.

Sharon:                    If relationships weren’t formed, how else was change going to, every going to come about in South Africa? I wasn’t the only person doing this. I didn’t know anybody at the time like me, but they were certainly people that were whites, Jews, that joined the protest movement again apartheid in South Africa. In their own ways were in the struggle.

Sandi:                       If you’re just joining us, my guest today is Sharon Katz who is born in South Africa and who is the force behind Sharon Katz and the Peace Train. Sharon, did you always know that you wanted to sing and make music and use it for the greater good?

Sharon:                    Always Sandi. That’s an amazing thing. I grew up in the Jewish community, I was in the socialist Zionist movement called Jhabonem. It was very much a humanist program. I really resonated with the socialist cause. With those concepts of am I my brother’s keeper? If I’m not for myself. Who is for me? If not now, when? All of these kinds of things that we learned in the movement. It became very important to me when I could apply them as a South African. As a child growing up in this really unjust, inhumane society. Somehow or another, that all played a part in my upbringing and I think my parents being the really and warm generous people that they were. Obviously, they also had a huge impact on my life and who I was. I just gravitated towards using music in a social way. My first band that I had, I think I was twelve or thirteen years old. We used to go and entertain children in homes. In children’s homes.

Sandi:                       You had a band when you were twelve years old?

Sharon:                    I did.

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Sharon:                    It was called the Shalom Band.

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Sharon:                    Not so far away from the Peace Train if you think about it.

Sandi:                       Not at all. Not at all. So, you knew you had a cause. It sounds like you were sort of born into social activism, but having said that, it’s one thing to be a social activist, it’s another to have talent. The two were able to merge because you had both.

Sharon:                    I was very lucky. I was blessed.

Sandi:                       Did you assume as you were getting older that that was how you were going to earn your living.

Sharon:                    No. I never thought that I could do that. I didn’t have any role models in my family. As far as musicians went. I never really thought that that would be an option for me at all. Until many, many years later when I heard about music therapy. I happened to be living in a village in a country called La Sutu, which is surrounded by South Africa, but it’s an independent, it was an independent African country.

Sandi:                       Sure.

Sharon:                    I went up to live in the mountains of La Sutu, where I worked in a mission school back in 1978. That was after I had finished high school. I then became aware through reading, through friends, through various mentors that I had. Through the university system at University of Cape Town, I became aware of music therapy. I talked to my parents about it. They loved the idea. Because they knew. They knew my talent and they knew my love of people. I was really gregarious and I studied music therapy. I managed to come to American through my parents who really believed in this field. They thought it was perfect for me, and they were right. I managed to come to, that’s what brought me to Philadelphia in the 80s.

                                 In the early 1980s, 1981, during the state of emergency in South Africa I came to Philadelphia and I began to study for a masters in music therapy. Master’s Degree. It was perfect for me. I worked in the system for about ten years within United States. Through mental health system.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Sharon:                    I worked in the prisons, I worked in, with every kind of special needs population that you can actually think of, I got a broad range of experience. Then I decided to go home and just roll up my sleeves. It was just after Mandela was released from prison in 1990, I met Marilyn and together we decided to fly back to South Africa and just try to work and become involved in the transition from the old apartheid to the new democracy. That’s what gave birth to the Peace Train.

Sandi:                       Mandela was released in 90, your choir was formed in 92. This change was just not going to happen overnight.

Sharon:                    Definitely not. I mean, the laws were changing and of course Mandela was now free. But that period of time, during which we mounted the Peace Train, there was a civil war in Quasulnatal, where we mounted the Peace Train. Around Durban and in that province because you still had, first of all the old apartheid government was still in power.

Sandi:                       Right.

Sharon:                    Although Mandela was free. Now, the political parties that had been underground, like the African National Congress was slowly coming out of their little offices. Literally, they had been in prison.

Sandi:                       [Laughing] Right.

Sharon:                    They had been in jail. All these people were in jail. Now they were free, they were becoming free, but they were still operating out of small offices in Durban. Tiny little holes in the wall when we went to Durban in 92. But they immediately, the people that we met are in now in government ministries including our president. Our current president, Jacob Zuma. He knew the Peace Train very well. They loved and resonated with exactly what we were talking about. Which was let’s get the youth together because although Mandela’s free, the ANC was still a fledgling. Not a fledgling, just coming out of hiding basically. Coming out of secrecy.

Sandi:                       Just getting its sea legs almost.

Sharon:                    Exactly. And then you had the Encarta Freedom Party which was led by Chief Achpolazie and they had been puppets of the South African Regime for so long. The South African Apartheid government and now there was a conflict between the Encarta Freedom Party, the African National Congress, and then you still had the old government that was fueling Encarta. There was a major war going on. Scores of people who were being killed every single day.

Sandi:                       [sigh]

Sharon:                    In Quazulla Natal. It was a dangerous time. That was the atmosphere into which the Peace Train rode. It was called the Peace Train because we needed peace in Quazulla Natal. We needed peace in South Africa as a whole. So, those four years, between 1990 leading up to elections, were really, really violent.

Sandi:                       What prompted you to form this 500 member choir? How hard was it to pull it off?

Sharon:                    I was thinking, Sandi, that we needed to do something big. The times were momentous. We needed to do something that could match the enormity of what was going on in the country. Mandela was out of jail, we didn’t have elections. It was obvious that elections were coming, but there was no date set for the elections. The date was only set for the elections after the assignation of Chris Heiny, which was in April 1993. That was, we were already in the process, we had already had our 500 voice choir already by that time. All I can say, what prompted me, was just the passion. To know that change was coming and people weren’t ready for change.

Sandi:                       Yes, but come on Sharon, how did you get a colored child, with a black child, with an Indian child, with a white child, to stand next to each other and sing together?

Sharon:                    First of all, Marilyn Cohen, I met her in Philadelphia. She was very, very excited about the change that was happening in South Africa. She heard me performing here in the States and she wanted me to go and work in one of the mental health programs in Philadelphia. I said no. I need, I’m going back to South Africa. I need to go now. Things have changed. I’m ready to go. She sort of was the wind beneath my wings in the sense that she, she said I’ll come. I’ll help. That’s what really helped to make up my mind that I could do it. We really landed in Durban. We really walked the streets. We were looking for a vehicle and sponsorship to be able to do what we knew we could do as a team.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm. Mm Hmm.

Sharon:                    Between us. She’s a social worker. Social policy administration and therapist and I was a musician. Marilyn’s got incredible management skills. She saw the potential and also the sheer determination. That passion that I had. Basically got myself up and running with a band pretty quickly. With musicians.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Sharon:                    Started to do what I always did do, which was go out to townships. Go and visit people where they are. Now, it was legal, but still dangerous.

Sandi:                       Sure.

Sharon:                    Made friends with musicians. Started to go out to the townships. Visiting schools. Pretty soon, I managed to get a little bit of work doing workshops here and there for the local performing arts councils. South Africa’s a developed country. There are things that are happening in South Africa. There was certain people that recognized my talent. They needed what I had to offer and they would hire me to do things here and there. Then I heard about an opportunity, through the local performing arts council, where they wanted a choir. They had room on their calendar for a choral production. I applied for the position. I got the job, and then I told them that I wanted to mount a 500 voice choir. They thought I was around the bend.

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Sharon:                    Totally [Laughing]

Sandi:                       That’s a great expression. [Laughing]

Sharon:                    Crazy. Basically, everybody said you’ll never be able to do that, but go ahead and try. The stage is there. You can do whatever you want. Marilyn also thought I was around the bend, but she, she’s got used to the fact that I do have these ideas. We set about doing just that. We had to travel from early in the morning until late at night to go to all these separated township areas.

Sandi:                       And then, it comes together, and how does that work among the children? How did they handle it?

Sharon:                    Oh, that’s a really good question because when we would go to the black townships, the kids would say to me, straight up. White children are not going to sing these songs. They didn’t believe that children were going to sing, for example, one of my songs. It was called, The Time is Right Today. {Singing} The time is right today, my buya, my buya Africa.

                                 So my buya Africa means, Africa’s coming back. It was a slogan from the struggle. Then it says: {Singing} The world is changing and the time is right to walk together into the light. It’s time for changing and re-arranging. We’ve got to sing together black and white.

                                 So now, this was revolutionary. The black kids wouldn’t believe that the white kids would be singing these lyrics.

Sandi:                       Well of course.

Sharon:                    I would tell them, yes they are. From here, we are going to be driving forty five minutes back into town, back into the city of Durban, which by the way is where my mother comes from, Durban. And, we are going to be teaching at the Durban girls’ school which is my mother’s school also. Armamata. We are going to be teaching these kids at Durban girls and Durban boys. These white kids, they’re going to sing these songs and these lyrics. It was a stretch of imagination for a lot of the children, but they were enjoying themselves. They love music. When it all came together and we brought all the choirs together in city hall, for the first time, it was unbelievable. We had five hundred children rubbing shoulders with each other. But we separated them into their voice parts. That’s how the mixing started was because we had children from all schools. Rubbing shoulders with each other singing alto, singing tenor, singing soprano, singing bass. Then I would physically go to the kids and I would say, look. I grew up under Apartheid. Those days are over now. We can live together. Things are changing. I really I motivated them. I would move them physically and say, okay. Let’s break it up now. Let’s have everybody standing together. As a mixer. Let’s mix it up. I would speak in Zulu and different languages. The kids loved it.

Sandi:                       If you’re just joining us, my guest today is Sharon Katz. Born in Port Elizabeth South Africa. She’s a musician, she’s a teacher and she also is the founder of the Peace Train. Sharon, these 500 boys and girls are singing around the country and you’re figuring out how the hell are we going to get them from point A to point B, and that’s how the Peace Train came to be.

Sharon:                    That’s absolutely right, Sandi. We started in Durban, and we did two massive concerts in Durban City Hall. That was all that there was funding for. It was, it’s always been for the love of it. It’s really, I think, if I wanted to make money I would have never chosen to do what I do. [Laughing]

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Sharon:                    It’s always scraping, my whole life, and that’s how the project was from the beginning. It was, because we had to have shirts made, we had to find sponsors for busses to bring all the children together. We had to get sponsorship to make, for each child to wear a shirt the same color so that it was, it looked beautiful. They were like these purple colored shirts. We did these two concerts I think in Durban, then we did another concert in one of the townships and then that was it. There was no more money. It was like, what can we do? We really have to take the message around the country. The concerts had been filmed by the broadcasting corporation of South Africa, and also they broadcast us on radios. So people were phoning and saying, when can we see this, we need to see this, we need to hear this message. That’s what prompted us to try to mount the project by rail. We said, let’s see if we can go by train.

Sandi:                       How long was the Peace Train rumbling through South Africa?

Sharon:                    The Peace Train tour itself was actually eleven days and eleven nights. It was so, I don’t know what words to use for this tour. It was almost euphoric, although it was happening during a civil war. We were threatened. It wasn’t easy. There were people that didn’t want to see this happen, but the forces of good were stronger than the forces of evil. You had Mandela. You had, it was the run up to the elections. It was before elections. Nelson Mandela was everywhere on television. Constantly. Talking about peace.

Sandi:                       Did you know Mandela personally?

Sharon:                    I met him through that time. I actually met him. I performed for his 75th birthday. I had a multi-cultural band. He loved it. He spoke to me and he just said such beautiful words that really inspired me for the rest of my life.

Sandi:                       Here are these children, and friendships are forged that carry them into adulthood, because that’s was evident in the documentary. As these adults now are reflecting back to what it was like to be a black child or a while child or a colored child singing altogether.

Sharon:                    Oh, yea. It had a tremendous impact on them, Sandi, because they were at the forefront of the change. This generation of children that we worked with. They are really marked forever. It’s obvious in the interviews because they just spoke from the heart about their experience. They had, these kids had a tremendous opportunity, not only did they sing in a big choir of 500 and travel around the country by train. Some of them traveled to America with me. They traveled to West Africa with me. They performed all over. All over South Africa. They were like little celebrities. [Laughing] They really. We also had a leadership component. Leadership training program as a part of what we were doing. Marilyn and I are both therapists. I was a music therapist, still am. We ran our groups as therapeutic communities where children learn to develop a sense of trust. It was like a family .Like a big family. Involving the parents as well from all these different communities. We really moved as a collective.

Sandi:                       Your based now in Philadelphia, but you go back and forth.

Sharon:                    I do. I do. My base in America is Philadelphia but my home is really Durban South Africa. When I go to South Africa. I don’t own a home, actually, I don’t own a home anywhere.

Sandi:                       So, you’re free to come and go and do whatever you want. And that’s just such a good thing.

Sharon:                    Yea, in some ways it does give you that freedom. The children in Philadelphia, I’m sorry, in Durban. Many of them are almost like our own children. A couple of them, we really took care of in a large way because they came from very difficult situations. Some of them. They’re very successful today. It’s amazing how well they’re doing.

Sandi:                       What’s in the future for you, Sharon? I know the documentary, When Voices Meet. You’re promoting that, but what’s going on for you personally and professionally?

Sharon:                    It’s just, Sandi, I’m almost at a, it’s a new era in a way. Because of the film. I feel that the film has got so much potential for education. Not only abroad and in America and other countries, but also in South Africa. In my deepest heart, I would love to go back to South Africa for a period of time and travel with the film and in association with the film continue as I will everywhere doing concerts. But in South Africa, I would like to do some more training and development workshops. Just continue. The message is really needed at home as well. It’s needed to, the inspiration and the positive message is very much needed in South Africa still today. We’ve got tremendous challenges in South Africa to overcome. I’m a performer, I’m an artist and that’s also my big deep love. I just hope that the film will also help the Peace Train band to become more well-known so we can also continue performing worldwide.

Sandi:                       And you take the Sharon Katz Peace Train on the road.

Sharon:                    Yea, we do. We go as a band. I don’t travel with a choir anymore because it’s just too

Sandi:                       Unwieldy, right?

Sharon:                    It’s really. We did. We traveled as a thirty five member production for many, many years and it’s just with finances, it’s so, so taxing. Even as a five or six or seven piece band it’s a challenge. But, yea, we travel. Wherever we get invited. We love to go and perform. Do shows. We like to do residencies if we can. We were actually residented on a college campus or in a high school, where we can really impact on the children and the students over a period of weeks. A couple of days and culminating in a production.

Sandi:                       What you do is just so invaluable and you know what I don’t get, Sharon, [Laughing] how come you haven’t been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Sharon:                    Thank you so much.

Sandi:                       It was such a pleasure to get to know you better and to talk with you. You just do the most wonderful work. You’re inspirational, and I would like, Sharon Katz and the Peace Train to serenade us as we end this conversation. It has been, honestly, my honor Sharon.

Sharon:                    Thank you so much for your interest, for your support, and just to continue promoting the cause of peace and equal rights and opportunities.

Sandi:                       Join us for another edition of Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein.

Peace Train Singing




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