South Africa abounds with musicians and has produced world-famous artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba.
Yet music lessons are no longer offered in the vast majority of the country’s public schools. The government argues that music isn’t a priority in education.
The Sidewalk Sessions initiative in Johannesburg begs to differ, and is turning underprivileged children into budding performing artists.
It’s the brainchild of Kelly Grevler, a highly accomplished young musician with university degrees in music performance and theory and the music business. She’s also completing a master's degrees in music neuroscience and psychology.
WATCH: Related Sidewalk Sessions video
Grevler's aim is to give music lessons to kids that the schools don't provide. Her tools for doing so are old guitars she's collected, which she distributes to her eager students.
Her initiative, so far, is the work of a one-woman band. On this hot summer’s day in central Johannesburg, Grevler, sporting bright red lipstick and wearing a white vest and jeans, is teaching guitar to some children on a sidewalk under a tree.
Grevler is proud that her students learn, despite the lack of resources. They bang on old guitars on a grubby pavement, seated on plastic chairs, as traffic streams past.
“They are reading music. They are reading actual notes, on music notation. It is so incredible," she said. "And this is very informal; we don’t even have equipment; we don’t have music stands; we’ve got little pieces of paper [on which she writes the music] and we just manage to do it.”
She plans to help some of her more successful pupils enroll in music schools.
Grevler’s pupils are poor. Some live in inner-city buildings controlled by slumlords, with no water and electricity.
Some of the children are exposed to violence and abuse, and often don’t have food, let alone access to music lessons, which in South Africa are available only to a privileged few able to afford private lessons.
Grevler insists that her business is music, not social work.
“I am their guitar teacher; they are here for guitar only and they come, they have their lesson, and they go home. Unfortunately, I’m not in the position to get involved [in their circumstances at home],” she said.
Cares for kids
But it’s clear that Grevler cares immensely for the kids, giving them guitars to practice on and thereby giving them joy and skill that may in the future allow them to escape poverty.
“I didn’t choose to do this; it kind of chose me, and it’s fun,” she said. “I think I have a little bit more fun than the kids, usually. And I love teaching; I’m passionate about music education. And this is such a cool way to give them a skill, and maybe ignite a passion for something that they would never have explored otherwise, because they’re shut off to it at their schools.”
For Grevler, watching new students strum a guitar is always a “thrill.”
“Oh, they love it, hey! The first time is always my favorite, because they’re smiling and they’re quite shocked that they can actually do it, that they do actually have coordination and they can do it.”
As a couple of kids thrash out the chords to the classic sea shanty Drunken Sailor, Grevler enthuses that some of her pupils are “lightning-fast” learners.
Gazing proudly at a little boy and girl, she said, “I cannot even fathom the talent in those two kids. Music is in them! I think that the little boy, he’ll definitely do music as a career. That’s what he wants to be! He wants to be a musician, that’s what he tells me. So that’s really cool.”
Grevler said her students’ enthusiasm “knows no bounds” — like one who recently “doorstepped” her.
“And I walked out of my building and one of my students, a little boy, ran up to me, across the street. … And he says, ‘You’ll never believe what Father Christmas is bringing me for Christmas.’ So I was like, ‘What?’ So he’s like, ‘A guitar!’ And I just thought, out of everything this little 10-year-old could want for Christmas, he wants a guitar. It’s unbelievable.”
She’s adamant that the children teach her much more than she teaches them.
“Patience, more than anything. … They want to be here; no one’s telling them to come. They come, and they learn, and they remember. And they remember everything I tell them. … This informal teaching environment actually works, which is amazing!”
Rihanna, Bieber ... but no Minaj
Grevler said her students aren’t shy to demand that she teaches them “very specific” songs on guitar.
“We always do Rihanna songs; they absolutely love Rihanna. We’ve also done some Justin Bieber. We tried to do a Nicky Minaj song once, but there’s way too much swearing so I banned that song. Not happening!” she said, smiling.
Suddenly a crescendo of children’s voices rose on the pavement. Tourists stopped and stared; their cameras clicked and their smartphones filmed.
Grevler’s proteges were performing a very adept version of Rihanna’s hit song Diamonds.
She said she has no doubt that some of them will be professional musicians in the near future.
“I won’t be surprised at all if some of them are better than me,” she quipped, before adding, “Well, that’s my plan.”