Riding the Peace Train

“I just want to get kids together, dispelling stereotypes and singing along in harmony and joy."

Sharon Katz (photo credit: PR)
Sharon Katz
(photo credit: PR)
In South Africa, when I was growing up, if a black man raped a white woman, the punishment was death by hanging. If a white man raped a black woman, there were no major consequences; white-on-black violence didn’t really count. In that South Africa there were two doors to the post office and two doors to the bank. One was for “Europeans” (though most whites had never set foot in Europe); the other was for “Non-Europeans” (blacks, colored and Indians). If a black was born in Belgium, say, and found himself in Johannesburg, he would discover, to his horror, that he was a “non-European.” White Australians suddenly switched into Europeans on landing at Jan Smuts Airport. Our grandparents, who left Europe to be African and free, found that their offspring were European, despite geography. They were lucky; Africans were the opposite of free.
Only Europeans could vote. Only Europeans could play international sport. It was forbidden to drink with a non-European, see a movie together or go to school with one. The washrooms were segregated, as well as the buses and the hospitals. Whites had the best facilities in the world; Blacks made do with next to nothing. South Africa was an apartheid state; it invented the word.
Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. In the four-year run-up to the first democratic elections, the country exploded with violence. Pent-up black rage clashed with reactionary white fear; race riots erupted, policemen went wild. Many whites emigrated in haste; those that stayed were super worried. And into all this chaos slipped a young white musician with a dream: a vision of uniting voices and souls.
Sharon Katz, singer/songwriter and music therapist, grew up in the sleepy South African city of Port Elizabeth, and soon became involved in the underground anti-apartheid movement. In the early 1990s, after studying abroad, she was lured back home by the promise of better days ahead. In Durban she met Nonhlanhla Wanda, singer and teacher of Zulu children. Together they began a musical program in remote rural areas. Singing was born under the blue skies of Africa; the children dived into the songs that Katz composed, making them throb with the magic of the bush.
Zulu music heats up hearts, the boom boom boom of the beat sets brain cells fizzing. Very soon When Voices Meet was introduced to various schools, and children of all colors were jiving to the sounds.
“Then we started to fly,” Katz explains. “I decided to form a 500-voice choir of kids from across the spectrum – white, black, colored, Indian, and anything in between.”
Katz, her partner Marilyn Cohen, a social worker and mental health director from Philadelphia, and Wanda trawled school districts, co-opting music teachers and pupils and singing with them all. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Zulu group that gives Paul Simon’s song “Graceland” its hypnotic beat, joined the fun. Six months later, a huge interracial event was mounted in Durban’s city hall.
South African radio and TV broadcast this groundbreaking happening; and it was crazy. For the first time in their lives, black and white parents mingled freely as they applauded their children and sang along. The atmosphere was electric and jubilant. The concert became a celebration of what the new South Africa could look like – a rainbow nation of swaying, singing energy. It was too good a gig to be over in one night; the next day, the phone didn’t stop ringing. Cape Town wanted a tour, and Pietermaritzburg and Port Elizabeth.
Katz and Co. hired a train and insisted that the compartments be desegregated. They called it the Peace Train. South African Railways (SAR) was not impressed. Black backsides and white sitting on the same seats seemed sacrilegious at the time. SAR inflated the price of meals in the dining car as a deterrent. Every hurdle was met with a minor miracle – Kellogg’s delivered wagonloads of cereal so kids could eat on their bunks. Parents jumped on board, sometimes very bravely.
“One mother stood up and said that if her daughter had to die on this mission, then she had died doing the right thing,” Katz recalls. “That was pretty powerful.”
The choir, pared down to 100 kids and a 12-piece band, traveled through the country, making their magic to rapturous applause from (mixed) audiences wherever they stopped. And then the invitations from the US started flooding in.
Next up was the Peace Plane. An SAA Boeing jetted 40 of the original choir to the US for six weeks, where they met singer Joni Mitchell, toured the White House and performed from coast to coast. Many of the kids had never left their villages before this adventure began; some credit the choir with having saved them from a life on the streets. And, of course, each voice was raised with praise for friends across all social/political/ color coordinates.
Now Katz wants to replicate the model here.
What’s the connection?
Yes, we know the buzz: Israel is reportedly an apartheid state, too. Campuses worldwide dedicate whole weeks and huge budgets to castigating us for being racists and revolting. The allegations are easy to refute: Jews and Arabs give birth in adjacent beds, sleeping in the same wards; Arab doctors treat Jewish ailments; Jewish girls are not forbidden by law to date Arab men. Arabs vote in Israel’s parliament, and Arab members of Knesset can berate the country from the podium. Israel is not an apartheid state.
And yet.
Our little country has its share of distrust, a dislike of others that spills over into hatred. Horrible conflicts erupt far too often. Not everyone on the West Bank can vote in our elections, no matter how hard we say that we’re all equal here. Separate roads? Separate schools? Um ... I know it’s complicated. Give them a state, and bombs may fall; they may even obliterate my house, which would stand just minutes from the border. It’s a scary thought. Don’t give them a state, and our claim of democracy and decency falters a little… It’s an ongoing dead-end discussion.
Katz does not go there.
“I just want to get kids together, dispelling stereotypes and singing along in harmony and joy,” she says. “The rest will follow in its own time.”
The guitars are tuned, and joyous music is waiting to hit the vocal cords of kids from every part of Israel and beyond. Various organizations are interested in helping; musicians are eager to jump on board. All that’s lacking now is a few thousand dollars. As soon as Katz can raise the funds, voices will meet in the Holy Land too, and make sweet sounds together.
Hallelujah, that can’t be bad.
For more details, visit www.SharonKatz.com
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC. peledpam@gmail.com