Isn’t it amazing how so often we fail to see treasures in plain sight .We don’t know it’s there until someone points it out and often can’t believe we didn’t see it ourselves. I came across one such treasure in Durban’s “back yard”. Albert Park has over the years developed a reputation for being the “hood” of the city, yet it houses one of the most vibrant and influential music schools in the province of Kwazulu Natal. Their focus is to give learners (mostly orphaned and vulnerable children) who would otherwise not be able to study, the opportunity to learn music on full bursaries.
When I first heard about the Paw Paw foundation, I just thought it was a cute name someone used because they needed a banner for a company. I had the honour of meeting and interviewing the head of the Durban Music School (DMS), Mrs. Kim Matthews who explained the story behind the Paw Paw foundation who has been mainly funded by Frontline Underwriters for over 10 years, and how this has birthed a youth jazz band who are already making waves around the world.
Now before I tell you about this accomplished Youth jazz big band who believe it or not, after only 3 months of playing together were invited to be the headline act for a concert at a Mauritian Conservatoire in 2013, I have to tell you about Paul Meyers. He is a Durban business man (owner of Frontline Underwriters) who a few years ago decided to give away a portion of his company’s earnings each month and is probably the reason there is a Paw Paw foundation, without which this jazz band probably wouldn’t’ exist today.
“One day a co-worker, Zelda brought the most perfect paw-paw to work. She had been fascinated by this wonderful fruit that she had picked off her tree at home and felt she had to bring it into the office to show everybody how perfect it was. There wasn’t a mark on it, not a single blemish and even though it was a large fruit the birds had not made one hole in it. All day Paul was entranced with this beautiful paw-paw and by the end of the day Zelda said to him he must please take the paw-paw home seeing as he was fascinated. He was really happy and was looking forward to sharing the paw-paw with his family that evening. As he drove out of his office a beggar appeared at his window. Paul looked for some loose change to give him and for the first time in his life could not find a cent lying around in his car or in his wallet. He only had the incredible, delicious super fruit with him. He rolled down his window and gave the man the paw-paw, the blessing! The Paw-Paw Foundation was born and we have tried to pass on a blessing ever since.”
The Durban Music School has over 450 students this year who are taught solely by 36 part time staff, including junior teachers who have come through the programme themselves. DMS has a clearly defined vision of what they wish to achieve through the programme keeping their motto of “passing the blessing on”, and they do this by empowering learners who have gone through at least grade 7 or 8 to be teachers in the programme. The junior teachers programme came about after the school realized that once the learners had finished school they would have to stop studying music, as they would need to seek employment. The school then offered the learner’s the chance to continue their studies in music and also gave them the opportunity to earn an income by teaching younger DMS learners.
In 2013, Mrs. Matthews saw an opportunity to grow the programme beyond its classical foundation, when she learnt that American saxophonist professor Salim Washington was in Durban on a teaching post at the University of Kwazulu Natal. He holds a doctorate in American History from Harvard University and is a Fulbright scholar. She invited professor Salim to do a six-hour music workshop with her advanced performers, determined to expose them to more challenging pieces of music. Due to a drastic improvement in the students playing just from one workshop, she invited Professor Salim to train and conduct the Youth Jazz Big Band. The band consists of 16 members who have grade 7,8, their licentiate or a degree in music. It was their first introduction to a jazz syllabus but they took to it like ducks to water astounding everyone who have had the pleasure of hearing them.
What impressed me is the discipline and dedication of all these students. Most of the students live in impoverished areas and have had to deal with many challenges in their young lives. This programme has given so many learners the ability to dream again. The students are given instruments ranging from brass to woodwind and even keyboards to take their homes so that they can practice. Donors of the Durban Music School have generously sponsored all these instruments. It takes much dedication and time to secure such funding and Mrs. Matthews is to be commended for her hours of dedication and love to making sure that these children have this opportunity year after year.
One keyboard student lives in a home without electricity. To make sure that he has the means to practice, the school has arranged that batteries to be supplied on a monthly basis ensuring that he can practice and therefore progress. The learners have found hope through music and especially this programme. They are passionate and determined to create a better future for themselves and having the assistance of DMS is invaluable to each beneficiary.
Coming back to the Mauritian conservatoire performance in 2013. The band was invited to be the headline act for the Lakka Lakka Millenium Stars Concert. There were 10000 entries in this competition from Zambia, South Africa, Mauritius and Rodrigues. The Youth Jazz Big Band was the highlight of the concert to show young musicians the level of excellence that they should strive for. The finale of the concert saw the big band being joined on stage by 80 musicians from the Mauritian Conservatoire. Oh how I would have loved to see that!
After only a few months of playing together in the Youth Jazz big band, one of the students Cele Ngema (24) who is a trumpeter in the big band, took the initiative to start his own jazz band consisting of 7 members of the Youth Jazz Big Band. They practice weekly and focus mainly on Afro jazz material that they play skillfully without charts. This in my opinion is the greatest testament to a successful programme. Clearly these learners are being inspired to the degree that they in turn inspire others. When a student becomes a mentor and teacher himself that is just priceless. I am certain that Cele is soon going to be a household name in South Africa.
The Durban Music School has been producing students of such a high caliber they have become highly sought after by the South African military bands. This often means that the students aren’t able to complete their studies in music. Yet when one considers the level that they are able to play at in such a short space of time, one has to acknowledge the strength of this music programe. Two of the members of the Youth Jazz Big have been awarded scholarships to study overseas this year. Ndabo Zulu (trumpeter) leaves for Norway later this year and Maxine Matthews (jazz saxophone) who is also the leader of the school’s Big Band leaves for Berklee College of Music in Boston.
The DMS Youth Jazz Band is set for greater things ahead of them. At the rate that they are going at I am sure we will hear much more of their accolades in the months to come. The band has once again been invited to headline for a concert in Mauritius in April this year.
To think that all of this was started by a simple idea planted in a man’s mind when he saw a paw paw. If one man can cause such a ripple effect in young peoples live, I am certain that you can play a part in it too.