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15 March 2021
Helping Students’ Creative Voices Be Heard

For the many families involuntarily displaced by apartheid’s Group Areas Act, music - be it jazz, choral, or instrumental - was often the only thing keeping them connected to their roots and history. 

It certainly was the one constant for Henriette Weber, Director of the Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), whose family lived in the shadow of the forced removals that took place, and navigated this legacy by working to create better opportunities for their communities. 

She has written about her experience of music, and teaching music, within an “ever-changing socio-political educational environment”, in the recently published seminal book, My Body was left on the Street. 

Edited by Professor Kinh Vu and Professor Andre de Quadros from Boston University in the United States, it is the first ever work examining music education and displacement. Weber’s chapter, “Taking back Cape Town: Music Education in the Townships”, provides an honest insight into her musical journey, coming from a family where everyone was either a musician, a music teacher or an organist, to being one of the few Coloured music students in a predominantly white academic environment, to creating opportunities for instrumental music at under-resourced schools, and providing the resources for music practitioners - students and community musicians - to create better access to music in the townships. 

“There were already many choirs at schools, but acquiring instruments was a challenge. After graduating from UWC, I taught at primary schools, in the communities of Westridge, Gugulethu and Montana, as I believed that quality music education should take place at the youngest age possible,” said Weber. She also provided formal music education in informal settings, such as at the Field Band Foundation.  

In 2003, Weber was appointed as the Outreach and Education Manager at the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra to start a youth orchestra and wind ensemble. “These ensembles would be unique in that students were auditioned from various musical backgrounds, and would also include community musicians and high school learners who attended schools that did not offer music” said Weber. The seating arrangements were such that the “haves and have-nots” sat next to each other to encourage sharing. Said Weber: “The outcome was learning and teaching while performing and rehearsing together – crossing every possible divide.”

She returned to UWC in 2011 as head of the Centre for the Performing Arts, and has continued to create opportunities for community musicians to engage within a professional environment. “Since, 2016, due to #FeesMustFall, we started music programmes for special needs learners at the Athlone School for the Blind in Glenhaven and the Oasis Special School in Belhar.” She added that with COVID-19, all music courses in the past year were taught online and the 2020 academic year was concluded on schedule with all assessments – practical and theory – completed. 

Weber is also involved in the Performing Arts Research Project to conduct research to strengthen the performing arts in the Humanities across all Bachelor of Education programmes; working with schools, art departments, Faculties of Education and community arts projects.

The Centre for the Performing Arts has taken inclusion a step further by developing curriculum for community music practitioners. “The journey of developing curriculum to meet the community’s needs is an ongoing process. We pride ourselves on the fact that some community music practitioners do not have a National Senior Certificate, but they are able to complete a music teaching qualification. This means that the quality of music education improves in the townships.” 

Music continues to play a role in cementing a sense of place, said Weber. “It needs to be encouraged as a means of expression. Musicians must be given the support and guidance to make sound choices when producing and marketing their work. In this way, their voices will be heard.” 

This is evident when professional artists give a voice to movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, or when local groups, such as The Pedestrians - with UWC student Simon van Harte as bass guitarist - make their mark on local radio. “We need our students’ voices to be heard in the genre of their choice”. 

Weber revealed that she admires the work of Barbara Streisand, who, like many of the musicians and students she encounters at the Centre for the Performing Arts and the communities in which she works, overcame countless obstacles and difficulties to become an accomplished musician. “I am fortunate in that,  through the various opportunities that have come my way, I have been able to teach, develop and facilitate programmes where children and youth from disadvantaged communities can be empowered to become independent artists and musicians.”

My Body was left on the Street. Editors and contributors: Professor Kinh Vu and Professor Andre de Quadros, Boston University. 

Published in July 2020 by Brill in the Netherlands