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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Howe

WHY 'NKOSI SIKELEL' iAFRIKA'?

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

In the late 1990s, I visited South Africa on a tour with a ballet company. We flew to Cape Town and spent a week there, then went to Pretoria and on to Johannesburg. It was an incredible trip and it meant a lot to me because in the years leading up to us going I was very interested in South Africa as a country.

My mother and I had started to read the books written by Sir Laurens Van der Post which were mostly set in South Africa. He had said that the stories he told in his books were based on the years he spent in the country and that they were based on true events. Of course it transpired later that he had lied about his life and that he had made most of these stories up. It was tragic in some ways, but the books were fantastic and lovely to read so I decided that I could deal with them not being true.


As a result of reading these books I developed an interest and a fascination with what was going on in South Africa politically. Nelson Mandela had been released, apartheid had ended and the black South Africans had finally been given the vote. I was ecstatic about all of that. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to have the opportunity to visit the country.


We saw many amazing things on that trip but the most thrilling thing was that we were asked by the management if any of us would like to go to Soweto for a morning to present a music workshop with some young string players who lived there. A group of four of us from the orchestra agreed to go. As our mini bus lurched towards Soweto, we were apprehensive because we had no information about who would be there, or what we were expected to do with anyone who was there. The bus dropped us off at a building that was not unlike a community centre. The place was empty. The bus drove off and left us. We sat in a big room, waiting, wondering why we had ever agreed to do it. But over the next thirty minutes a few youngsters showed up, one by one: violinists, and a couple of cellists. Playing-wise they were of various standards. We discussed what to do and we decided to teach them a Scottish tune which could be played as a round. Sadly, I can't remember now what tune it was, but we wrote out specific parts for the differing abilities and then we sat down in a circle and began to play. It started off quite chaotic but as we played it over and over again, it began to come together. We knew the children were enjoying it because they just didn't want to stop playing!

At lunchtime one of the girls, Jacqueline, took me for a walk around the neighbourhood and she told me about her family and her dreams for the future. I very much enjoyed hearing about her life. When we arrived back at the centre, everyone was playing the round again. When the children stopped they asked if they could play us something and they played 'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika' ('God Bless Africa' - the South African national anthem). They played with so much conviction and pride and we were all moved to tears.


I realised at that moment that despite our indescribably different backgrounds, through our experience of playing music together we were sharing something unique between us. Our differences melted away as we played together. This was such a clear demonstration of the power of music and I had never before seen that so starkly.

We said our goodbyes. The image of the youngsters turning to wave good-bye to us as they sauntered nonchalantly away down the road, their violin cases swinging in the hot wind, dust swirling around them, is something I will never forget.


And so this is the reason why I have arranged this national anthem. I've wanted to arrange it for years but could never decide quite how to do it. I've settled on a string quartet version. Below is the version I have come up with. If you read the information about the piece, on the product page, you can learn more about the piece of music itself, where the tune came from, and how it became the national anthem of South Africa.



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