View of The Peace Train

The Peace Train

By Sharon Katz

This article will attempt to tell the story of how I have used music therapy and harmony to help end the evil Apartheid regime in the old South Africa and aid in the transition process. I would like to acknowledge my colleague, former administrator for mental health for the city of Philadelphia, Marilyn Cohen, who has been helping to keep The Peace Train on track for 18 years. Without her expertise and dedication, we could not have done it.

I Created A Model of African Music Therapy that Used Music Within an African Context to Address the Therapeutic and Development Issues on the Continent

As a child growing up under the brutal Apartheid regime, it was so painful to watch the government and the police use their powers to disrupt the natural, harmonious flow of human relationships. When I was in elementary school, I remember looking out my window and seeing the long lines of Black South Africans waiting for a bus in the dark to take them home to the townships where they lived, and wondering who was helping their children with their homework.

Television, world news, outside books and a lot of great music was banned by the Apartheid regime, but I was lucky enough to have a small transistor radio and I learned a lot about other cultures by listening to the one African music station.

By the time I was 15, I had already started attending underground gatherings and would hide in the backs of my Black South African friends’ cars, covered over by a blanket, so I could sneak out to the townships to socialize “more normally” and, of course, to play music together. Because it was illegal to mix with other races, we could have all been arrested, or worse - many people who defied the Apartheid laws were never heard from again. But through it all, music had the power to bring us together in a spirit of shared humanity and optimism. The seeds of The Peace Train were sown in those experiences, but I had to travel that “long and winding route” before accomplishing my goal.

As a white person, I was fortunate enough to get a good education – first learning about the values of caring for others and healing the world in my Jewish primary and secondary school, and then at the University of Cape Town where I majored in African Government and Law. I had read about "music therapy," but there wasn’t any training program in South Africa.

After graduation, with my actions so restricted in South Africa under the State of Emergency, I moved across the border into another African country called “Lesotho” and began teaching in a rural village school. Without electricity, running water or other modern conveniences, I taught English during the day and sang with the children and their families all night. It was here that I truly experienced the transformative power of music and became determined to find a way of learning and doing more.

My Model Takes Into Account the Vicious Cycle of Victims of Violence and Oppression Subsequently Becoming Perpetrators of Violence and Crime

In 1981, I left South Africa and travelled to the United States of America to obtain my Masters degree in Music Therapy from Temple University in Philadelphia. I subsequently spent 10 years getting experience and clinical practice in a variety of hospitals, institutions, special education settings and community mental health and mental retardation programs. In the back of my mind throughout all the years of my training and practice, I was always wondering how I would adapt these music therapy theories and techniques in order to be more relevant to the conditions and needs I would find when I returned home.

And then I took a position as a music therapist in a special unit of a prison. It was here that I truly came to understand the vicious cycle of violence and oppression, and where I began to develop my approach that was dubbed “converting gang members into band members.”

Similarly, at several different Special Education institutions, I began to tune-in to the ways in which abused and neglected youth often turned to destructive behavioral patterns in the absence of constructive and creative outlets for their feelings.

And then, the moment we had all waited for arrived: after 27 years in prison, the world famous South African human rights activist, Nelson Mandela, was finally released. Armed with the theoretical background, clinical insights, and experiences gained through my 10 years in the US, I began packing my bags to go home.

South Africa in 1992 was a country on the verge of transition: Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and there was a concerted push for democratic elections, but at the same time, police and third force brutalities were escalating; suspicions of informers abounded; and there were a myriad of groups all vying for political support and control.

Because of the enormity of the effects of the Apartheid system on the people of South Africa, it seemed important to develop new supportive means to utilize my education, skills and talents in ways that would have far-reaching impact.

I knew I had to do something so big that it could affect people on all sides of the South African situation. There was the white minority who had benefitted from Apartheid and didn’t want to give up their power to share the country equally; there were those of various groups who were afraid of change because of all the vicious lies the Apartheid regime had used to make us fear one another; and those who had suffered so long under Apartheid that they couldn’t believe there were still any decent people who really wanted a free and fair South Africa.

I Conceived of a Project Which Would Use the Therapeutic Power of Music to Bring Together Youth of the Previously Separated Races and Cultural Groups in South Africa in a Shared Experience, and a Shared Experience Which Dealt with the Potential for a More Normalised Future in the Country

I, therefore, conceived of forming a 500-voice, multiracial and multicultural performing group of youth and backing them up with my mixed race band – a spectacle so large and so harmonious that it couldn’t be denied. We’d use the therapeutic power of music to bring youth of the previously separated races and cultural groups together in a shared experience and emphasize the potential for a more normalized future in our country – one in which people of all races, cultures and backgrounds are recognized as having skills, aspirations, equal rights, and equal access to opportunities – and we’d have fun in our project while doing it!

Since we still had 4 different educational structures – divided according to Apartheid’s 4 racial designations - our initial project-building efforts involved meeting with the administrative personnel and cultural officers of the four systems. I chose to work in the areas of KwaZulu and Natal because that’s where the violence was the worst.

I Created a 500 Voice Multi Cutural and Multi Racial Youth Choir to Teach Youth to Sing in Each Other’s Languages, to Dance Each Other’s Cultural Dances; and to Perform Together Before a Multi Cultural and Multi Racial Audience – Something Very Unusual for South Africa at That Time

The project’s intention was to teach these children to sing in each other’s languages; to dance each other’s cultural dances; and to perform together in front of a multicultural audience – something unheard of in South Africa at that time. From a therapeutic standpoint, the goal was to create a milieu in which the issues of trust, self esteem, cooperation, and conflict resolution could be addressed. Experience has shown that the act of performing has the potential to improve self esteem, while performing as part of a group forces one to deal with issues of cooperation and conflict resolution. By adding multicultural and multiracial components to this project, we were attempting to create conditions within which the issue of trust could also be addressed.

A Model or Project in Africa Requires Community Sanction

One of the crucial aspects of developing a model or a project in Africa, and indeed in most parts of the world where there is conflict, is that it requires community sanction beyond the consent of an individual or the small group which is directly involved. This issue was particularly important during this period of transition in South Africa, when mistrust remained acutely intense and fear of false accusations of being an informer or collaborating with the enemy was rampant. It was therefore necessary to meet with the cultural officers, the school principals and teachers, and the community leaders and chiefs in addition to the youth and their extended family members in order to gain support for the project. Because South African society was so segregated, this process had to be conducted in nine separate communities in order to involve a cross section of youth from varying races and cultures as well as across rural and urban geographic differences.

In February of 1993, after three months of negotiation with the nine communities, approval was received to begin a weekly music therapy process with youth from all the diverse groups within the KwaZulu-Natal region. I began the project by composing new songs for the youth to sing which focused on issues of trust, understanding, peace, and unity for the future. There were many challenges during this weekly process – each one reinforcing why something like this was so necessary. On several occasions, I was confronted by the black youth who could not believe that the white youth on the other side of town were also learning to sing the lyrics “we’ve got to learn to live together, black and white.”

This disbelief was heightened by the fact that I initially had to rehearse with each group in their separate communities. Finally, after three months of rehearsing separately, the necessary support was acquired in order to bring the 500 youth together to meet each other for the first time and to prepare for the performance. Although in the first of the three joint rehearsals there was a noticeable amount of distrust, fear and “race-clique” separation among the children, by the time of the performance, there were endless exchanges of addresses and phone numbers. “Singing in harmony” became a perfect metaphor for the social harmony that was developing in the group.

A Large Scale Community Event was Created Called “When Voices Meet”

A major therapeutic goal and challenge was to assure that a multicultural and multiracial audience would witness the performance. This would serve to break down the artificially imposed social barriers of the Apartheid system in which each group had been taught to fear and hate those of other racial or cultural groups. Instead, they would experience joy together.

To accomplish this in part, we had to find a sponsor to send one bus to each of the nine communities from which the youth came. While it posed a significant challenge for the transportation departments, for us it was one of the most significant successes as we watched busses that were intended to carry 40 passengers begin arriving at the performance hall filled with between 80 to 200 passengers each.

For a concept which was initially very unpopular and for which I was often told I was “crazy” to attempt, we not only filled the largest venue in the city of Durban to capacity, but we also had to disobey the fire marshal’s regulations and allow extra people to sit in the aisles and on each other’s laps because there was a riot brewing outside from people who were clamoring to get into the concert.

Another extraordinary therapeutic aspect of the project was the way in which the various political parties responded to the concert event. At the time of the concert, which was in May of 1993, each of the country’s various political groups was vying for power and a constituency base. The rate of violence was extremely high and national attempts to forge a Peace Accord had faltered for months. Yet on the night of the concert itself, every political party was represented. Even when radio and TV news crews appeared to cover the event, political agendas were set aside in order to pledge support for the project and for peace and unity. The press reports the following morning said we “should have distributed pens instead of concert programmes that night because the Peace Accord could have been signed at intermission!”

To Test Out Whether Large Scale Community Events Would Have Similar Effects in Other Parts of the Country, We Developed the Peace Train Project

The remaining challenge was to take the “lessons” learned from this large-scale community event and develop them into a model of music therapy interventions that could be applied in smaller and more intense situations, and that could also begin to address the deeper issues resulting from growing up in a violent, oppressive, and disadvantaged society.

As a result of the publicity the first event received, requests flooded in from across South Africa for additional performances. In an effort to respond, and to test whether the large-scale community event model would have similar effects in other parts of the country, the concept of The Peace Train Project was developed. Our vision was to create a moving billboard that travelled throughout the country, demonstrating what would be possible in a NEW South Africa.

These were still very violent times, and most people thought I was really crazy to take such a controversial project across the country in such a public way. But in meetings with the youth and their families, we all agreed: it was a risk we were willing to take because none of us wanted to live in a segregated and unequal society any longer. After much pleading and begging, a few sponsors finally agreed to help us hire a 12-coach long train for the group’s 10-day journey throughout the country. All along the route, The Peace Train would stop in various communities, offering concerts which promoted a message of peace during this turbulent transition to democracy. In addition, because we lived together in mixed-race compartments onboard The Peace Train, we were also showing people of all backgrounds that South Africans could live together harmoniously and without fear.

We Purposely Selected Youth from Communities Where the Effects of Violence, Poverty and Oppression had been Severely Felt. For Example -Youth Who Were Living with Hunger on a Daily Basis, No Electricity or Running Water

Youth performing with the Peace Train were purposefully selected from communities where the effects of violence, poverty and oppression had been severely felt. Those from the rural communities lived with hunger on a daily basis, had no electricity or running water, were taught in classrooms of 100 students to 1 teacher, and had no role models of adults who were gainfully employed in occupations outside of domestic work or migrant labor in the mines. Those from the townships had also been brutalized by the Apartheid system. To be sure that the project was fully representative of South Africa’s diversity, we also included more privileged youth from the white communities, including both English-speaking and Afrikaners –the group associated with the Apartheid system.

Converting Gang Members to Band Members

Only 10% of South Africans were white. Since the other 90% had been denied any semblance of normal resources and opportunities, many of these children had previously found a sense of belonging and achieved status in their communities by becoming gang members. It was a classic case of “preferring to be wanted for murder rather than not being wanted at all.” But as soon as our project began and the youth were given constructive outlets for leadership and creativity, The Peace Train Project developed a reputation for converting these same gang members into hard-working band members.

Despite threats from both the far right and the far left political camps, neither of which was supportive of Nelson Mandela’s vision for a nonracial democracy, The Peace Train embarked on its first journey in December of 1993. At each stop along the route, thousands of people met the train at the station and participated in the concerts that were held.

Local choirs were also trained so that they could join The Peace Train’s core performing group when the train arrived and then continue the same spirit in their area once the train pulled out of the station. Community leaders and teachers were all trained in some basic music therapy techniques to help them resolve some of typical issues encountered in these new human relations.

The following video was filmed by South African Broadcasting Corporation as they traveled with The Peace Train in December 2003

Preparation for Performance as the Means Through Which Participants Would Deal with the Therapeutic Issues – The Parallel Process of Singing in Harmony and Learning to Live in Harmony

While replicating the large community event model had clearly succeeded, the challenge of a more intensive, therapeutic model still remained. To fulfill this need, a smaller group of 35 of the youth were selected for involvement in a demonstration project. Preparation for performance was again chosen as the means through which these children might deal with the therapeutic issues of low self esteem, effective conflict resolution, anger management, and constructive cooperation toward mutually agreed upon goals.

The 35 youth selected were a representative microcosm of South Africa in the 1990’s and embodied all of the issues previously described. They ranged in age from 9-19 years. Although all the youth selected had displayed musical talent, one vision of this extension project was to demonstrate that their performance level would excel further in response to music therapy interventions provided to help deal with issues of self esteem. In addition, youth were selected who were known to have particularly difficult and/or traumatic backgrounds and who were in need of the therapeutic healing that involvement in a music therapy project could bring. Almost all came from single-parent families or were being raised by extended family members. Most had alcoholic or abusive family members, or had been abandoned and were living in orphanages. Some were gang members; others had been victims or witnesses to horrible gang violence and rape.

Music Terapy Techniques Used to Develop the Members’ Skills in Conflict Resolution

The Peace Train was run as a therapeutic community wherein issues were confronted as they emerged and worked through within the group. Manifestations of these issues could be detected in the way the members jockeyed for positions in the choir formation or responded to opportunities for special roles. Issues that arose varied from the recalled incidences of violence that a child had witnessed on the way to a Peace Train session; family problems; jealousies and accusations directed toward the group members by other members of their community for having been selected to be in The Peace Train; and the fear of success of the members themselves.

Dealing with Anger and Resentment Felt by Disenfranchised Segments of South African Society

We recognized that we couldn’t include everyone in our project. To both increase the impact and develop the leadership skills of The Peace Train youth, we required that every member undertook some action in their community to promote a positive change. From a general development perspective, it was interesting to note the changing reactions within communities from which The Peace Train members came. Communities that had previously been suspicious of the goals of the project and which, in some cases, had harassed group members for “thinking they were so special,” soon began to display pride in having a fellow member of the community perform for the President or travel overseas as an ambassador of the country. Outward manifestations of these changes were easier to notice, such as: clean-up campaigns initiated in the community; school walls painted; windows repaired; and community events organized so that other talented members of the area could perform alongside The Peace Train group. Although further research would be required to objectively determine the nature and extent of the effects of The Peace Train within the communities involved, the following additional outcomes were also noted: a large number of the involved teachers subsequently pursued further education; parents who had previously been unemployed sought employment or developed small businesses; and community arts centers began to develop.

Observable growth amongst The Peace Train members was seen as marginal students began earning top rankings in school; timeliness, general neatness, and appearance improved; introverted individuals became more communicative; gang membership disintegrated; and initiative and creativity blossomed. In addition, Peace Train members began to implement community development projects of their own such as clean-up campaigns, after-school tutoring, and activity clubs.

In 1995, 32 of The Peace Train’s youth members joined my professional band for a 5-week performance tour in the United States. We toured to 8 cities and included performances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Disney World, Harlem, university campuses, and the Duke Ellington School for Performing Arts in Washington DC. The Peace Train choir also recorded a number of songs with me as part of the “Crystal Journey” album, and performed on several occasions for President Mandela, as well as for US Vice-President Al Gore and numerous ambassadors and foreign dignitaries.

Perhaps these esteem-boosting performance opportunities influenced the longer term benefits noted from participation in The Peace Train. By the end of 1997, 5 years after the project had begun, no members of The Peace Train had been involved in criminal activity or belonged to a gang. In a country plagued by teenage pregnancy, no one had become pregnant in the 3 years before the 1995 tour; 15 Peace Train members attended universities; all of the members completed high school; one became the country’s first female pilot; one is a business executive in a top South African corporation; two are entrepreneurs in their own small businesses; and one became a renowned sound engineer and producer in South Africa. These results are particularly significant as South Africa had a reported 38.8% unemployment rate in 1995. By contrast, 86% of The Peace Train project members are now gainfully employed and supporting their families.

A short video that shows the development of the project:

In 2004 we Formed the Non Profit Friends of the Peace Train to Raise Money and Implement Programs in South Africa that Would Respond to Important Needs in South Africa such as HIV and AIDS Prevention and Education in Rural Areas

The woman you saw at the end of the video who asked for our help was as original member of the project dating back to 1992. She is now a teacher and Head of Department in a school where most of the children live in shacks and come to school hungry every day. Her extraordinary commitment to these children propelled me to establish a base in the United States from which I could fundraise more effectively. In 2004, we formed a non-profit organization called “Friends of The Peace Train” and were able to start a school lunch program for her school as well as provide music enrichment activities and support to help the children deal with the many challenges in their young lives.

During the video, you also saw Mama Mary talk about housing 165 children in her 8-room house. Through Friends of The Peace Train as well as support from churches, Mama Mary has been able to get a piece of land and build several dormitories, a large kitchen, a day care center, and a cultural enrichment program for the children.

Working with a Graduate of the Peace Train to Build the School in Kwangcolosi, South Africa

Three years ago, one of the original youth from The Peace Train phoned me with a request of his own. He reminded me that we had required all members to undertake a community project, and now he had one for me. He had been born in a rural area and abandoned by his parents as a child. Relatives couldn’t take care of him so he was taken to a detention center and later placed in an orphanage. By the time he came into The Peace Train, he was already a wild teenager, running with street gangs and dodging bullets and knives. Drawing on his resilience, and showing him a lot of love, The Peace Train truly converted him from a gang member into one of its star band members. In fact, today he is one of the most sought-after and well-respected sound engineers and music producers in the country, travelling worldwide to provide his services for some of the top acts from South Africa.

A few days before he called me, he had visited a rural area that reminded him of the desperate circumstances into which he had been born. The only school had been burned down decades ago during the political violence and now the children were walking 3 hours a day to the closest school. Most had lost their parents to the HIV/AIDS crisis and were living in child-headed households, hungry most of the time. Just at a time when equal opportunities were becoming available for all South Africans, the oldest child in each of these households had to stay home from school to care for the youngest ones or try to find food for the next day. He asked Friends of The Peace Train to help him build a school for the community and we immediately began staging concerts and presentations to raise the money needed to build the school. In Summer 2008 I went to the area for two months with three volunteers and began the building process. During the day, in between ordering and delivering cement and stone, and supervising the leveling of the land, digging of foundations and building of the walls, we ran music therapy, recreation and arts programs a core group of about 50 at risk children. At the end of the summer, with the walls of the community hall and school building already built up, we had a ribbon cutting ceremony which was attended by the Chief of the area, to officially hand over the school to the community. By the following summer we had found a partner on the ground in the Rotary Club of the neighboring extremely affluent area called Hillcrest. And in August of 2010 our group of 25 American tourists visited the area of KwaNgcolosi and was witness to a concert and mini festival inside the walls of the new school.

In just two years, the community hall and school has been completed and the first two classes will attend school beginning in January 2011. In addition, a pre-school or crèche will also begin in January 2011. Young children will no longer have to walk three hours a day to get an education; a breakfast program for at risk and vulnerable children has been implemented; a training program has started for local women who will work in the food and recreation program; and a Music Therapy program will begin shortly.

Please enjoy the slides of the building process of the community hall and school:

Sharon Katz & The Peace Train Music Therapy power point 2010 11

Thank you for reading about this work, but mostly, thank you for all your terrific work as music therapists. You are doing exactly what our great leader Nelson Mandela charged us with: creating: a better life for all.

For anyone who is interested in traveling and studying with Sharon Katz and volunteering their services at the site of the new school in South Africa and other projects in South Africa that Sharon has implemented, kindly contact Sharon at

For more information about Sharon and her projects please visit and

Enjoy the following video that was filmed when a group of 24 friends and fans visited the school in KwaNgcolosi as a part of a two week tour withThe Peace Train.

A gift to the community, the school now named after the Chief of the area’s mother – “KwamaNdlovu” - will open a kindergarten as well as classes for first and second grade in 2011.

Video of first event inside the walls of the new school:

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