Photo above: Sharon Katz (center, with guitar) and members of The Peace Train’s youth choir perform in South Africa after returning from a five-week U.S. tour as ambassadors of Nelson Mandela’s vision and the new South Africa.
More than two decades after the fall of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s election as South Africa’s first black president, a joyful new film tells how a handful of brave South Africans fought racial injustice with little more than music and determination.
When Voices Meet is an 83-minute documentary starring Tony award-winning actor John Kani, along with Abigail Kubeka, Sharon Katz, Nonhlanhla Wanda and the cast of The Peace Train.
The movie made its U.S. debut Aug. 21 at Washington’s World Music & Independent Film Festival, where it won prizes for Best Documentary, Best Director and Best Original Soundtrack.
“This project was born out of a desire to share the story of The Peace Train,” said Sharon Katz, a white South African Jewish guitarist and bandleader who now lives in Philadelphia. “We went back after 20 years to collect footage and interview the members of the choir that had originally sung together and traveled together.”
Katz, who sings in English, Xhosa, Zulu and half a dozen other languages, told us she used to visit South Africa’s black townships as a teenager opposed to the “horrific” apartheid laws then used to separate the races. In 1978, she spent a year in Lesotho, moving to Philadelphia in 1981 to study music therapy.
“When Mandela was released from prison, I went back to South Africa and started the Peace Train project,” she recalled. “I met Mandela on his 75th birthday. I told him about my dream of bringing together children of different races and cultures, to break down stereotypes. Mandela was trying to unite people in a ‘Rainbow Nation,’ so he was delighted to hear of my plan for a 500-voice choir. He gave me his blessing.”
Katz and her friend, singer Nonhlanhla Wanda, defied all the rules to lead 500 black, white, colored and Indian children on a two-week train adventure from Durban to Cape Town in a valiant effort to break through the barriers of apartheid.
“The laws were just changing then. South African Railways was still run by the old regime, and while they couldn’t really stop us, they put up every single obstacle they could possibly think of,” she recalled. “We were threatened from both sides, the far left and the far right. It was a really wild thing to do, and everybody knew it.”
Yet the divided country — then on the brink of civil war — opened its hearts to these children, who sang their way into the consciousness of a society determined to transition peacefully to democracy.
After its success in South Africa, the Peace Train was invited to tour the United States, where its members performed at the White House, Florida’s Disney World and the New Orleans Jazz Festival, among other venues.
The film’s Aug. 21 screening was hosted by Nowetu Luti, deputy chief of mission at the South African Embassy, and shown at the U.S. Navy Memorial Museum. The audience heard speeches by Luti, Katz and Marilyn Cohen, the film’s executive producer. It’s already been selected for screening at a dozen film festivals in Chicago, Toronto, New York, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and elsewhere.
Katz, who earns a living by performing and teaching, said “When Voices Meet” cost about $100,000 to produce — including video editing and trips to South Africa.
“It’s mixed together with a whole lot of archival footage,” she said. “We’re probably never going to recoup our expenses, but you make such a film because you want to tell the story. For me, it’s never been about commercial success.”
(Photos by Larry Luxner, except film poster)
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat and former editor of CubaNews. Born and raised in Miami and based in Bethesda, Md., since 1995, Larry has reported from every country in the Western Hemisphere. His specialty is Latin America and the Middle East, and he’s written more than 2,000 articles for publications ranging from National Journal to Saudi Aramco World. Larry also runs an Internet-based stock photo agency at www.luxner.com.