“Music Performance, Music Therapy & Social Justice in our Global Community”

Submitted by COMM-NEWS on Mon, 01/18/2021 - 22:35

“Music Performance, Music Therapy & Social Justice in our Global Community”
Sharon Katz, Director of The Peace Train Project, Board Certified Music Therapist
Tijuana, Mexico, January, 2021 
written by Sharon Katz

In 2015 Commffest screened the documentary “When Voices Meet” directed by Nancy Sutton Smith and produced by Marilyn Cohen. The documentary tells the story of The Peace Train Project, that Sharon Katz and Nonhlanhla Wanda initiated in their home country of South Africa in 1992. The project brought hundreds of children and musicians of all different races together to sing and live together on a train fourteen coaches long, at the ending of Apartheid.

When Voices Meet Documentary:

They said it couldn’t – and shouldn’t – be done. South Africa was in flames from political violence, and the apartheid government wasn’t willing to transition to a nonracial democracy. But as thousands lined the streets around Durban City Hall in 1993 to attend the original “When Voices Meet” concert with its 500 voice multicultural choir and band, the way forward became clear. And when those courageous musicians were joined by Ladysmith Black Mambazo to take their message across the country aboard The Peace Train, there was no turning back.

 What happened then, and what’s happening in the country now, are depicted in the compelling and joyful new documentary film, When Voices Meet, starring Tony-award winning actor John Kani, Abigail Kubeka, Sharon Katz, Nonhlanhla Wanda and the cast of The Peace Train. When Voices Meet is set at the time when Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison. South African musician and music therapist Sharon Katz joined with singer and educator Nonhlanhla Wanda to form a 500-voice multiracial choir to break through Apartheid’s barriers.

Threatened with bombs and thwarted at every turn, they prevailed and railroaded across the country aboard The Peace Train. Singing their way into the hearts, minds and soul of the divided country in the midst of a civil war, they promoted a peaceful transition to democracy and went on to become Mandela’s face of the new nation by performing at special events in South Africa, Washington, DC and all across America. When Voices Meet documents the trials, tribulations and triumphs of those musician activists and young choir members.

They performed together for seven years and then reunited 20 years later to tell their stories and reflect upon The Peace Train’s impact. It’s a joyful, inspiring story of hope and determination despite tremendous obstacles, including lessons that apply to American issues today.

 When Voices Meet was awarded Best Documentary Film, Best Original Soundtrack, Best Director, President’s Award and Audience Award in the USA and received the MADA Award in Toronto at Commffest.

Film screenings across North America in 2015-17 include St. Louis Int’l Film Festival; Philadelphia Film Festival; Chicago Int’l Social Change Film Festival; Ft. Lauderdale Int’l Film Festival; Toronto’s Commffest Global Community Film Festival & South African Film Festival; Route 66 Film Festival; Jersey City Int’l TV & Film Festival; Omaha Film Festival; Antigonish Film Festival, Nova Scotia; Teaneck Int’l Film Festival, New Jersey; Waimea Ocean Film Festival, Hawaii;

Reel Work Film Festival in Monterey, CA; CineCulture in Fresno, CA; Berkeley Film Foundation, CA; Holocaust and Genocide Center, Johannesburg and Durban International Film Festival, South Africa.

More info: Marilyn Cohen, Executive Producer: film@whenvoicesmeet.com or phone 267-207-4210 The ongoing work of Sharon Katz & The Peace Train

While the documentary “When Voices Meet” chronicles the work of The Peace Train musicians and group leaders from the years 1992-2000, it does not discuss the work following these years. Musician and music therapist Sharon Katz, film producer Marilyn Cohen (formerly mental health director for the City of Philadelphia, USA) and Nonhlanhla Wanda, teacher and community activist in Durban, South Africa, have continued their work in South Africa, USA and Mexico, using Sharon’s “community music therapy” model, for over twenty years since the original Peace Train project. And over a decade ago they were joined by former police officer, Wendy Quick, to run music therapy and violence prevention residencies in schools in Philadelphia that were labeled as “persistently dangerous”.

In South Africa, the four women and their supporters built a school in an impoverished rural area of Kwa-Zulu Natal Province, initiated food programs in  schools near Durban; and have supported an orphanage situated in one of the former South African “homelands” or “bantustans” which were abolished by the 1994 South African government under the leadership of President Nelson Mandela. All these activities, including the making of the 2015 documentary, were carried out by The Peace Train with the support of their non-profit “Friends Of The Peace Train” established in 2004. And as the social projects were initiated and implemented, The Peace Train continued staging major concerts, tours, cultural exchange programs and recording projects across the globe.

In 2016, right after the release of “When Voices Meet”, and with the abusive and bigoted rhetoric of white nationalists in the USA, The Peace Train introduced a new tour called “The Peace Train – Putting the United back in the USA”. They auditioned and trained 100 youth between the ages of 8 and 18, from all corners of the USA, and staged a two-week tour with concerts in New York City, Jersey City, Trenton, Philadelphia and Baltimore, and culminated in a concert at the Washington monument in Washington, DC. They were joined by Harry Belafonte’s family in New York City, and the South African Ambassador introduced their concert in Washington, DC. Traveling mostly by bus, the group did a symbolic “Peace Train” journey on Amtrak from Philadelphia to Washington. All this took place in July 2016 at the height of the police brutality towards members of the African American community and the divisive rhetoric that was plaguing politics by Donald Trump in the run up to the 2016 elections.

The camaraderie that was created between the members of the group on this tour was exceptional. In fact, what we do in our work, is to create a sense of community by conducting friendship building workshops in addition to rehearsals, and these experiences empower the youth to feel a part of the process of change. By sharing their history and backgrounds with one another, stereotypes are broken down and youth can feel equal to one another, no matter what their external attributes like skin color, language, class or national origin are. And to further empower the youth in the process of change, I composed a song for the tour called “We Can Be The Change”. In this song I pointedly express that our thoughts and actions are what directly influence the direction of our world.

sahron with large group

As the composer and director of the show, I gave the youth the task of composing a rap for this song, and I gave them ample opportunity to use their creativity by involving them in the choreography of the concert. The documentary of this concert was chronicled by the WHYY “On Tour” show screened on PBS which was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2017.

 The culminating group activity of the tour was the expectation that each group member devise a “R.A.P.” (Responsible Action Plan) which would speak to their vision and goals for the future and describe what they as individuals would do to make their world a better place. It was a truly emotional experience to witness this sharing moment which took place on the last night of our tour. Some of the children cried as they expressed their commitment to social change. The experience had such a profound effect that many of these youth have now become social activists and have subsequently become involved in Black Lives Matter and many other movements over the past 4 years.

Please watch the clip below:
PBS WHYY "On Tour"

Living with the rise of fascism in the USA under the Trump government, gave rise to our next project and tours which we named “The Peace Train Transcending Barriers”. In May 2017 we were invited to do a residency at a school in Oakland where we built a project linking schools from the East Bay together in a full day of cross-cultural understanding involving teachers, students and musicians from different parts of the San Francisco Bay area. After staging this very successful project uniting children and communities, we were invited by the South African community of San Diego, in Southern California, to show “When Voices Meet” there, as one of the South Africans had previously seen the documentary at the South African Film Festival in Toronto. At that screening in San Diego

In May of 2017, we were asked by a representative of the San Diego Foundation, if we would be willing to do cross border work between the USA and Mexico. With the anti-Mexican rhetoric at an all-time high by the Trump government, we agreed to submit a proposal for a cross border Peace Train Project and together with a new partner in Tijuana, Mexico, we devised “The Peace Train Transcending Barriers 2018”.

 After giving a concert to honor the memory of Nelson Mandela in San Diego on July 18th, 2018, the band and I plus musicians, families, singers and community members joined together in San Diego, boarded the trolley, traveled to the USA Mexico border at San Ysidro, crossed the border and were met by the 200 members of our new partner Promotora de las Bellas Artes (PBA) , singing to us as we walked to meet them.

It was an emotional experience carrying out this project at a time when the USA President was separating Central American families from their children at theMexico border, holding children in cages, and spewing racist rhetoric against Mexicans. Mexican parents and children told the USA visitors that they thought that Americans hated them, and it was very meaningful to them to see that Americans actually wanted to come and visit them in Mexico in spite of the lies and stereotypes being perpetrated by the government.

From the border, we marched through the streets of Tijuana, singing in English, Spanish and Zulu, and with the aid of the Tijuana police who blocked the roads, we paraded to the Tijuana Performing Arts Center (CECUT) where we held friendship building workshops and rehearsals, and then had an impressive concert for the public in which all the children participated. Nonhlanhla Wanda came to join us from South Africa and several of our team members joined us from Philadelphia for this ground-breaking tour.

Please watch a video project here: The Peace Train Transcending Barriers 2018

Ever since this dynamic event took place, The Peace Train has been crossing the world, giving concerts and performing at festivals, and continuing to operate tours in South Africa as well as fund raising for Mama Mary’s orphanage in Gauteng province of South Africa. In addition, we returned to work in Mexico on cultural exchange and music therapy programs.

Then, in June 2019, Sharon Katz was invited as guest artist to perform with 1,500 children of Tijuana who are a part of PBA choir programs in schools. She taught them South African songs and dances, and these were featured at the annual concert of PBA which takes place in a prominent venue in Tijuana. The end result that you can see in the following clip, was the culmination of weeks of rehearsals and workshops in 52 schools and 2 children’s homes:

Shosholoza (Trad. South African song)

Later in 2020, PBA and The Peace Train collaborated again to bring a 30 voice children’s choir to perform with Cuban children in Santiago de Cuba. Sharon Katz, director of The Peace Train, worked with Daria Abreu Feraud, choral conductor and musical director of PBA, and producer of the 33rd International Festival of Choirs in Cuba, to produce a large-scale concert in Cuba involving the Santiago Youth Symphony orchestra, band, and 150 voice choir plus dance group. Promotora de la Bellas Artes’ choir traveled to Cuba to participate, and the concert was wildly successful.

 This experience of international travel had a major impact upon the children of the choir from Tijuana, most of whom had not traveled very far outside of their immediate neighborhoods. At this link you can watch a clip of an original song that I wrote in Spanish called “Vamos en el Tren de la Paz”. The lyrics mean: “the children want peace today, a world without violence and war; give us the opportunity to live our lives; Let’s go on The Peace Train!”
Vamos en el Tren de la Paz (S.Katz) 

The Peace Train was granted an extension of funding from the San Diego Foundation into 2020 and we devised a cultural exchange opportunity for children from the San Deigo Unified School District to join Mexican children and travel by train from Tijuana to Tecate.

We were in the midst of these preparations when the covid-19 pandemic struck, and as a result plans are on hold until October 2021. We are partnering with Rancho la Puerta in Tecate, the train company of Tijuana, numerous schools in Tijuana, Tecate and San Diego to launch this project in 2021 if the pandemic allows.

For most of 2021 we were engaged in online activities with the members of the choir and I wrote and produced several songs and videos for and with the children to highlight the importance of continuing to work for social change and to keep ourselves emotionally and physically strong while on lock down. Online activities have been structured to provide emotional support to the children who are isolated, and we have also found sponsors to purchase phones and computers so that they can participate in virtual programs.

“We Know What To Do” (S.Katz)    

In October 2020, I initiated a new music therapy program in a migrant shelter in Tijuana. There are 165 people from Venezuela, El Salvador, Hunduras and Mexico currently living in this shelter as a part of the “Stay in Mexico” program. These are all people who have escaped traumatic situations,and were forced to leave their homes to try go to the USA, but were barred from entering the USA by the Trump administration. I provide music therapy to 30 children there and we are currently beginning a Food Relief Program for the migrant shelter.

"We Can Be The Change”


In addition, for the past five months I have provided music therapy to children who have been rescued from child trafficking and are living in a safe house in Tijuana. This program offers the children a chance to express themselves, to participate in music and dance, which are transformative art forms and non-threatening therapeutic interventions, and engage in activities that boost self- confidence and self-esteem.

As always “Friends of The Peace Train” is the non-profit through which we raise funds for our work. Contributions can be made on the home page of our website https://sharonkatz.com/, and will be allocated to Mama Mary’s orphanage in South Africa and the migrant shelter in Tijuana. Proceeds of the sales of Sharon Katz & The Peace Train albums are also dedicated to our work, and this will include income from our latest album “We Can Be The Change” which is available on all digital formats and soon to be released on CD. https://sharonkatz.com/music/

It is with great humility that I submit this article to Commffest in gratitude for having invited us to show the documentary “When Voices Meet” at your film festival in 2015; and for your important role in promoting social justice in the world.