Pics: Luzuko Tyala | Story by: Mpiletso Motumi and Shireen Fisher
Keanan Lewis seems shy – but when he talks about music, his eyes sparkle. “This is like a dream for me and I’m still improving that dream,” he says. To keep the dream alive, he has to wake up at 4am every day to commute from Malmesbury to Wynberg. It’s a sacrifice he is willing to make.
The Grade 11 pupil from Wynberg Secondary School got his chance to shine when his school band took part in the Music and Career live performance at the Artscape Theatre, part of the Training and Development Programme of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in late March.
Keanan’s dream began at home, because the music gene runs in his family. His father is a musician and his younger brother, Benjamin, lets his fingers do the talking on the keyboard. Keanan started playing guitar when he was just three and he doesn’t intend to stop any time soon.
In Grade 8, he started playing the instrument regularly and his teacher, Celeste Moses-Toefy, encouraged him, his brother, and band-mate, bassist Lance Pekeur, to join the school band.
Keanan’s first guitar was the one he used at church. The same goes for Lance, a 17-year-old from Mitchell’s Plain who started on drums in his church band aged 10. While staying with his pastor, he started flirting with the idea of playing guitar. He’d pick up the acoustic, listen to some music and play what he heard.
The Western Cape, more particularly the Cape Flats region, has a deep-rooted background in Jazz with some of the biggest names like Abdullah Ibrahim and Basil Coetzee coming out of it. But the region also has a history of being plagued with high rates of unemployment, poverty and crime – all legacies of the apartheid era. Communities are often held hostage by gang violence. This affects not only school attendance but the danger of being drawn into gang life.
According to Crime Stats SA, the Western Cape has the second highest crime rate in the country. Census 2011 revealed that nearly 36% of households in the province live below the poverty line.
Growing into accomplished musicians in an environment where resources are scarce or non-existent might seem impossible, especially when multiple factors are stacked against the youngsters. Toefy says it’s difficult to schedule rehearsals because of poor transport. But they always make a plan, and some also have their parents as a support system.
This resourcefulness means that circumstances don’t hold the Wynberg Secondary School band back. Although the school doesn’t have playgrounds or big fields for its pupils to play elite sports, it does have a rich culture in the arts.
The love for music, and accessible instruments, first came to Keanan and Lance from home and church. But school is also a vital resource for building on what students already have, and making up for what they lack. Music teacher Toefy makes certain the boys have the space to grow and be creative. Regular shows and platforms for the band to perform keeps the boys busy with music; focused and out of trouble throughout the year. “Music is an outlet for many of them,” she explains.
Keanan and Lance both say their musical influences come equally from jazz and gospel.
That twin heritage has shaped many Cape Town artists. Donveno Prins is a leading South African saxophonist who has spent time with the boys to prepare them for their performance. He hails from an equally resource-poor community, Elsies River. “Where I come from we had to hustle,” he says. “I got an old broken sax from our church and taught myself how to play. I really wanted to become a musician.”
It was his desire to succeed that kept him going. “I saw myself playing on stages at age eight…once you see your desires, nothing can stop you.” Now, it drives him to help learners around Cape Town.
Prins’ own experience means he appreciates the obstacles faced by youngsters growing up in tough situations. “It’s difficult, especially if you are young,” he says.
But he urges promising musicians never to stop trying to realise their dreams: “You have to have that drive.”