Susan Harrop-Allin, head of Community Music, University of the Witwatersrand

“… the traditions of singing, or music, are already integrated; and the notion that you use that as therapy, and even the notion of therapy, I think is quite a Western idea …”

Interview with Susan Harrop-Allin, head of Community Music, Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand

13th August 2014

VH       If you could just talk a bit about what you do, and … the context of your work – so you’re a community musician, primarily?

SHA     My primary work used to be in NGOs. I suppose as a ‘community musician’, although that’s definitely not a term that’s used here. I’ve worked a lot starting music projects in (mostly) township areas; mostly with the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra. I would say that that’s a version of community music – because it’s really looking at how to bring kids together [through] music education, but also has social interaction, community, and connecting people – that kind of ethos – behind it.

VH       So ‘community music’ is just a term that you’re using in the context of the University [of the Witwatersrand] – it’s not something that you’ve used to define your work up to now, particularly?

SHA     Not really until the field itself, internationally, had become a lot more defined … it’s only for the last, I would say, ten years, that there has been a field – a field of scholarship, a field of theory – that has distinguished itself from more formal music education.

[I’ve also worked] with arts therapists in a community setting in a project that ran for about three years right at the height of the AIDS crisis, working with home-based care workers.

And music teacher training for a number of NGOs – which is formal music education in the sense that it’s training teachers how to teach arts and culture, but it tends to be outside of the university, or a formal course.

My experience is more in facilitating projects … and then becoming more involved with the international community on the side of trying to build the field in a way. The academic journal, writing, and then devising this [community music] course – that only [began in] 2011.

VH       So – just going back for a moment to the project you were talking about that at the height of the AIDS crisis, what were the intentions of that project?

SHA     It was through an NGO [Dedel’ingoma Creative Arts Healing] that was set up by a British woman [Nancy Diuguid] who had worked at the ENO [English National Opera] … who wanted to use the arts for ‘healing’. But the project was identifying the need to care for the carer – to support people who worked in the caring industry, or in health; who were working with a trauma organisation, or a counselling organisation; places like Childline and organisations that work with women, or abuse. But in a recognition that they themselves may need support. And it was an introduction to how they could use aspects of creative arts in their own work.

But in the case of the Mpumalanga project it really turned much more into supporting them, and caring for them; because the care workers themselves were incredibly traumatised.

It wasn’t a very long project, and it was very complicated; … it was the usual NGO story here: it didn’t have enough funding, then the founder of the NGO died, then the therapists split up; … but we ran about three or four different training sessions that lasted just over a week – for people who worked in a range of organisations here, in Johannesburg; it was called Voices. We also worked with social workers and home-based care workers in Thohoyandou, in Limpopo, about three times.

My role was setting up the project, working with the organisations in that community – so I was involved in the music-making to some extent, but it was more working with the art therapists … They were the top arts therapists – Hayley Bermanthe art therapist here, [music therapist] Mercédès Pavlicevic, a clinical psychologist, Kirsten Meyer – a drama therapist, and a massage therapist. In hindsight that work should have been documented very carefully. There was one piece written by Mercédès in her Community Music Therapy book[1].

It was a sort of extraordinary experience; partly because of the time – so it was about 2003, 2004, which was before any kind of recognition of AIDS, or rollout of ARVS; there was no medication available, there was no anything. Nobody understood the disease – people were literally just dying. And it was in an area called Nkomazi, just near the Swaziland border, that was particularly ravaged by this. And I somehow connected with a woman who was running an organisation that was for home-based careworkers [Thembalethu], and looking after children.

It was actually horrible, to be quite honest; horrible.

It needed to be sustained, and for all sorts of extremely complicated NGO-like reasons, it couldn’t be. But while it was there it was extremely interesting to see how all of those art therapies could work together, and what you could actually do with these groups of women. And I worked very informally with a group of children, but it wasn’t really part of the project – I just played with them, actually. In retrospect there was such multiple trauma going on that we all needed our own counselling – they needed counselling, and then we needed counselling, and they needed counselling from us needing counselling… and – it was kind of extraordinary …

VH       It’s interesting to hear about a project where all of the different therapies were being used together; that’s really quite unusual.

SHA     I think it was very unusual.

VH       And d’you think that had a specific value?

SHA     Thinking back on it the value was really [in understanding] that people’s own experiences of the arts, in communities – the traditions of singing, or traditional music that’s used in various settings – are already integrated; and the notion [that] you use that as therapy, and even the notion of therapy, I think is quite a Western idea.

But if you use everything together you’re connecting a little bit more with people’s own experiences of music, storytelling, visual stuff, singing …

VH       It’s interesting about the business of terminology … that there are all these divides that we give our work: community music, music therapy, music in health, applied drama, this, that and the other; … all of us I suppose understand the need for those brackets in a way, but at the same time they are often much more relevant to the practitioners than to the people that we’re working with. I mean if you join a choir, you don’t care whether you’re being subject to an applied music practice, or whether it’s a community choir – you’re just in a choir. The terminology can be quite a divisive thing, I think, in some ways – because it separates the practitioner from the participant, perhaps.

SHA     It can – so, for instance, one of the latest versions of the International Journal of Community Music is about ‘Community Music Therapy’ [2013 edition] and it’s about what links the practices, rather than what divides it.

For me, the distinctions need to be made only in terms of how you frame work, how you hold work. And what’s important is not to get into this idea that we’re all magically therapists – and a little bit of a glib thing about because you do the arts then therefore we’re all going to be healed. Because it doesn’t necessarily work like that. And it’s not a magic fix. And sometimes when you use artistic processes and music, as you were saying, it can actually make something worse in a way, if you don’t know how to hold it. So your intention in the way that you’re framing the work needs to be very clear.

So – have I got a music education goal? Which the [Johannesburg] Youth Orchestra does. I suppose the goal there is to enable children to be able to play an instrument in an orchestra, so that they have an experience of the group and of the group performance. So it’s fairly formal in that way, but it happens to be working across communities. Normally youth orchestras and string programmes and that kind of thing are always in a community. I think the Joburg Youth Orchestra is one of the only organisations that might have a very privileged kid sitting next to a child from, say, Sebokeng.

VH       How much of your work intersects with health, and ‘wellbeing’? Including things like the orchestra perhaps?

SHA     I’ve never considered it as that at all – it’s much more connected with ideas of social development. Or – building people in a particular way. But as soon as I say that I realise ‘but who are you to say that you build people through music?’ – which is a bit of a problem. [It’s] a kind of – enabling of particular experiences; or of learning experiences, because I’m much more on an education bent, I suppose. I’ve never really conceptualised anything in those terms, except for that Mpumalanga work.

VH       Wellbeing is such a sticky term. Mike White talks about resilience[2], which I thought was quite an interesting idea because it relates to one’s capacity to cope with adversity I suppose, whether that be economic, or circumstantial.

SHA     The therapists will always talk about resilience. When I did a presentation on the haMakuya arts community engagement project [undertaken with Tshulu Trust in Venda, Limpopo and part of Community Music at Wits] – it may really just look like some nice fun music activities in a school that draw on the musical resources that are already there. But the response from Tammy [Gordon-Roberts] as a drama therapist was partly about what those experiences do for those children (who really don’t have any teaching and learning experience, nothing substantive) – which is a resilience-building exercise, that I’d never thought of before.

So it’s difficult to talk about wellbeing and health I think in the way that it’s conceived of in the UK, because here it’s much more basic – it’s like have people got food? Have they got a roof over their heads, does a child have a parent? Are they going to be hurt when they walk out of their house? What is the teacher doing to them? It almost feels, I think, in some circumstances, that wellbeing and happiness and all this is a – sort of privileged thing to even consider, when you’re looking at basic needs.

So then what might the place for any kind of the arts or music be there?

Well, it’s very integrated into many people’s lives anyway – it wouldn’t even be considered as something separate, it’s just something that you do. You sing in church on a Sunday; you sing a song for – something; you play music …

The other thing to consider is this whole idea of the extent to which musicking is so much part of religious, spiritual practice, which is also seen as healing practice; so, going to a sangoma, a traditional healer (which is huge, and it’s not something that just exists in some remote area at all) always has music in it – always. So it’s not articulated as a field of ‘music and healing’, or ‘music and wellbeing’; it’s just a practice. So – if a sangoma is playing her drums, that’s the calling of the ancestors, or that enables some kind of healing of sickness, or finding out, or is a diagnostic tool (but it’s not going to be called a diagnostic tool). I don’t know a lot about the way that traditional healing works, but I happen to know a traditional healer who is also a musician; and as far as I can tell that’s very, very common. So the main guy who produces music and CDs and performs and knows the most about music in haMakuya is the traditional healer. So … it’s not a profession, you’re not a music therapist, the notion of therapy is very odd, but people would consult a – a traditional healer for many, many things.

VH       And music would just be integrated into that anyway? It’s just part of a process?

SHA     I think so, yeah. Because it’s all tied up with religious stuff, spiritual stuff; sickness or not, how that happens, how you fix it – which is also tied up with whether or not you’ve made ancestors angry or not, which is also tied up with how you talk to ancestors; and the Christian religion and the ancestral [beliefs] are completely one in the Zionist churches here as well.

VH       But in a way it complicates the whole notion of the arts as therapeutic tools. I suppose a lot of the time in the UK these things have been very much separated out into silos – which is what we’re working against – but [the separation] does mean that they’re not freighted with quite as much stuff to do with – certainly to do with religion. It’s interesting.

SHA     Yeah, I mean even the words ‘music’, ‘singing, ‘song’, ‘playing a drum’ – as far as I understand it are completely different, for instance, in the Nguni languages. So when you take the idea of training as a musician, or learning about music, or ‘I’m a teacher and I must now learn something about music so that I can teach music,’ it’s separated out from the practice of what those very people that I’m talking about – teachers that I’ve trained – were doing every single day.

And then there’s a language thing around music and song. So I would ask teachers: ‘what music do you do?’ ‘Oh no, no, no – none of us know how to do music.’ ‘But do you sing?’ ‘Oh yes, of course – we all belong to this choir and that choir and we’re in this gospel group…’ and it’s usually around churches, and every Sunday this… and this one listens to jazz… ‘But is that making music?’ ‘No, no, no, no – that’s singing’. Then we had long discussions about ‘well do you think everybody is a musician then? Can everybody sing?’ ‘No no; it’s just the black people who sing … white people can’t sing’. So there are odd conceptions even about what is ‘arts’? what is ‘music’ – as opposed to the thing that you do when you’re in a group, for a purpose, for praise, at a funeral, for protest, for … I think even that’s different.

VH       But I think actually there is a parallel there with the UK – I did an exercise once at a conference … I was talking to people who were mostly hospital workers – healthcare or administrative. I started off by saying ‘how many people in the room would consider themselves to be involved in the arts?’ and – I don’t know –one person stuck their hand up, but of course by the end of the process it transpired that all of them went to the cinema, or read books, or did this, or did that, or the other. But there is this notion of ‘the arts’ as this thing that only professional artists do, or people that get paid to do it.

SHA     From an education point of view, it’s very set up like that by our crazy curriculum. I could go on and on and on about the way that music is conceived of in curriculum here, that has caused us – that – that actually causes the separation.

VH       But also you could make the same case about medical learning. Inasmuch as it’s – it’s all about the consumption of a particular kind of knowledge, but it’s not about perceiving every aspect of your life as part of your health, including culture …

SHA     I mean I think it would be very interesting – I’m not sure if there’s work that’s been done on this or not – to look at the conceptions of health, culture, wellbeing, music-making. Because in that whole health/culture thing, I think is … this nexus of music-making, healing, what it means to be sick or not sick, where does sickness come from; how does cultural stuff impinge on that or not? What is the practice of making someone better? How do they conceive of themselves as better? And it will be different in different places – as I said, sometimes ‘better’ is ‘can I feed my children?’ Certainly in the place we work in [haMakuya]. So it’s also quite complicated, for me, to think about ‘well, what are we actually doing there? seven years later …’ How can the arts be working there?

VH       … there’s a value, I imagine, that you see about you, as it’s happening?

SHA     I do, yes. Difficult to articulate it, and also not to get into this ‘oh music-making makes everybody happy and everybody’s so much better after it.’ I see a little bit too much of that, especially in research in this area. I’ve read stuff, recently [along the lines of] ‘I’m going to find out if singing is good for children, so then I go into the school and then we all sing and then my conclusion is that singing is good for children.’

VH       It’s tricky I think in this area because so much research and evaluation is bound up with advocacy.

SHA     Exactly.

VH       And we haven’t quite got to the point of confidence where we can critically assess what we’re doing.

SHA     Because we’re trying to promote it so much …

VH       … to funders. And to the institutions we’re trying to work with.

SHA     There’s a very interesting article in the Community Music Journal about the difference between intrinsic value, and applied value. And how we need to – as musicians, music educators, community musicians – be focusing on intrinsic values and not just saying that music is for something: ‘because it’s going to make your maths better.’

VH       We’ve swung so far in different directions. I mean at one point, certainly in the UK, there was a real thing around ‘art should be for its own sake, and it’s degrading if you think of it as having an application’; and to a degree I agree with that because if it becomes too applied then it becomes part of the system it’s trying to critique. Or runs that risk. But the problem with that is that then you can never use the arts in a setting where they engage people who sit outside the kind of ‘professional elite’, in a way. So … how you break down the barriers around the arts – that sense of ‘we sing, but music is over there’ – how you break down that barrier without devaluing the capacity of the arts to sort of sit outside things a bit?

SHA     … for me it’s still important to emphasise – and I guess that this is at the heart of what community music is, does, its intentions – that anybody can participate in music. But participate in music for the sake of making music; not only because it’s going to allow me to co-ordinate my left and my right hand. Well, it may do that, and it probably will – and it will build your brain connections, all that stuff; and it’s got cognitive this and affective that and whatever – but emphasising that the actual act of music-making, especially with other people, and in synchronising with other people, is valuable on so many different levels for its own sake. Mostly because it’s an innate human activity. Biological, according to Blacking.

VH       On research – so, obviously you sit within an academic institution; do your [community music] students research what they’re doing?

SHA     Yes, so the idea is that from the second half of the year, they are in a placement in a community music or community arts organisation. So they’ve been with the Youth Orchestra, with the Eyethu Soweto project (which is a project I started a long time ago). And they then research it as a project …

It’s a case study of: what is this organisation? what are its intentions? how does it work? how does it fulfil its mission? what kind of pedagogies are used, why? who are the participants? And then, as they begin to work with a group of children in that organisation, to document also what they’re doing and reflect on their own practice. So it’s their exam-equivalent, with a practical assessment as well. Because I don’t really think you can write an exam about community music.

VH       And the intention … is of publishing stuff from this department in the future?

SHA     Yes. I’d very much like one of those or a combination of those to be published – exactly as a case study.

VH       So the places for this kind of work are probably community music journals, and sociological publications.

SHA     And music education.

VH       And – this is a funding question – I’m always interested in organisations working in this area, because funding’s always so tricky, and difficult to sustain – you referred to it earlier with the NGO. Do you feel that the bulk of the work that you’re doing now – does it feel fairly stable, does it feel – can you imagine it still happening in ten years’ time?

SHA     I can only really speak for the Youth Orchestra… yes, in NGOs that have been structured, that have fantastic governance, that are quite formalised, that have built up funders over a long time, and then who have happened to get the big lottery funding. But that’s so hit and miss. I got lottery funding for the community music course for the Limpopo work, completely by default, three years after the application. So the lottery is at least three years behind. Possibly four.

So the administrating organisations themselves are a bit dysfunctional; and give money to the most extraordinary places; actual development and training is less supported than one-off concerts. And the other thing, especially in the music world here, is the extent to which people build little empires … and all the funders say ‘so why aren’t you working together?’ And it’s been like that for the past 15, 18 years that I’ve been in this game.

So I would say that NGOs that have got their governance right, have got their systems, their HR, their – all those things really working very very well, and quite professionally, are going to be the ones that continue.

VH       Yep. But that’s feasible, for those people?

SHA     Yeah, I think it is feasible. But an NGO’s life in South Africa apparently is about three to four years. You need to find ways of accessing government and international funding. But there isn’t the same kind of what I hear or feel like is a very substantial, ongoing funding from something like the Arts Council in the UK … the possibilities [there] are just a lot – there’s a lot more. There’s no strategic plan here. The Department for Arts & Culture likes to fund a concert. And a big celebration. Or a competition. And that’s it. There’s no capacity to really manage that kind of funding. It’s a lot about making people look good, I’m sorry to say. And the National Arts Council and others will say ‘no, you must be self-sustaining’. How can you be self-sustaining? The kids who are going to a violin lesson – what? They’re gonna be able to pay for that violin lesson – really? [laughs]

VH       Speaking of which, what do you feel the relationship is between your work and, if you like, the mainstream of arts practice. Or is it the mainstream of arts practice?

SHA     What’s the mainstream of arts practice?

VH       Well, I suppose what I’m asking is partly something to do with audiences; so would a South African audience regard the Youth Orchestra differently from how they would regard – the so-and-so Symphony Orchestra?

SHA     It might overlap. But yes, I think they would. … Yeah, I think it’s very separate. I mean every now and then you would get the odd ‘professional’ musicians – whether they are pop, or rock, or hip-hop, or kwaito or whatever – who might do community work, or be involved in a community music project. But in terms of – that work and its performance, I don’t know … it will happen in the Youth Orchestra, [or] a project like Buskaid; but it has to do with what’s perceived as very, very high quality music-making in that practice. I mean the better the Youth Orchestra gets the more it would be perceived as even in the same realm as a professional orchestra.

VH       So what’s Buskaid?

SHA     Buskaid is a string project that was started by a woman called Rosemary Nalden … It’s a kind of a … flagship community music project. It’s only in Diepkloof, it’s only in Soweto; and she uses a very specific string training method. It’s called Buskaid because the funding was initially generated through musicians busking in London. The quality of music-making is absolutely extraordinary.

So, you get these little bits – that are going and they have their little bits of funding. But that could really be hugely sort of substantial, El Systema-ish, if people would really just work together. So there’s politics, power; and the competition over resources I think impinges quite a lot.

VH       Yeah; the competition over resources question is really interesting I think. How damaging that can be –

SHA     And that’s damaging right through a whole society. You know, down to people getting angry and cross with each other if one person gets this job and another one doesn’t get that one. In the community I’m working in. Very damaging. It’s a very contradictory place; as I’m sure you are finding out.

[1] Pavlicevic, M (2004) ‘Learning from Thembalethu: Towards responsive and responsible practice’ in G. Ansdell & M. Pavlicevic (Eds), Community Music Therapy, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

[2] White, M. (2011) Arts in Health: A New Prognosis. Ixia, Public Art Think Tank (online at


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