A Namibian San (from the Namibian bush community) performs on a traditional harp, surrounded by girls from the Arts Performance Center harp class. Nicola Hanck writes: "normally, the harp played by these nomadic desert bards is made of wood; he probably sold his to a tourist and made a new harp out of a tin can. The texts of their songs are always new, and relate to something in everyday experience. The song he sings here is about AIDS, sadly very prevelant in this area." That said: since Lis Hidber begun her work in Namibia in 1990, there has not been a single case of AIDS among any of the people involved in her projects.
About a year ago, we donated a Mélusine lever harp to Lis Hidber's Arts Performance Center in Namibia.
Recently I've been hearing about some amazing harp outreach projects - the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble in Georgia, DEMOS in Paris, the Fundacion Musical Simon Bolivar (El Sistema), and now, the Namibian APCs. They all show that not only does music play a genuinely constructive role in the education of disadvantaged children, but that the harp - through its exceptional versatility - makes an equally genuine contribution.
The Swiss artist and musician Lis Hidber began her work in Namibia by creating church wall paintings with local women's groups. Alongside this she set up art classes for children, and also began to play music with them. Supported by the Swiss missionary Hans Leu and Walter Ulmi of the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund, Lis established the first Arts Performance Center in Oshikuku in 1993. Two more centres were to follow, in Omagalanga and Tsumeb. In a land that has no music school, university or professional orchestra, they are a unique opportunity for local children to experience music, drama and the visual arts. They are also self-perpetuating, with advanced students teaching the younger ones. The first two APC centres are now almost entirely run by local young people.
The harpist Nicola Hanck, from Basel, has been out teaching the harp class in the Tsumeb centre: firstly for a fortnight in 2011, and more recently for ten weeks as part of a three-month stay in Namibia. In an article that she wrote for the Swiss Harp Association, she describes her experiences.
"Every afternoon, Monday to Friday, group lessons in dance, art and music take place in fifteen straw-thatched African huts. The huts' outer walls are decorated with beautiful paintings by the centre's teachers, and in the lovingly-tended garden - formerly a rubbish dump - stand huge sculptures by African artists. All these details contribute to the creative atmosphere of this oasis.
The centre provides its students - over a hundred a day - with a contrast to their everyday lives. Most students live in the Namibian "locations", in other words, the slums. Sixty percent of the population is unemployed, and crime rates are high: those who can afford to secure their houses with alarms, high walls, coils of barbed wire and bars on windows and doors.
At eight o'clock each morning, the APC opens its doors to the young teachers - mornings are reserved for them, to prepare their lessons, practise and make music together. The teachers are advanced students, the youngest being twelve years old. Most of them play several instruments, which they have learnt through a combination of teaching themselves, working together, and through lessons with Lis. They also receive further professional coaching from visiting teachers like myself, who come from all over the world to visit the centre. There is no music college in Namibia, nor university, nor professional orchestra.
After lunch, the children flood in for their violin, cello, keyboard/piano, harp, accordion, clarinet, trumpet, flute, dance and art lessons. The centre chiefly teaches classical music, and there seems to be a particularly strong desire, particularly among all the young teachers, to immerse themselves in the music of Mozart. Nonetheless, traditional folk music, and contemporary styles, also make their influence felt in all the classes. The marimba and dance ensemble connects these various genres particularly skilfully.
After the instrumental lessons, the children rarely go straight home. They often attend other lessons, or take an instrument into the garden in order to practise or play together with friends. They cannot always attend lessons regularly, for example if they have to gather wood or similarly help their parents; or sometimes they are too weak because of malnutrition. Many of the children are orphans, or have parents who are not in a position to be able to look after them.
Every Friday, there is a meeting with all APC members, including the students. This is in order to exchange information and feedback, and to discuss future improvements. A public concert is also held one Saturday a month - the single cultural event in the whole of Tsumeb.
Lis Hidber's Arts Performance Center provides these children and young people with artistic and social education (and often something to eat as well). That it enriches their lives is clear from the students' exceptional enthusiasm. Sometimes so many students came to classes, that I had to teach in large groups, and they would fight over whose turn it was to play the harps. I also hardly ever had to teach something twice, as whatever I said was listened to attentively and immediately put into practice.
Lis Hidber's magnificent achievement needs as much support as possible in order to continue on this scale. The Namibian State has recognised the APC as a school for the arts, and has provided the land, while the Windhoek College of Arts partly subsidises the teachers' wages. Every donation brings us a step nearer to the possibility that one day Namibia might have an orchestra, theatre or gallery, to enrich the cultural life of the region, and fight its poverty."