Turning the tide: South African Field Bands (corps)

by Allison Close, DCW staff

When one sees drum corps on the field during the summer, it is easy to concentrate too much on the enjoyment it brings as a viewer, and overlook the empowering, enhancing experience that the activity brings to the young people involved.

Outside the United States, particularly in less economically prosperous regions of the world, drum corps has worked its wonders in a variety of situations; young people of many nations have experienced participation in drum corps and related musical activities and come away from the experience with perspective and, perhaps most importantly, a hope for the future that was not there before.

Membership in drum corps, where a group of students come in with little in common and leave having developed common threads — memories, friends, an entertaining show and success, provides students with opportunities. This is even more priceless given the setting, which is all too often characterized by the harshness of circumstance.

People like Johann Zietsman make the potential of drum corps and marching music a reality. Originally from South Africa, Zietsman completed a Master’s degree in Ithaca, NY, in music, discovered drum corps in America and started a music school in Cape Town with the ultimate vision of using music as a way to improve the lives of the masses, specifically the children in the          townships.

He used the American drum corps model in South Africa 15 years ago to create the concept of the field band. Where American students march in formations on football fields, in South Africa it is on soccer fields, thus the concept of the field band began.

Because the South African government was only funding music in government schools, which served white students, obtaining initial funding took about 15 years. He remembers, “I submitted many proposals to many organizations, obviously it wasn’t on a full- time basis, but it just kept coming up and up and up — every time I thought I had a potential sponsor I would submit something.

A sort of serendipity came about with PG Glass, wanting to celebrate their 100th Anniversary in South Africa. They decided that what they wanted to do was to give something back to the country that had supported them for 100 years. They had a benevolent agenda and happened to be a really terrific company led by some really visionary people. So when they heard about this, they thought it was a really great idea.”

The first sponsor of Field Bands, PG Glass, was the largest plate glass company in South Africa, specializing in all sorts of glass, but specifically automobile glass for windscreens. At that time they had diversified, with multinational divisions in Europe and the U.S.

Through introduction by a common contact, they ended up giving sponsorship of $6 million South African Rand (about $983,000 USD) to launch the program. As a founding sponsor, they put in a tremendous amount of support.

Zietsman recalls that opportunities for children are very different now than before 1994, when the specter of apartheid was still evident. “This was a broken, unhappy country — if you were willing to walk around with blinders over your eyes, you could imagine utopia, there was always this invisible majority living with this terrible lie. It was not a happy country.

“Millions of people had no opportunity, no education and no future, and [unfortunately] many of those kids became thugs. It’s a vicious cycle. Somehow we all tried to find ways to improve this situation and this by no means is the only way. I am very happy to say it has been a very successful program and has changed the lives of thousands of young kids” from the townships and villages.

In South Africa, Field Band is for every young person; the only requirement is that they be committed and come to rehearsals. There was no musical testing and no aptitude testing. In a manner that recalls early drum corps in the United States, if one wanted to participate, then one was welcomed.

Zietsman notes, “I figured if somebody couldn’t play a bugle, they could beat a drum and, if they couldn’t do that, they could wave a flag and, if they couldn’t do that, they could dance.”

Zietsman is well aware of drum corps in the United States and how it has evolved into something quite different from its roots in terms of membership and performance. “[Drum corps] has come so far. It is very sophisticated, with extremely high standards now. The original basis of the idea is very inclusive — it’s certainly not an exclusive idea — and that appealed to me.

“The other thing that appealed to me is that music and movement are activities that are very appealing to kids, to communities, to people who witness this. It is a friendly kind of activity that draws positive attention, not negative attention. And although there is an element of competition, it is not a destructive element of competition. It does not pit participants against each other    physically. It’s simply a positive, healthy activity” for an at-risk group of young people.

“These kids had been running around the townships with nothing to do except crime. All of a sudden, once or twice a week, they had something to look forward to, that was going to be fun and uplifting, and teach them about self-esteem and discipline and achievement and all of those really nice things.”

Speaking about the potential for crime among children in the townships, Zietsman notes the potential is very real. “I think it’s a fact that some of these kids would be in jail if there were no field bands.” He notes, “The arts can heal society because art, music and dance are universal languages and ways for people to express themselves in ways that cannot be done by other means.

“Countries can heal themselves through the arts where they cannot do so through   politics or diplomacy or war, so it’s a broader power that the arts have. In a more focused way, this is something I felt that at the time was one thing we could do for the kids. So we got some money together and we launched the program. We had to find ways to make a little money go a long way; I was determined to help as many kids as I could — I didn’t want to help a few hundred, I wanted to get to a few thousand.’

Zietsman has had to be creative to make the program work, given a lack of financing. “Like any organization, whatever we have money for we try to do, and whatever we don’t have money for, we try to do in different ways. PG Glass has continued to contribute a certain amount, but we have found other sponsors. All this enables us to buy instruments.

“We haven’t gotten many instruments contributed yet, and that was one of the many drives for forming a not-for-profit board here in the U.S. Our non-profit arm has two purposes: one is to find donations of instruments and uniforms, and the other is to find donations of cash that we can send over for the programs in South Africa.’

Drum corps fans in America can do much to help in this effort. “There are many bands here that may have second-hand uniforms that may not be of any use here, but are of much use in South Africa for field bands. Whenever a new band gets started, they play in tracksuits and t-shirts until they get a set of uniforms. It’s the most amazing day when they can get dressed up really nicely and look like a group. When we have sets of uniforms donated, the value is much more than you can ever imagine.”

The same is true for used instruments. “Instrument donations are of real value, though it can be very expensive getting them out to South Africa. Every set of instruments serves three bands, which is very different from the drum corps here in America. I designed a vehicle and a trailer for every set of instruments. The instruments are housed in those trailers and are driven to various schools for use throughout the week.’

The members never get the chance to take these instruments home, as instruments are moved from band to band.

Zietsman notes, “We really are stretching . . . it’s tough. It means the kids cannot practice properly. It also means the instruments take a real beating, since three different kids use every instrument, though it is certainly a way of getting the maximum value out of our instruments. We have 2,800 kids involved and it would have been one-third of that had we gone the luxury route, which would have been one set of instruments per band. Right now we have 19 bands in South Africa.’

The logistics of running the field band circuit are intriguing. “In the Cape Town region, there will be one set of instruments and a regional director in Cape Town. They identify communities that are really interested; if a school or a community can offer us a field, we establish a band there, linked to the community or that neighborhood, rather than to any particular school.

“Students practice on fields, thus the name field band. In Cape Town, we have three bands, which are probably between 15 to 30 miles apart. The regional director and central management drive the equipment truck around during the week. It’s all voluntary, except the regional director is paid and has a budget to employ staff on an hourly basis. About 80% of the coaches are former band members.

“We use the same model as drum corps, but obviously it was a stretch because our students came directly off the streets, out of shacks. Being instructors was far from where anyone could imagine, but that was always my plan. More than 80% are kids who aged out and are instructors paid on an hourly basis.

“Three of the kids are full-time professional players in the military band, after nine years. The activity started nine years ago; that’s a long time in a child’s life. Somebody who was 15 when we started is now 24. It’s a world of difference to all of those kids. Just the mere fact that they are committed and show up to rehearsals is such a paradigm shift for them to commit to anything.

“They come from broken homes, broken   societies, where they may have one parent or none at all. They come from homes with parents who have HIV/AIDs; terrible conditions. For them to commit to something like this is a major move. They have done all this and more. They are committed, responsible and proud; they achieve and practice whenever they can. They take part in competitions.”

This is clearly a project with immense social benefits. According to Zietsman, “The concept was not about music. We are churning out people — the idea was to teach them all these life skills and the vehicle happens to be music and movement. The focus right now is to cover South Africa first, though this is certainly an activity that Africa in general could benefit from.” Students continue through their school years and age out at 21, much the same as in American junior corps.

About 70% of the activities are community projects — they play at weddings, funerals, openings of schools, civic happenings and in the community. Where there are field bands, nothing happens without the field band present. The mayors are very aware of the field band and use the groups as a way to make events more festive; these bands are becoming regular parts of their communities.

Zietsman suggests that “support from communities in South Africa is different from support in an American town. The people in South Africa in the townships and villages have very little money. For them, support is applauding, very rarely money, and volunteerism. These people are struggling to survive. For them to get there and be enthused is a major thing. It’s a long road.”

Even in 2004, there are many township families who have little, whose lives have not improved since apartheid. There is a lot of catching up to do with 40 to 50 years of destruction from the divisiveness of South Africa’s former system. Corruption might be expected in this environment, but Field Band has not been a victim.

Zietsman notes that sponsors get great reports in terms of financial outlays: “12-23% on administration and overhead, and the rest to instruments, vehicles, coaches and instructors.”

Zietsman wants DCW readers to know about Field Band and how it is continuing the tradition of drum corps in a place that desperately needs it. “American readers can be aware of this activity and that it is still true to its roots. We’re still hoping to develop into the direction that it has here in America. The second thing is to find ways to support us, from donations of money, uniforms and instruments, to supporting exchanges.

“We have had strong exchange programs between Norway and South Africa, and Britain and South Africa. We have found that the benefit is both ways, many hosting families learn so much as well.” The Field Band organization has annual national competitions and regional competitions. The competitions typically have two to three American judges.

Many of the Field Band members come to the activity having not even been across town on a bus. Now upwards of 50 to 100 members have been abroad — it’s a broadening, eye-opening experience for them. Zietsman notes the environment these young people come from: “Most of these kids don’t have TV. They live in squatter shacks. This is definitely the Third World. One aim was specifically to go into poor areas with no other opportunities. We have included a strong HIV peer-to-peer counseling program, involving their parents, friends and family members. We want them to be educated and empowered. We have a strong program with the South African Government’s Department of Health and it’s having positive effects. The effect is even wider than playing a bugle.”

These kids come from an environment that does not allow for many dreams — and yet this program is helping these young people to realize their potential. “They are also unlocking parts of themselves that were always there, but now they can start conceiving of being a doctor or a lawyer or an architect. We have a number of testimonies from kids who started when they were 15 or 16 years old and they write and tell us the Field Band is the most important part of their lives . . . that it has led them to make positive choices in their lives, to gear up for careers.” The difference is clearly tremendous.

Zietsman notes the problems affecting families in South Africa and, in turn, sees the extra value in Field Band for addressing these concerns. “In South Africa, the family is frequently a very broken family. Even if both parents are alive, they probably don’t live together, not because of problems with their marriage, but because of career circumstances. Very often the extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles look after these kids.

“South Africa is still very stratified and it will take a long time to heal the wounds. If the father had a job in a gold mine before apartheid, there is no reason why he wouldn’t keep that job after apartheid — it’s a job. He might be better paid, but he’ll never get that job in Cape Town.

“This is a reality for many young people. They are learning to handle it better, but now they have a circle of friends, coaches, instructors and a project they really care about. These people, in turn, care about them. We’ve taken care of so many of these kids when we discover there is a problem. Many of our teachers discover things about kids that parents might not even know. We see problems and we follow up. We have social workers we deal with — the staff in the Field Bands have become like surrogate parents in some cases.” Field Band lets many kids feel safe and secure — a nurturing environment is central to the mission.

Zietsman notes that the American chapter has a 501(c)(3) non-profit status. On the organization’s Web site — www.fieldband.org.za — there is a “Get Involved” tab which gives a number of ideas how to help. “Donations that are small here are significant over there.”

DCW readers are encouraged to assist with donations and to spread the word about the organization to friends or sponsors. Inquiries may be addressed to jzietsman@ispa.org.
Zietsman concludes that “the concept of Field Band is powerful and it really works. I would be very happy if American drum corps participants read this and remembered what drum corps is about — community and self-esteem.”

Zietsman’s efforts reveal the power of drum corps and marching music, not only in providing members with a fun activity, but with empowerment that can change lives and profoundly affect community and self for the better.

Publisher’s note: The 21st Century Drum & Bugle Corps Foundation, Inc. has donated several sets of used marching band uniforms to the Field Band Foundation in the past. They are also helping sponsor one of the young people who will be marching with Pioneer this summer.
If you can help, please contact Johann.

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This article was originally published in the May 2005 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 34, Number 2), mailed to subscribers on April 28.