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04 May 2016

Know Your Neighbors: The Peace Train Comes Through the Desert, With the Help of Palm Springs Women in Film and Television

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Pete Seeger with Sharon Katz after a performance together. Pete Seeger with Sharon Katz after a performance together.

Let me bring you into the world of Sharon Katz, a South African by birth, a music therapist by profession—and, in the words of musician Pete Seeger, “one of the people who is saving the world.”

She was born in Port Elizabeth (now called Nelson Mandela Bay) under apartheid—the rigid racial/social ideology system that required citizens to live by race designations (black, colored/mixed race, Indian, white) in segregated areas of the country, with restrictions about who could go where and when.

“We lived in a conspiracy of silence,” she says. “South Africa was a prison for everybody.”

As a young woman traveling with her family, Katz saw how others barely survived in their segregated communities, and she became obsessed with finding a way to support change. “How can this be my country?” she asked herself. “Seeing all of that changed me forever.”

In her teens, she would sneak out to the “blacks only” townships by hiding under blankets in the back seat of a friend’s car in order to get past identification checkpoints.

After getting her education as a music therapist, Katz began her mission to bridge the country’s artificially imposed racial barriers through music. After Nelson Mandela was released from prison, but before the promised national elections were held, Katz came up with a revolutionary idea: She would form an integrated children’s choir to bring together young people from across South Africa, to show that they were all the same when their voices were blended.

“I saw music as a way to transform the system,” says Katz. She traveled throughout the country teaching the same songs and dance routines to students in their individual segregated schools.

In 1992, Katz brought 500 children to Durban, where, for the first time, they were grouped by voice, regardless of race, and practiced together for their first concert. One of the student participants said, “Being in the group made me believe I could do anything with my life.”

Expecting a small audience response, Katz was overwhelmed when the hall was overflowing—and those attending somehow overcame traditions about integrating as an audience.

“There were so many people,” says Katz, “that they not only sat together, but people actually had to sit on other people’s laps. It was truly something to see.”

Enter Marilyn Cohen, executive producer of When Voices Meet, the film that documents Katz’s work. Cohen helped raise money to procure a train that became known as the Peace Train, which toured throughout South Africa in 1993 with the children’s choir, dancers and musicians. The government and protesters did not make it easy, but these remarkable women prevailed.

“It was music that brought the disparate groups together,” says Katz, “and the harmony of their voices became emblematic of the New South Africa.”

At each stop along the route, they performed their concert and encouraged people of all races, cultures, ages and political affiliations to put down their guns and hostilities, and to prepare for the country’s transition to a peaceful democracy. Mandela was elected president several months later.

Actress and filmmaker Shari Belafonte is on the advisory board of Palm Springs Women in Film and Television (PSWIFT). She saw the documentary at a film festival in Washington, D.C., and was so impressed—not just by the film, but by its subject matter and its “star”—that she encouraged PSWIFT to find a way to bring the film to Palm Springs.

I attended the PSWIFT-sponsored screening in the evening, shortly after 120 students from Palm Springs High School had seen it. The film, first released in 2015, is powerful and uplifting, and has won awards throughout the world. Its staff, crew and supporters represent an integrated coalition of cultures.

The local audience was spellbound, with many in tears. Both Katz and Cohen attended. Afterward, Katz brought her guitar on stage, answered questions and led us all in song.

Cohen spoke about their upcoming project, “The Peace Train 2016 Tour Across America: Diverse Voices Singing in Harmony,” which will begin on July 4 in Ferguson, Mo., where local youth, arts educators and police are working together to coordinate the kickoff events. It will then make its way to St. Louis, Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and end with performances in Washington, D.C., on July 17 at the Washington Monument, and July 18 at the South African Embassy.

“We received impassioned calls from throughout the U.S.,” says Cohen. “The film has inspired people to re-examine the issues currently dividing Americans and to do something constructive about improving human relations and social justice.”

Many of the Palm Springs High School students hope to get on the train, and opportunities exist for chaperones and parents to accompany them. Katz and Cohen are traveling around the U.S. to show the film and garner support for the project. The cost per person is $1,800, which includes choral training before the tour, train fare, meals, hotels and performances. Tax-deductible support can be offered through the project’s website, www.GetOnThePeaceTrain.org. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for some of our local students if corporate sponsors came forward to help?

Cohen is reverent in describing Katz: “There are angels who walk among us. There are those who choose the selfless path for the good of those less fortunate, especially children, and who dedicate their time on this earth to doing that work.”

Katz is most eloquent when speaking about her fellow South Africans.

“It’s an incredible spirit, a spirit of optimism and love and openness to something new,” she said. “If we could infuse the whole world with the spirit of the South African people, we would be living in a wonderful place now.”

Every once in a while, I meet someone who revives my faith in the idealistic notion that one person can make a difference that changes the world. I now humbly add two names to that short list: Sharon Katz and Marilyn Cohen.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

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