Jenondré Serrotti, 12, buzzes with excitement as his peers gather around him in a small community hall in Kraaifontein, Western Cape. The teen, who eagerly holds an acoustic guitar, is about to begin a music lesson.

Serrotti is part of a group of young people in Scottsdene who receive free music lessons through Join Bands, Not Gangs. The non-profit organisation uses music to curb gangsterism in at-risk neighbourhoods, specifically targeting vulnerable early teens.

“I started with the guitar yesterday. I am very excited to learn to play the guitar because it is very interesting to play music,” says Serrotti. “I first started with drums but I want to play guitar now.”

Heatherley Court, the block of flats where Serrotti and his peers live, has been walled off so gangsters can no longer use it as a thoroughfare. Since the wall was erected, the building has become a safer place in which to live.

Tommy Jooste, 69, known as Oom Tommy, is a long-time resident of Heatherley Court and the group’s music teacher. He comes from a musical family. “I got it from my father and I’ve always believed that I should pass that on. So it is great to pass it on to children who want to learn instead of joining the gangs,” he says.

“The past few years Scottsdene was a very dangerous place to live in. The killings were the order of the day, with shootings every day.” In the courtyard Jooste would often discover the bodies of murdered gang members. The violence was relentless. “You were always worried, [wondering] when are they going to shoot me?”

But his music programme has helped young people turn to song rather than violence. “I feel the difference we’ve made with the youth has really worked … There aren’t that many shootings any more.”

25 November 2021: Music teacher Peter van Wyk and some of the children involved in Join Bands, Not Gangs in Scottsville, Kraaifontein.

The rudimentary community hall in the courtyard where Jooste teaches is used as a space for whatever the community needs, from sermons to the music lessons, with Jooste, a religious man, providing a little of both – he mostly teaches the children religious songs.

Kaylib Grootboom, 13, who has been one of Jooste’s pupils for a few months, says he was drawn to the classes because he loves music and wants to stay out of trouble. “This isn’t a very safe place for us. Every night there’s a shooting … I am … playing music to stay away from that. I love soccer and I want to be a professional soccer player one day because it will take me out of this place. But if I don’t get that opportunity, I want to play guitar and get out of here,” Grootboom says.

The older children are sometimes harder to convince to join the programme, but once they begin classes, they stick around. “I don’t have any problems with the children coming to the classes. Sometimes they even come bug me at my house and say they want to play guitar,” Jooste says with a laugh.

Though it was not easy to get people from other areas involved, Jooste managed, and earned the respect of his community in the process. “When I drive my car, everyone waves at me.”

25 November 2021: From left, AJ Abrahams, AJ Jullies and Wayne Meesterman.

Prevention and intervention

Karien de Waal, founder of Join Bands, Not Gangs, wanted to make a difference after studying at the Berklee College of Music in the United States. When she returned to South Africa, she met a security guard from the Scottsdene area who worked where she lived.

“While I was studying … I sort of just got this idea of ‘Join Bands, Not Gangs’ and one million instruments to one million musicians. I just really had the feeling that it was God speaking to me. I freelanced in the music industry when I got back and in 2017 I really felt a release to start the organisation and in 2018 we officially launched.

“When I came [to Scottsdene] for the first time, I just came to meet some of the mothers to hear their stories. So many of them had lost a child in the gang violence. So the idea was there and the name was there, but I had no idea how to get in touch with gangsters and get them involved,” De Waal says.

De Waal ferries around instruments and amplifiers to different sites as she collects the donations on which she relies to run the organisation. She says it is crucial to building friendships and relationships with the communities that participate in the programme. “I can’t just come here and do my own thing. We ask the community what they need and how we can help and that is how we manage to run the programmes in these areas,” she says.

Join Bands, Not Gangs works with prevention and intervention in mind. The music classes prevent at-risk youth from entering gangs by giving lessons to children between eight and 14, such as the ones Jooste teaches. The intervention aspect of Join Bands, Not Gangs focuses on working directly with street gangs by using music as a tool to build friendships between gang members.

“By using this approach to peace we believe over time we can create a common denominator between rivals in that they all participate in music. Counselling services by qualified counsellors are also offered as part of our lessons package,” the Join Bands, Not Gangs website says.

25 November 2021: From left, Marchelle Bruintjies, Jemondré Serotti and Saskia Serotti.

This article was first published by New Frame.