Wrapped inside a blanket, hidden in the back seat of a car, Sharon Katz traveled through a government checkpoint into the townships of South Africa for the first time in 1970, breaking the laws of apartheid. Then a high school student, she hadn’t told anyone where she was going, and understood that both she and especially her friends who were driving — a group of black actors she befriended — were putting themselves at great risk.
Once on the other side, Katz encountered people struggling to survive and, in their homes, she shared tea and found compassion. That began a career, fueled by her passion for social justice, of making gorgeous music in many communities in South Africa — and then around the world. For decades, she has been breaking down barriers and bringing people together, through song.
Now a guitarist, singer-songwriter and accomplished international impresario, she will be performing at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, on Sunday, Sept. 8, with her band, Sharon Katz and The Peace Train, and several guest artists. Her music is joyful and upbeat, mixing genres of folk, rhythms of the townships, Afro-jazz and world music. She writes lyrics in Zulu and other languages, and then translates them into English, telling the story of her country’s life and her own.
In an interview, Katz speaks of the Jewish influence on her life work. Born in Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela Bay), she was in the first class in the city’s first Jewish day school, founded by her parents and named for Theodor Herzl. In school and through family friends who survived Auschwitz, she learned about the persecution of the Jews.
“There are people being persecuted right under our eyes. Why aren’t we talking about this?” she would ask. An uncle was an activist, on the run from the police, and years later she learned that her father helped him get out of the country.
“On the one hand, I had freedom as a privileged white child, and on the other, grew up in an atmosphere of secrecy,” Katz says. In school and in the Habonim youth movement, she says, “We were taught to open our eyes, but we could only get to a certain point. I had to go further.”
She took the lesson of “Love thy neighbor” with profound seriousness. “When asked, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper,’ my answer was always ‘yes.’ You can’t turn away from someone else’s suffering.”
When her parents were away, she would invite her black actor friends, who were part of playwright Athol Fugard’s troupe, to her home, knowing that drinking a cup of tea with someone from another race was illegal. A self-taught musician, she went on to receive a bachelor’s in English, African government and law from the University of Cape Town, a teacher’s license in music from Trinity College of London and a master’s in Music and Music Therapy from Temple University in Philadelphia.
In the 1970s, when “South Africa was a prison for everyone” under apartheid, she traveled to the townships, teaching kids from impoverished backgrounds, with neither running water nor electricity, to sing together. She says that it became clear that the human spirit can triumph through music.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, she had the idea of forming a large choir with kids from all backgrounds singing and dancing together. She recruited 500 children from black as well as Indian townships, and white children, including some from the Herzl school — they had to rehearse separately as travel was forbidden. Through Jewish philanthropists, they were able to buy a vehicle to get to the different schools.
In 1992, she partnered with musician Nonhlanhla Wanda to bring together the children in a spirited, history-making concert in Durban, “When Voices Meet.” Afterwards, they wanted to bring the kids all over South Africa, and in 1993 founded the Peace Train, traveling with 150 children. Katz charged them with the responsibility not only of singing together, but of becoming ambassadors, once things began to change in their country.
Katz met Nelson Mandela in 1994, when performing in a mixed-race band at a banquet for his birthday. She recalls that he told her that she had to continue this work, “the ideas he lived for and almost died for, for a multiracial democracy in South Africa.”
“I feel it’s important to speak up, to stay hopeful,” she says. “That’s what I feel is my mission. I was given that mantle by Nelson Mandela — to bring people together so that they can communicate about what might be possible, for people to live together without discrimination.”
She keeps in mind his words, “It always seems impossible until it is done.”
We meet in a New York café, along with her manager and life partner, Marilyn Cohen, and their puppy, en route from Maine to their U.S. base in Philadelphia. The two met when Katz was getting her degree in music therapy in Philadelphia. There, Katz worked in a prison, getting gang members to sing together. Cohen was then the mental health director for the city. She had heard of Katz’s work and when she went out to visit the prison, Katz convinced her to visit South Africa for six weeks and see her work with children there. Cohen then stayed in South Africa for eight years, and continues to use her skills in social policy administration to help implement their international projects.
Cohen, who was taking a photo of Katz when she met Mandela, reminds Katz, “When you came back, you were charged, it was something he said to you. Your music touched him. You’ve been a runaway train since then.”
In addition to prisons, Katz has performed around the world in schools, universities, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers and youth empowerment projects. In Israel, where her parents (now deceased) moved to from South Africa and her sister now lives, she has done musical projects around the country, and played a peace concert in East Jerusalem. She has shown the award-winning 2015 documentary film “When Voices Meet” — about the Peace Train — at the Cinematheque in Jerusalem as well as at film festivals around the world.
In 2016, she toured across the U.S. over five weeks with 100 young performers, traveling from Hawaii to New York City to Puerto Rico.
Katz continues to work in South Africa with children at an orphanage, and raises funds for their studies and future. Later this year, she is off to Cuba to initiate a project there, training about 100 young singers, with 30 kids coming from Tijuana, Mexico, plus adult singers and a large orchestra. Always, she uses music as a way to get people to talk about their lives.
This is part of a large-scale project she is partnering with Promotora de las Bellas Artes in Tijuana called “Transcending Barriers,” with hundreds of school children from vulnerable areas, and no music in their schools. She plans to bring them together with South African and American youth, who will be traveling by train from northern California. This grew out of a performance in San Diego; she was approached by a philanthropist to do cross-border work at a time, she explains, “when we are experiencing another kind of racism in America.”
Katz, who has sung with Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell and Miriam Makeba, has recorded several Grammy-nominated CDs, most recently, “Side-By-Side” with Nonhlanhla Wanda.
“The message,” she says, “is that we are all members of one human race. We can easily overcome the false barriers between us and live side-by-side in peace if we put our minds to it.”
As for Joe’s Pub, where she has performed before, “Bring your dancing shoes.”
Sharon Katz and The Peace Train are performing on Sunday, Sept. 8, 7 p.m., at Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette St. (at Astor Place), Manhattan, publictheater.org.