Sharon Katz
Sharon Katz playing the guitar.

It is unusual when a person combines great talent with compassion for others, but South African musician Sharon Katz has both in spades.

Music can soothe and heal the soul, no matter where you are from.  Imagine growing up in South Africa during the time of Apartheid as a discretely rebellious Jew. For Katz, music was a salvation and a door to a world she wasn’t supposed to be a part of, but later thrived in and found her voice to speak up. Today, Katz is a musician and music therapist, and director of the Peace Train Project.

Born in 1955 in Port Elizabeth, a city on the Indian Ocean now known as Nelson Mandela Bay, Katz‘s life was changed at 15 when she saw an anti-Apartheid play, and her eyes were opened. The Jews of that area were in an enclave of their own, and people lived separate lives and did not mingle much. 

Katz took refuge in music and taught herself to play the guitar at the age of 11 by listening to the folk rock of Simon and Garfunkel, Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul and Mary. That led to a life in music and making a difference, and the formation of the life changing Peace Train Project, where a mingling of music and compassionate activism was encouraged and grew.

In her later teen years, she formed friendships with anti-Apartheid actors John Kani (of later Black Panther fame) and Winston Ntshona. She would visit them in their homes in New Brighton Township. However, she was highly secretive about this as she knew if she told others about it, they would try to stop her as it wasn’t considered safe. 

In a way, she led a double life. She was also active in the Jewish community and had a very strong communal life within her family, school, and various bands and singing groups.

Music became her way to try and bring together a torn nation. The Peace Train Project was formed in 1992 as a way to honor Nelson Mandela, who would become president in 1994, and help heal a divided country. By then, Katz had her master’s degree in music therapy and along with her Zulu singing partner, Nonhlanhla Wanda, formed a 500-voice multiracial and multicultural youth choir.

They hired a train, dubbed “The Peace Train,” and traveled around the still-separated communities across South Africa. The goal was to build trust as they stopped and performed in different towns. Katz likes to say that the Peace Train was a moving billboard for Mandela’s message of peaceful coexistence. In 2013, they celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first journey through South Africa.

A 2015 documentary, “When Voices Meet,” chronicles this time and the 20 years that follow. The documentary remains available on Amazon Prime.

Later Katz moved to Philadelphia and it became her home base, where she taught classes and from where she traveled to concerts all over the United States and the world, spreading her message of humanitarianism.

In 2018, she and her life and business partner, Marilyn Cohen, made another life changing decision by moving to Tijuana, continuing a life of adventure and giving back. Katz was inspired to move after she met someone from the San Diego PeaceMakers Fund who asked her if she would be willing to do cross-border work.

Katz then connected with Alida Guajardo de Cervantes and Promotora Bellas Artes in Tijuana. Promotora Bellas Artes is an organization that works with school children who live in poorer neighborhoods, bringing music into their lives. The synergy between Katz and Guajardo de Cervantes was so great that together they devised the Transcending Barriers Project and Katz became Promotora’s guest artist.  

Together with the Promotora, Katz worked with 1,500 children, going from school to school in Tijuana teaching them South African songs. Later those children, along with Katz and her band and an orchestra, performed a concert together. The musical director of Promotora Bellas Artes, Daria-Abreu Feraud, a Cuban woman, invited Katz to visit and perform in Santiago de Cuba in 2019.

For the last five years, Katz has been working under a grant given to her by the San Diego PeaceMakers fund. She works as a music therapist with Survivors of Torture International in San Diego and she also works with migrant shelters in Tijuana.

Katz has bands in Tijuana, Philadelphia, San Diego, Berkeley, and South Africa. Besides all her humanitarian work and travel, she also puts on a great show — most recently in August at Del Mar Plaza.

In October, the Peace Train has a trip planned to Mexico. On Oct. 21, nearly two dozen people from different parts of the United States will converge in San Diego and cross into Tijuana. They will make a music video at Playas de Tijuana near the border wall. They will visit a shelter, and there will be other events.

On October 23, a train will depart Tijuana with the visitors as well as 150 children and families. They will travel to Tecate where they will have rehearsals and friendship building workshops with local children. There will be a big concert at the CEART art center in Tecate.

The following day, they will depart for Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca for an additional ten days as the Peace Train Project brings music, and understanding to yet another part of the world.