South African kids go global thanks to ancient Zulu instrument

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(CNN)In the modern world it's easy to lose touch with your roots. That's as true for Zulus as anyone else.

Take the students at Goede Hoop, a primary school 30 minutes outside of Johannesburg. Some of the girls here are Zulu, but they've never set foot in the Zulu kingdom. Their connection with their heritage is often limited.
However they're welcoming an ancient Zulu instrument into their lives. What they've found is a cultural touchstone to their past -- and a path to international success.

    "It talks to your soul"

    "When you look at a marimba you think of Africa," says Pops Mohamed. "It talks to your soul."
    The jazz musician is referring to an instrument with ancient origins in the heart of Zululand. Local legend has it that a Zulu goddess named Marimba first made the instrument by hanging gourds below wooden bars. Not to be confused with a timbila from Mozambique, the xylophone-like marimba has different shaped resonators and a proud tradition of its own.
    The marimba has always been a social instrument, bringing together communities in days gone by. Today it's being used by music specialist Joan Lithgow in a program binding communities together and aiding disadvantaged youths.
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    "The marimba hubs is a concept that we have started in South Africa to take children off the streets," explains Lithgow. "What we do is we train teachers from scratch who have never ever played the instrument before, and we get them to teach their pupils.
    "From our side we go and monitor those pupils every week and the teachers to make sure they're on track. As they continue, so we withdraw, slowly but surely, until they're completely independent."
    Children from Goede Hoop have found international acclaim by performing interpretations of classical pieces by Beethoven and Vivaldi on the marimba. Last year they even toured the United Kingdom. Yet they're still grounded in the instrument's Zulu traditions, performing hymns such as "Hamba Nathi" for CNN.

    Finding harmony

    "Our girls have grown as musicians themselves," says Lithgow. "They're starting to pass on their own knowledge."
    These children may well be the professional marimba players of tomorrow, and the Goede Hoop girls are already playing at the International Marimba and Steelpan festival -- the largest of its kind in the world.
    The event, sponsored by Educate Africa, aims to inspire creativity and showcase diversity, attracting musicians from all over South Africa, as well as Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
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    "What's wonderful about marimbas is it keeps children off the street," says James Urdang from Educate Africa. "You've got children coming out... and instead of going home and getting up to mischief in the streets, they want to get in the marimba team.
    "It's like someone [who] wants to get in to the rugby or the cricket team. It's a very exciting instrument."
    The festival culminates in a performance by all participating musicians to a specially written by Lithgow. It was a special moment not lost on steelpan jazz pioneer and festival adjudicator Andy Narell:
    "To see 1,600 kids performing, playing marimbas, playing steelpans, playing drums and djembes and percussion and singing and dancing and mixing up other kinds of instruments and kind of a whole joyous display of just ensemble music... it's just really one of the highest experiences of my life."