Sharon Katz was born in Port Elizabeth, now known as Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa. As a young teenager during the terrible apartheid era, she used to sneak out to the “Blacks Only” townships by hiding under blankets in the back seat of her friend’s car. There, she met with the now-famous actors in Athol Fugard’s group, including John Kani of “Black Panther” fame, and began her lifelong mission of using music to help break down the country’s artificially-imposed racial barriers.
After getting professional training and a Master’s degree in Music Therapy in the USA, Sharon was ready to return home to South Africa and use her skills as a guitarist, singer, band leader, composer, producer, and music therapist. As soon as Nelson Mandela was released from his 27 years of imprisonment by the Apartheid government, she went to work trying to help her country heal from the wounds of Apartheid.
Together with her Zulu singing partner, Nonhlanhla Wanda, they formed South Africa’s first, 500-voice multiracial and multicultural band and youth choir in 1992, traveling out to all the still-separated communities to rehearse and start building trust across the Apartheid-imposed barriers.
As the election date came closer and the ethnic battles intensified, they hired a train, The Peace Train, and toured the country with their band and choir. Living together in mixed-race compartments and performing together at each stop along their route, they became a moving billboard for Mandela’s message of peaceful coexistence and the transition to a nonracial democracy.
After Mandela’s election, Sharon Katz & The Peace Train performed at all his special events and became the country’s first musical ambassadors of the new democracy. During their initial 5-week tour in the USA, they showcased South African music and unity across the country including at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Harlem, Duke Ellington Center for the Performing Arts, Disney World, and many universities.
Since the original ride of The Peace Train, Sharon has continued spreading a message of peace, social justice, and reconciliation around the world through performances, seminars, workshops, residencies, and cultural collaborations. Highlights include Carnegie Hall’s World Music Series and the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York; The Getty in Los Angeles; New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Philadelphia Folk Festival, Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Barnes; Smithsonian Institution and South African Embassy in Washington, DC: Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Revival Festival on the Hudson River; Berks Jazz Festival in Pennsylvania; Panama Jazz Festival; Tijuana Jazz & Blues Festival; the United Nations; universities in many countries; and collaborative performances with orchestras, choirs and dance groups worldwide.
In 2015, the documentary film “When Voices Meet” about Sharon’s music and humanitarian work with The Peace Train project was released. Through archival footage and the 20-year retrospective words of the original choir members, musicians, and other South African personalities, this critically acclaimed documentary went on to receive numerous awards at the over 30 film festivals around the world. It has been shown on TV over 50 countries and is now available on Amazon Prime and DVD. You can see the trailer at https://sharonkatz.com/when-voices-meet/
Sharon continues to perform worldwide as Sharon Katz & The Peace Train and has formed bands in South Africa, Ghana, USA, Cuba and Mexico. After a 2019 cultural collaboration with Promotora de las Bellas Artes and its Cuban artistic director, Sharon established a base in Tijuana, Mexico where she worked on an international collaboration that toured in Mexico, Cuba, and South Africa.
Currently operating in Durban, South Africa; San Diego, California; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Todos Santos, Mexico, Sharon Katz & The Peace Train use proceeds from their appearances and music sales for their humanitarian work in under-developed areas of South Africa, the USA/Mexico border region, and around the world including music therapy with orphans and communities affected by HIV/AIDS, poverty and violence; food security programs in impoverished areas; conflict resolution in violence-torn regions; schools and community arts programs; and in programs for asylum seekers, migrants, survivors of torture, and youth rescued from trafficking rings.
The CNN piece brought international attention, and the invitations to perform in the US and elsewhere started pouring in. The Peace Train was about to become The Peace Plane!
As South Africa’s “Cultural Ambassadors,” Sharon Katz & The Peace Train took flight in 1995 to spread their music and message to the US. With sponsorship from the government and private sector in both South Africa and America, Sharon responded to the US invitations by taking her 45-member performing group on a 5-week, 8-city US tour. 100,000 fans screamed for more at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, just one of their stops. They were an instant hit, selling out all their CD’s at the first concert.
From Disney World’s International Festival to the New Orleans Jazz Fest, from Harlem to Hampton, Memphis and Cincinnati, and from Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing to Washington, DC’s Duke Ellington School of Performing Arts, Sharon Katz & The Peace Train thrilled audiences of all ages with the unstoppable beat and amazing harmonies of South African music and dance.
In another landmark event, Sharon composed and directed “Crossing Rhythms,” a music and dance extravaganza that featured over 200 performers from across the African continent and had South Africa’s Philharmonic Orchestra playing African music for the first time in its history.
Sharon performed with the legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba when she was finally allowed to return home; toured and recorded with Miriam’s colleagues, Dolly Rathebe and Abigail Kubeka, in South Africa and the USA; performed with Pete Seeger who was a big supporter of her work in South Africa; and featured on Sting’s Carnival! album with Elton John, Tina Turner, Annie Lennox, Ruben Blades, and Pavarotti. Grammy award winners Ladysmith Black Mambazo also joined Sharon on The Peace Train. Several of Sharon’s albums have featured on the Grammy ballot for Best World Music including Imbizo, Side-By-Side and We Can Be The Change.
In 2013, The Peace Train celebrated the 20th anniversary of its original ride through South Africa to help Nelson Mandela break down the barriers that apartheid had created and to usher in the country’s first democratic election. To mark the occasion, the documentary “When Voices Meet” was released and premiered at the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa with simultaneous broadcasts throughout the continent of Africa. “When Voices Meet” has been selected by over 30 film festivals around the world and has won numerous awards including Best Documentary, Best Original Soundtrack, Best Director, Audience Award and President’s Award. It has shown on TV in over 50 countries worldwide. Screenings of “When Voices Meet” prompted requests for The Peace Train to develop projects in other parts of the world including a multi-year project on the USA/Mexico border.
Since 2015, efforts have focused on bringing together diverse groups and tackling important social justice issues in the USA and Latin America. Under the banner of “Transcending Barriers,” Sharon Katz & The Peace Train have worked with local partners to develop initiatives between urban and rural communities; across racial, economic and religious divides; to improve understanding of gender, equity and inclusion issues; and to facilitate positive relationships between established communities and new immigrants. In partnership with the Tijuana-based organization, Promotora de las Bellas Artes, Sharon has been working with hundreds of youth in Cuba and in Tijuana’s most vulnerable areas as well as in shelters for migrants and safe houses for youth who have been rescued from trafficking rings.
In 2022, Sharon initiated a project in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico. In addition to bringing together youth and families from diverse backgrounds, Sharon is developing a studio where community members can develop their talents.