Violin Masote’s protest against racism
Doyen of classical music in townships has left a remarkable legacy that thrived despite adversity, writes
MICHAEL, OR MIKE, Masote dedicated his life to the development of orchestral music in the black community. In the process of making music the pioneering violinist, composer, conductor and teacher made history by leaving behind a peerless legacy of a classical tradition in the country’s townships and villages.
Born on January 7, 1941 Masote died on May 26 at 76. He was buried on Thursday at Westpark Cemetery in Joburg.
His singular determination to promote classical music – particularly through music tuition and performance – challenged white perceptions about Africans’ alleged inability to perform Mozart, Handel and Haydn’s pieces. At the age of just 11, he already knew he was not going to become a jazz musician like some of his peers, who were born in Sophiatown – the crucible of jazz in the 1950s.
“In 1952, I was just another young black boy growing up in Sophiatown. But my life changed after I saw the great lord Yehudi Menuhin playing at Father Trevor Huddleston’s Christ The King Church where my friends and I were altar boys,” he recalled.
The world-famous concert violinist and conductor left a big impression on the young Masote. Most violinists start practising in their pre-teens. But Masote had to wait until he was in his late teens before he could pick up his prized stringed instrument – which was donated by jazz pianist, Sol Klaaste.
Encouraged by his headmaster Harry Percy Madibane and violin teacher Jeffrey Diedericks, he practised every day for long hours. His other mentor was Professor Khabi Mngoma, father of singer Sibongile Khumalo. He was also a founding member of the Jubilee String Ensemble – the first African string ensemble – as well as the Ionian Music Society.
Masote, Diedericks and other eminent residents of Soweto such as Urbania Mothopeng were members of the Ionians. Urbania was the wife of Zephania Mothopeng, former president of the PAC, reverently known as The Lion of Azania.
On Valentine’s Day, 1971 Masote married the Mothopengs’ daughter, Sheila. They were automatically targets of political harassment by the apartheid authorities, who detained them at the slightest excuse. But they remained unbowed.
The Ionians brought about a golden era of black classical music in the country.
Choral singing was an integral feature of the Masote household. Both parents and his seven siblings sang in the church choir.
In 1952, Menuhin – one of the most famous violinists of the 20th century – was in Joburg for a number of concerts and had insisted that at least one of his performances should include a racially-mixed audience. And that’s how Masote came to attend the late American violinist’s recital in his Sophiatown backyard and fell in love with the classical instrument.
When South African universities refused him entry to study classical music, in 1973 he enrolled with the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in London and took his courses through correspondence under the supervision of eminent music teacher, Allan Solomon.
His efforts earned him a licentiate in violin teaching. Over the years he garnered more academic achievements, notably a Bachelor of Music degree and an honorary licentiate with Unisa – a first in the history of the institution.
Masote’s inspirational story of how a black man living under apartheid used the violin as an instrument of protest against racism has been adapted for television and theatre by local and foreign directors. Mozart in Meadowlands (2004) is a documentary about his determination to bring classical music to his community, despite the political persecution he and his family experienced at the hands of the security police.
It explores his enduring admiration for Handel’s classical pieces and how, for 20 years Masote dreamt of bringing The Messiah to township audiences in their own languages. This he achieved, which earned him an accolade from the PanSouth African Languages Board in 2006. Directed by Pauli van Dyk, the documentary also features 21-year-old Kutlwano Masote playing for his father’s childhood idol, Yehudi Menuhin in 1995.
In 2012, SABC2 screened Monna Wa Mmino (Music Man), a four-part drama series on his life and times under the theme of unsung heroes and heroines. Starring Vuyo Dabula (Gaddafi in Generations) and Lerato Mvelase as Sheila, the series illustrates how music and romance overcame South Africa’s racial politics.
It brings into the spotlight the personal and political tensions brought by the couple’s decision to leave Soweto in 1984, in response to an invitation by the then Bophuthatswana government to teach classical music and establish a youth orchestra in the apartheid homeland.
The couple’s eventful life has also been immortalised on stage. Masote’s Dream is a theatrical portrayal of their musical journey.
Written by Dutch playwright Dagmar Slagmolen, with musical direction by Kutlwano, the biographical production was staged at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in July, 2015.
It is the story of a boy growing up in Sophiatown who realises early in his life that the only way black people can play in a symphony orchestra is if they start their own.
This he did when he founded the Soweto Youth Orchestra in 1965. It became a symbol of black pride in southern Africa. The orchestra performed at national choir festivals and in neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe, Botswana and Lesotho.
Out of this seminal institution emerged the Soweto Symphony Orchestra and the Soweto String Quartet – the original members of which, Reuben and Sandile Khemese, Kolwane Mantu and Joshua Thelele Masote, trained as classical strings players.
The Soweto String Quartet was established in 1978 at Masote’s behest, and in 1986, Thamsanqa Khemese and Makhosini Mnguni joined the ensemble.
In 1979, the quartet got a taste of international exposure when Masote secured a deal for them to perform at an international youth orchestra festival in Aberdeen, Scotland.
The event resulted in Sandile and Kolwane being offered bursaries to study music in England.
The philosophy behind the string ensemble was to promote South African standards on global stages using symphonic arrangements.
Today, Kolwane Mantu is one of the respected classical music teachers in Soweto. Sadly, the ensemble leader, cello player and primary composer, Reuben, passed away last year at 62. Cellist Themba Machobane is the new member.
Other prominent musicians who were trained by Masote and performed in his classical and choral outfits over the years include jazz trumpeter Prince Lengoasa, composer and conductor Mokale Koapeng and George Mxadana – founder of Imilonji Ka Ntu choral ensemble.
The Soweto Symphony Orchestra was the first orchestra to perform at the inaugural National Arts Festival in 1978.
Kutlwano Masote is a world renowned cellist, composer and conductor. In 1995 he became the first African to be offered a scholarship to study music at the prestigious Menuhin Academy in Bern, Switzerland. Michael’s grandson Pendo Masote is a gifted 13-year-old who will soon perform at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, outside London – a third generation Masote to benefit from the legacy of the late violin master. Pendo will do auditions at the school from June 13 to 15.
Michael is survived by Sheila, to whom he was married for 46 years, three children, and five grandchildren. Sam Mathe is the editor and publisher of Jazz Life Magazine