Vi­o­lin Ma­sote’s protest against racism

Doyen of clas­si­cal mu­sic in town­ships has left a re­mark­able legacy that thrived de­spite ad­ver­sity, writes

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

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

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