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How one pioneering man, armed only with a violin, challenged apartheid

The late Mike Masote and his widow Sheila. Picture: Loanna Hoffmann

The late Mike Masote and his widow Sheila. Picture: Loanna Hoffmann

Published Jun 5, 2017

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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, 2017, at the age of 76. He was buried on Thursday at Westpark Cemetery in Joburg.

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His singular and stubborn determination to promote classical music - particularly through music tuition and performance - challenged white perceptions about Africans’ alleged inability to perform works by Mozart, Handel and Haydn. 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 once said.

The world-famous concert violinist and conductor left a big impression on young Masote.

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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 studiously 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.

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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 Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), reverently known as The Lion of Azania.

On Valentine’s Day in 1971, Masote married the Mothopengs’ daughter, Sheila. They were automatically earmarked as targets of political harassment by the apartheid authorities, who detained them at the slightest excuse. But they remained unbowed.

The Ionians’ exploits brought about a golden era of black classical music in the country.

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Born in old Sophiatown, choral singing was an integral feature of the Masote household. Both his parents and seven siblings sang in the church choir.

In 1952, Menuhin - arguably 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 the 11-year-old 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 Masote entry to study classical music, he enrolled in 1973 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 had dreamt of bringing The Messiah to township audiences in their own languages. This he achieved, which earned him an accolade from the Pan-South African Languages Board in 2006.

Directed by Pauli van Dyk, the documentary also features a 21-year-old Kutlwano Masote playing for his father’s childhood idol, Menuhin, in 1995.

In 2012, SABC 2 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) as Masote and Lerato Mvelase as his wife, Sheila, the series illustrates how music and romance eventually overcame South Africa's racial politics.

It highlights 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 the 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 would be able to play in a symphony orchestra was if they started their own.

This he did when he founded the Soweto Youth Orchestra in 1965. It subsequently 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.

Known as the mother of all youth orchestras, out of this seminal institution emerged the Soweto Symphony Orchestra and the Soweto String Quartet, the original members of which - Reuben Khemese, 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. The Khemese brothers were his nephews. In 1979, the quartet had a taste of international exposure after 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 the age of 62. Cellist Themba Machobane is the new member.

Other prominent musicians who were trained by Michael Masote and performed in his classical and choral outfits over the years include jazz trumpeter Prince Lengoasacrt, 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 Grahamstown in 1978.

His son Kutlwano 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.

Over the years, the couple also initiated partnerships between various youth orchestras across the racial divide as well as cultural exchange programmes with countries such as Germany. Masote’s use of music as a tool for community upliftment also found poignant expression when he joined the parish of the Meadowlands Seventh Day Adventist Church in Soweto in 1990 where he made a significant contribution to youth development through music.

A highly decorated musician, his elaborate list of honours included The Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze (2005), a presidential award bestowed on great South Africans for outstanding contribution to the development of youth orchestras and choral music in the classical genre.

His commitment to community service through music training continued until his passing after battling heart failure.

Masote is survived by his wife Sheila, to whom he was married for 46 years, their three children and five grandchildren.

Mathe is the editor and publisher of Jazz Life Magazine

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