Four in tune with the townships: On the day that South Africa goes to the polls, Euan Hagger profiles a group of self-taught classical musicians who have set an example of racial harmony to the strife-torn township of Soweto

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The Independent Culture
Mafikeng, Bophuthatswana, is where, last month, the world's cameras recorded the summary execution by a black policeman of two Afrikaner rightwingers in the ferment of the run-up to South Africa's first multi-racial elections. It is perhaps the last place on earth where you would expect to find a lavishly equipped pounds 20m audio- recording studio, less than a five- minute drive from the scene of the killings. It is still more surprising to walk inside to find a group of black classical musicians from Johannesburg's townships finishing off a recording which could launch them into the international limelight. In the week in which South Africa goes to the polls, the Soweto String Quartet represents black empowerment of a very different kind to the violent scene witnessed in Mafikeng.

Granted, the quartet's members come from the Sowetan middle class. But, in Soweto, middle-class life is still one without proper education and with few prospects. The quartet's achievement is thus all the more remarkable. Its debut CD, just recorded for BMG, comes out in South Africa in May, and may well enjoy wider distribution thereafter; the London Philharmonic, which last year made a historic tour to South Africa, has expressed interest in hosting UK appearances by the group; and they have, in fact, already enjoyed worldwide television exposure as a result of playing for the Miss World pageant held at South Africa's Sun City Superbowl in 1992.

Yet these four players became classical musicians against a background of disadvantage. 'If you live in Soweto it isn't easy to develop and sustain an interest in something like classical music,' says the quartet's leader, Sandile Khemese. 'The church is the one place you can go to have a chance to play, but not many people take an interest in classical music because there are no resources invested in it.'

Khemese himself picked up his first violin at the age of eight after a Soweto community-inspired project had advertised for donations of classical instruments in Johannesburg's local newspapers. Today, he is still the only one of the quartet to have received formal training, having followed an unlikely path from Soweto, where he was first taught to play the violin by his music-loving uncle Michael Masote, via Aberdeen, where he played in the 1979 Festival of Youth Orchestras, to Manchester, where he won a place at the Royal Northern College of Music in 1984.

Returning to South Africa in 1986, Khemese began teaching at the ambitious-sounding, but sadly ill- equipped, African School of Music which his uncle had founded in Soweto. And there he in his turn trained both his younger brother Thamsanga, now the quartet's second violinist, and Makhosine Mnguni, the group's viola-player, who had himself set his sights on becoming a classical musician after hearing Sandile play while still a young boy. The fourth member of the quartet is Sandile's older brother Reuben, the cellist.

This line-up gives the quartet an apt symbolism. For while the three Khemese brothers are Xhosa, the tribe that forms the majority of ANC party members, Makhosine is a Zulu, although not a supporter of the Zulu- based Inkatha Freedom Party.

No less a figure than Nelson Mandela has publicly praised the quartet, walking out on stage to congratulate them after hearing them play at the International Press Initiative he convened jointly with President de Klerk earlier this year. For Mandela (who also asked them to play at his daughter's wedding), the Soweto String Quartet represents the promise of the future.

But do the members of the quartet want to be seen as bridging the divide between the two warring political factions? 'I would have a serious problem with that,' says Sandile. 'We are black South Africans. To label us Xhosa or Zulu is just another form of apartheid.'

The quartet's repertoire, too, uniquely combines different traditions, intercutting classical works by western composers with their own arrangements of an indigenous musical genre that is both black African and classically influenced. This is the music they celebrate on their new CD - freedom songs, Zulu lullabies and kwela (occasional pieces for weddings and ceremonies). As Sandile says: 'It is not the rhythm and sound of native South African music. It is an urban tradition which reflects the colonisation of South Africa and the classical music influences that came with it.'

The CD's final track, though, is 'Nkosi sikelel i' Afrika' ('Lord bless Africa') - the national anthem of the majority of black African countries. For the Soweto String Quartet, the inclusion of this piece is an act of poetic justice. Until a few years ago it was banned in South Africa and, even after the ban was lifted, performing it could still prompt a hostile reaction from whites. 'We played it two years ago at a function organised by a large South African company,' Sandile recalls. 'The audience was all-white and people began walking out. We were quite scared because we thought there might be reprisals.'

Conditions were not much less threatening when the quartet came to record the piece for its new CD. Even before that very public murder of those two Afrikaner rightwingers, the studio had been in something of a no-go area as a result of election ferment. Afterwards, it found itself at the centre of a dispute that two weeks ago erupted into a full-scale riot.

For the pounds 20m studio facilities turned out to have been part of the ill-gotten gains of Bophuthatswana's deposed President, Lucas Mangope, a Robert Maxwell fraudalike who syphoned off governmental pension funds to pay for this and other such grandiose schemes. The Soweto String Quartet were lucky to get their CD finished. The day after their final recording session, the studio was closed down and its assets began to be stripped.

Whether or not the Soweto Quartet breaks into the circuit of international concert performers depends on the success of its new CD at home and the wider recognition its distribution abroad could bring. Sandile Khemese is buoyed up by the prospect of international celebrity, but he is also sanguine. 'It would be a new lifestyle for us,' he says, 'but that is not so important. What matters is our work and our music.'

And even if his international career does take off, he will, he insists, still continue teaching in Soweto. 'This is something I must do. We have to rebuild the social structures in South Africa and music is my way of helping to do that.'

(Photograph omitted)