The ensemble from South Africa's township, the SOWETO STRING QUARTET are true pioneers. Susanne Martin reports.
If asked to imagine a string quartet most people would visualize four white gentlemen dressed in dinner suits playing on stage at the Royal Albert Hall. But the Soweto String Quartet defies all stereotyping with four South African friends who, instead of walking the dusty hostile streets of Soweto, trundled along to violin lessons and matured to be an international inspiration. As young boys in the '60s, the three Khemese brothers weren't popular in their hometown for venturing to music lessons with their violins and cellos. But, forbidden by their parents to hang out on the streets with the other boys, brothers Reuben, Sandile and Thami worked hard at their musical studies.
In 1978 the elder siblings Reuben and Sandile were playing together in Aberdeen, Scotland, when their talent was spotted. In 1980 Sandile secured a place at the Dartington College of Arts to study music. Later the brothers attended a workshop led by well known classical musician Deborah Johnson and the head of the department of music in Belgravia, Professor Alexander Pavlovvich. Sandile then went on to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester for four years. In 1986, he returned to a tumultuous South Africa with experience of new cultures, languages, lifestyles and musical skills. The Soweto String Quartet formed with a fourth member, boyhood friend Makhosini Mnguni.
Despite their classical grounding the Soweto String Quartet, nicknamed SSQ, brought eclectic, African sounds to the string quartet tradition, fusing township jazz and African pop to their classical stylings. Sandile explained, "I think what the music of the SSQ bring to the fore is the diversity of different cultures existing in South Africa. The uniqueness of SSQ music lies in the use of intricate rhythms and melodies which a lot of our people relate to with ease." But more than just playing their beautiful instruments, Sandile said that "the spiritual vision of the SSQ has always and will always be a huge part on which our music is based." Furthermore, he believes that "the music of the SSQ has given audiences around the world spiritual healing, hope and a fresh new outlook towards life in general. The band will always hold dear our spiritual vision permeated through our music."
The musicians signed their first recording deal in 1992 with BMG Africa. Two years later was a significant time for the band as their debut album, 'Zebra Crossing', was released. The 1994 South African elections also turned everything around for the band and they were honoured to play at President Nelson Mandela's inauguration. Furthermore, that year they supported Whitney Houston on her South African tour.
SSQ's second album 'Renaissance' was released in 1996. The following year saw the quartet add to their impressive list of concerts with performances at a Prince's Trust event for 62 Commonwealth Heads of State, as well as at The Nations Trust Two Nations Concert in Johannesburg alongside the Spice Girls and Billy Ocean. Again the Soweto String Quartet played for a massive audience in 1998 at the Princess Diana memorial concert that was televised worldwide. Also that year, the third album 'Millennia' was released in November followed by 'Four' in 2001.
With rising success the foursome marked their 25th anniversary in the music industry in 2003, a year which also saw them perform at the ICC World Cup Cricket Opening Ceremony for another worldwide television audience. Commenting on the band's many travels and concerts Sandile said, "Certainly the SSQ has travelled extensively throughout the world. In the process we have been showcasing and educating audiences about South Africa in general. We have always endeavoured to promote our country and as such we see ourselves as ambassadors for South Africa."
The release of their fifth album 'Our World' came in September 2003 and brings a mix of jazz, reggae, traditional and even Afrikaans music. But it's their latest album 'Plays Gospel' which is the introduction of the Quartet to most Cross Rhythms readers. Released in the UK through Authentic Music the album features some stirring vocals from South African gospel star Rebecca Malope as well as dazzlingly inventive arrangements of such gospel standards as "Oh Happy Day", "How Great Thou Art" and "Amazing Grace". Sandile explained how the project came about. "Early in 2005 we received a telephone call from Maranatha Record Company, enquiring whether we would be interested to record a gospel album. At that stage we had already been talking about this possibility for about two years. We felt that it was important for us to do. We wanted to show and thank God for his love and mercy, and for blessing the SSQ through trials and tribulations over the many years of our existence. We (within ourselves) felt compelled to record this album and we are excited about the brilliant piece of music that resulted from our collaboration with Maranatha."
Cellist Reuben Khemese added his thoughts. "As a product of classical music, I never planned to venture into the world of gospel. However, this album is a nostalgic remembrance of my childhood, having grown up in the church. I personally declare this album a tribute to my late father, Elliott Khemese (uTata). With his special musical knowledge, accompanied by his religious soul, he would have loved to be part of this project. . . I consider this album to be the most intense and personal I have ever done. It was overwhelming coming back from the studio and sharing familiar tracks with my wife, Nonyameko, which reminded us both of our youth. It was one thing growing up with church hymns and being surrounded by gospel music - but producing it and sharing my perspective of it with the people out there feels like the full experience!"
But it was viola player Makhosini Mnguni who put 'Plays Gospel' most clearly in focus. "One of the reasons why SSQ recorded this album is to lift up the King of Kings, the Lord Jesus Christ, the great Musician, the giver of melodies. In spite of everything that happened in the development of SSQ's career, God Jehovah brought us together. He gave us wings to fly."
With such a notable popularity in classical music, the players also strive to be examples for other young enthusiasts starting out as they did. "There is no doubt that seeing four township musicians turning something unique into a form of music that the world wants to hear is really inspiring to young artists in the country," explained Makhosini. Furthermore, Sandile said that their efforts to inspire young talent are already working out. "The process of music education has long started," he said. "Young people in all corners of our country have embraced learning orchestral instruments. Almost all young string players have in many cases been influenced by what the SSQ has established. I remain very much optimistic that the vast number of strings projects around our country advances the realisation of classically trained musicians."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.