Playing on the heartstrings of Grahamstown

By Tamzyn Degoumois & Jane Rosen

The Settlers Monument was filled to capacity on Women’s Day this month as Grahamstown turned out to watch a spectacular performance given by the Soweto String Quartet. The theatre came alive with the audience jamming and singing along to old favorites such as “Kwela” and “Imbube”.

The four members include the three Khemese Brothers Reuben, Sandile and Thami, as well as their childhood friend Makhosini (Mac) Mnguni. They are renowned for their unique and traditional South African sound which is a fusion of jazz, township and classical influences. 

The Soweto String Quartet were performing at the Sharc Benefit Concert to raise funds for various HIV/Aids projects. Quartet member, Sandile, stressed the importance of knowing your status and said that they encourage people to be tested every six months. Reuben said, “As artists we have a better platform to make students aware of things like Aids – it’s our duty to carry this message out there. I believe we are educators”.

The Soweto String Quartet has been involved in a number of international charitable causes such as the Tribute Concert to Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, as well as the Red Cross Heart Benefit concerts held in Uganda and Tanzania. They take special interest in “student endeavors because we were students once too” and that as “professional musicians it is our way of giving back to the community,” said viola player Mac.   

The quartet’s musical adventures have served as a record of the historical and turbulent passage of South Africa from the violent 1960s to the present. The quartet believes that they have captured the mood of the transformation in South Africa. Thami explained that the Soweto String Quartet “aims to educate and reconcile through music” and that they “have managed to break all kinds of barriers, both geographical and cultural”.

The quartet have been called ‘Ambassadors of the new South Africa’ as well as Madiba’s favourite band, and remark that their music style is as distinctive as a stew. “It’s like an Indian cooking stew, it has an Indian taste,” said Reuben. “We compose our own music, you can hear this is the Soweto String Quartet,” added principle violinist Sandile.

The quartet’s new album, Soweto String Quartet Speel Afrikaanse Treffers, is an interesting take on traditional Afrikaans classics. Mac explained that the band saw the endeavour as an adventure and that Soweto String Quartet “embraces the cultures of South Africa, so that we can begin to understand each other. I bet a two year old and a 70 year old will both dance to our music,” said Thami.  

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