With Strings Attached

updated 10/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

LIKE MOST OF SOWETO, THE VAST MONUMENT to poverty and oppression outside Johannesburg, Diepkloof Community Hall retains the weary, battle-scarred look of the old South Africa. The windows are broken, and the graffiti on the walls still celebrate the AK-47 rather than, say, the search for racial harmony. Outside the hall black men and women without jobs lounge about, even as children from the surrounding squatter camps play soccer in a dirt yard fringed with raw sewage.

Yet piercing the squalor and privation is a riff of hope. From within the hall come the sounds—incongruous as they are exhilarating—of a string ensemble. In a converted men's room complete with a broken toilet, Kolwane Mantu is teaching a class of young musicians—challenging them in Zulu, Sotho and English to feel the beat of a Bach concerto. "Okay is not good enough," Mantu exhorts viola player Tshepo Sauhatsa, 20. "If you play the wrong notes on syncopation, you'll never get it right."

Mantu himself clearly feels the beat. He is not only an accomplished violinist with the Transvaal Chamber Orchestra, but he is also in tune with the new South Africa that is struggling to be born. In January 1993, ABC News aired a poignant segment about Mantu's improbable one-man campaign to reach the youth of Soweto through classical music. The response from the American music community was electric. Orchestras in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco donated sheet music and instruments. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma sent a box of cello strings (a treasure in Soweto, where a single string costs $25). And Bruce LaRue Wade, a black violinist with the Baltimore Symphony who was dying of AIDS, bequeathed his estate.

The oldest of four children of a Soweto factory-worker mother and a father, now deceased, who worked as a clerk in Johannesburg City Hall, Mantu, 37, was always musical. His mother, Dora, remembers that Kolwane would collect pieces of glass and strike them together just to hear the sounds they made. "He could sing all Miriam Makeba's songs," she says. "But he also liked this classical music, which I couldn't understand."

Mantu's father, Isaac, who had a shadow career as a trombonist, bought his son a recorder and taught him to sight read. Then, at 13, while watching an otherwise forgettable movie, Mantu fell hard for the violin. "I was fascinated," he recalls, "by a young boy who played what I thought was a funny guitar that you played with a stick." Using a violin that his father had bought years earlier, Mantu taught himself the instrument, largely by listening over and over again to a Yehudi Menuhin recording of a Beethoven violin sonata.

Detained and beaten during the 1976 Soweto riots, Mantu persevered with the violin. In 1978 he was practicing in his mother's three-room house one day when he heard a knock at the door. It was a group of neighborhood kids, wondering if Mantu would teach them to play. "White people in this country tried to create the idea that a black person shouldn't be playing classical music—that they should only be tending gardens or cleaning a house," says Mantu, who for years made his living by playing gigs and taking wedding photographs. "It made me mad, rebellious." So he started giving lessons in his mother's kitchen. "Apartheid has taken away so much self-esteem," he explains. "I started teaching to tell the young people, 'Look, you can believe in yourselves.' "

In 1987, a year after returning from studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, Mantu and seven of his best students formed the African Youth Ensemble, a group of string players whose repertoire ranges from such European composers as Vivaldi, Handel and Grieg to their own arrangements of African music. This past May, the ensemble, which now numbers 16, played at Nelson Mandela's inauguration. But only recently, thanks to the generosity of Bruce LaRue Wade, has the group had the money to travel to concert dates outside Soweto. Yet even now, some of Mantu's students can barely afford the carfare to come to rehearsal.

Once the kids arrive at Diepkloof Hall, though, they give themselves up to Mantu. "They're riveted on Kolwane at all times," says Rosemary White, a friend of Wade's who came to Soweto last year to assess the students' needs after Wade's death. "They are just starving for any kind of education, and Kolwane, in a gentle yet demanding way, gives them something to focus on and be proud of."

Take Sello Hlapa, who at 36 is Mantu's oldest student. "I started playing the cello when I was 24, fairly late in life," says Hlapa, who finds work when he can as a gasoline tanker-truck filler. "But if I had not turned to music, I would probably be in jail."

It is a testimony to the quality of Mantu's teaching that many of his students have won scholarships abroad. Jabulani Dlamini, 18, the ensemble's principal violist, has been offered a music scholarship at Roosevelt University in Chicago—as has lead cellist Daliwonga Tshangela, 19. Mantu's youngest brother, Melale, 24, has just received a British Council scholarship to study in England; other string players are bound for Scotland and Germany.

Mantu is proud of all of them, but their departure has hurt the ensemble and deprived Kolwane of assistant instructors. "When people go off on fellowships, I try to take up their part," he says. "But now there are just too many gaps. It's like I don't have a group anymore. But how can I complain about losing kids to greener pastures?"

Tshangela and other musicians say they want to return to Soweto to help Mantu teach. But Mantu, who lives in Soweto with his wife, Mpho, 30, and their 4-year-old daughter, Khothatso, remains ambivalent about that too. He is aware that, once his talented proteges have been abroad, Soweto will suffer by comparison. "We say South Africa has changed," says Mantu. "But what has really changed are the law books. We played at Mandela's inauguration. But now we're back to real life. The kids will be exposed to all these wonderful things overseas—good concert halls, proper instruments, great musicians. If they do come back, I'll feel so guilty. Yet it would mean so much to me."

Meanwhile, Mantu will continue to introduce the youth of Soweto to the transcendent beauty of Beethoven and Bach with free lessons—he now has 60 violin, viola and cello students—five times a week. He will continue to gather his ensemble to the dingy cloakroom of the old Diepkloof Hall every Saturday. And as tiny squatter children crowd in through the doorway, he will still round off rehearsals with arrangements of township kwela music, a lively blend of American soul and indigenous lament about Soweto hardship, with Mantu himself cutting loose on the violin bequeathed to him by Wade.

Mantu's dream is to raise funds for a new building that would eventually become Soweto's first music school. "Even in this new South Africa, people are having a hard time gaining self-confidence," says Mantu. "Music will give people-back their strength as human beings."

SUSAN HACK in Soweto

From Our Partners