MUSIC”, asserts Kabelo Motlhome, “is supposed to make you feel happy, or sad; make you want to dance; inspire you; take you to another place. If it’s not doing that, something’s going wrong.”
Motlhome is lead violinist of the Resonance String Quartet, only two years old and starting to make waves after the recent release of their CD, Kuanza. Resonance, also including fellow violinist Kabelo Monnathebe, viola player Tiisetso Mashishi and cellist Daliwonga Tshangela, are often to be found in what might seem unlikely settings for a string quartet. As well as orchestral work (in the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra and the Johannesburg Music Initiative), and the customary corporate concerts, they’ve also played with jazz artists like US singer Gregory Porter and trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, and on hip-hop sessions with Kwesta, HHP and Khuli Chana. Kuanza is an appealing collection of covers, ranging from Abdullah Ibrahim and Bright Blue to the Beatles, Bill Withers and Ray Charles.
“It was made deliberately to put Resonance out there,” explains Monnathebe, “so that people knew about us, and could leave a performance with something to remember us by. And you should be able to enjoy it even if you don’t think — or don’t know — you like classical music.”
Monnathebe knew his own tastes from an early age. He grew up in a classically minded home; his uncles play in the Soweto String Quartet, and the family marched him off to Buskaid as soon as he was ready, a trajectory that later took him on to studies at the Royal College of Music in London, alongside Mashishi. Cellist Tshangela started much later, well into high school, and later studied at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “I knew this was what I wanted to do,” says Monnathebe. “My uncles have been proud and supportive, and since then we’ve jammed with them.”
Motlhome, by contrast, drifted into the music. Though his grandfather owned an extensive collection of jazz records, which have now become a valued reference library, “at that age it was just a casual interest. I was about 10, and after a football game in Soweto my friends said they were going to music lessons. I kind of tagged along — and then, when I heard the music, I asked if I could stay!”Interest quickly turned into obsession, he says: “I studied playing so hard in high school that there was no going back; I went overseas to study in Manchester, and my love for the violin grew as I studied. The more I learnt, the more I was freed up to deal technically with the instrument, and opened up to more genres of music.”
The quartet came together almost by accident. As freelance musicians, they often found themselves on stage together at corporate functions. “We noticed that when the specific four of us were together, something amazing happened — and when one of us was substituted, that thing wasn’t there,” says Motlhome. “It’s unexplainable,” adds Monnathebe. “It just sounded — and felt — so good.”
“But we didn’t want to imitate any other group,” says Motlhome, “or even, however much we respect them, be called ‘the next SSQ’ by the media. We’re still searching for our own identity. We’ve discovered we’re good at playing across genres, and the album has made people aware of that side of our playing, so that interesting projects are starting to line up.”
Motlhome is the main arranger, though he says he’s only a “closet composer”. He says the empathy between the four often guides his arranging decisions: “It’s like — aha! I know how he’s going to play this.” But it’s not, he says, a seamless or easy process. “You need sensitivity to make music with other people. There are always four ideas, and we have to be willing to listen to each other to agree on one. It’s not about changing your own playing, but rather always thinking ahead to ensure your sounds don’t clash.”
One of the qualities that characterises the Resonance sound is the sweet expressiveness of their tone. Monnathebe says the group aims for the “most natural sound” possible from their instruments. Motlhome adds: “The strongest natural sound you can get is the human voice — but to get close to that on an instrument you have to rehearse a lot. There are always debates — ‘No, let’s cut out the vibrato there’ — to establish what works for us and the particular piece of music.”
That debate and flexibility is part of what makes the quartet experience more satisfying for Resonance than orchestral work. “The orchestra can be rewarding,” says Monnathebe. “It develops technique and exposes you to great repertoire. But there are also many, many rules — too many — and it’s all about the conductor’s vision of the music.”
Less rule-bound contexts, however, can be challenging. Motlhome has spent the past year immersing himself in jazz, after he played for Tshepo Mngoma and discovered that “though I had all the right notes — it didn’t swing”. He finds jazz “helps me to know myself. It puts me outside my comfort zone. We’ll be on stage, and Mandla [Mlangeni] will point at me and say ‘Solo!’ and I’m like: ‘But we didn’t rehearse this ...’ But once you get used to it, it’s fun.”
The quartet’s concerns, however, are not limited to self-realisation. They are also educators, the two violinists at the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra and Buskaid respectively. “A lot of these kids have never been exposed to instruments, or had the opportunity to see a performance, or perform — but when you see the hunger for music, and the commitment, I think they are going to grow up better players than us — especially, often, the most disadvantaged,” says Monnathebe.
Both feel that learning music can have major benefits: “Playing an instrument helped me to learn discipline, and that went right through to my schoolwork and managing my time,” says Motlhome. “Anyway, our radio stations can’t always be playing foreign music, so we need new musicians and composers coming up all the time. We mustn’t be selfish with our craft.”
That interest in new music is reflected in their plans. Resonance will play on jazzman Mlangeni’s next recording, and their own second release could feature compositions from pianist Paul Hanmer and bassist Lex Futshane. “Many good composers here,” explains Motlhome, “don’t have a budget for bigger ensembles with strings. Now they know about Resonance, they are interested in writing for us.” A broad musical palette will certainly remain one of the group’s defining characteristics: “We don’t want to be defined as ‘classical’ or ‘jazz’,” says Motlhome. “We just want to be musicians.”
Hear the Resonance String Quartet in a season of UJ Classical Programme concerts with the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra at the University of Johannesburg, starting March 7.