A gift to touch the heartstrings

June 15, 1994

The impoverished South African township of Soweto outside Johannesburg might seem an unlikely place for a violin teacher to make a living. Yet for the past 10 years that is where Kolwane Mantu, a black South African fiddler and music teacher, has labored as director of the African Youth Ensemble, a chamber orchestra made up of local youngsters who play Vivaldi, Handel and other composers of the European Baroque as well as arrangements of traditional African music.

Mr. Mantu might have toiled in obscurity indefinitely had not his orchestra been the subject of an ABC News broadcast last year. Among those who happened to tune in were Baltimore Symphony Orchestra violinist Bruce Wade and two friends, Carolyn Foulkes and Rosemary White, both of whom teach at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Mr. Wade, one of only three African-American members of the BSO, was deeply impressed by Mr. Mantu's work among children in Soweto. Knowing that he was dying of AIDS, he decided to donate his estate, including one of his superb performing violins, to Mr. Mantu's youthful players.

That was the backdrop for last week's visit to Baltimore by Mr. Mantu, who attended a performance workshop and met informally with students at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Mr. Mantu hopes to use part of Mr. Wade's modest estate to repair his orchestra's instruments and buy sheet music. The rest will go into a fund set up by Mr. Wade's friends to support the orchestra's activities.

Under apartheid, blacks were barred from most classical concerts as either performers or audience members. Even so, black players formed the popular Soweto String Quartet, and Mr. Mantu's Youth Orchestra has won an enthusiastic following among the community's young people.

Under the racially inclusive democracy established by the government of President Nelson Mandela, Mr. Mantu hopes South Africa will extend to black orchestral players the same support the previous government gave white orchestras. Winnie Mandela, the estranged wife of the president, has been named a deputy minister of arts and culture -- although no one yet knows what the new government's policy will be toward groups like Mr. Mantu's. Certainly we may hope it takes its cue from the generosity of Baltimoreans like Mr. Wade and his friends, who know that music touches the heartstrings of people everywhere.

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