Soweto String Quartet: Sophiatown


Sophiatown is a composition that appears on the second studio by Soweto String Quartet – Renaissance. Released in 1996, the album has received international success, as well as winning the ‘Best Instrumental Performance’ award at the South African Music Awards in 1997. The album blends classical music with African pop and folk music, which creates colourful textures, new styles and exciting new compositions. The quartet describe the album “as a reawakening, revival and the dawn of new eras.”


The Music

Sophiatown is the tenth track on Renaissance, and is scored for string quartet and percussion. The area of Sophiatown was a black area in Johannesburg under apartheid. People were forced out of their houses and terror soon struck. Although its largely negative connotations, Soweto’s Sophiatown is an uplifting song of celebration. Described by the quartet as:


“A celebration of the life as it bounces along at an upbeat tempo and stands as a wonderful example of what can be achieved by taking the best elements of different cultures and fusing them, rather than, as the song title is a reminder of, dividing.”


The blend of the string quartet with the vast array of percussion instruments creates a friendly beat for the melody to bounce along. The cello keeps the bassline moving as the violins and viola play a catchy call and response feature. The simplicity of the piece adds to the sheer charm of Sophiatown. 

The bouncy percussion, which includes triangle, bongos and shakers adds to the relaxed atmosphere of the piece. The cello switches between bowed and pizzicato to add textural difference through various sections of the piece. The melody is a constant throughout in some form, with the percussion also being a constant. 

Only short in duration, Sophiatown ends with one final reprise of the catchy melody as the quartet unite for the resolving last note.


Final Thoughts

Full of joy and love, Sophiatown is a unique work that fuses unlikely instruments together to create a wholly accessible work. The work serves as a reminder of how important it is that different cultures fuse together, rather than divide.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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