For the Office of International Advisement’s February Eye-on-Culture, Thapelo Masita was interviewed. Thapelo is a first year graduate student studying cello from Blomfontein, South Africa. Read on to learn about his experiences touring with KZN Philharmonic, studying in the United States, and his brief stint as a violinist.
According to my sources, you started playing cello when you were 12. What were your musical experiences previous to the cello?
Before cello, I played violin for about a year. I switched to cello because I still sounded horrible on violin after a year. My friends were getting better than me on violin so, I went to the director of our program and asked to start cello. He agreed and when I got home, I told my parents that I had graduated from the small one to the big one. Being non-musicians they were proud and surprised.
How do your parents feel about your pursuit of music?
Both my mother and father were very supportive from the beginning, they both love music. In fact my mother used to be the choir conductor for many years.
I don’t think I would have been able to survive Juilliard’s intensity had I not had these two prior experiences. Interlochen was a safe place in the middle of the woods where I had independence but still a lot of guidance. Eastman is really where I did most of my growing and made friends for life. Having been at these schools, I have developed personally and I just know more people. As a result, living in a big city like New York doesn’t feel so alienating because I have had 5 years to make friends, many of whom have ended up in New York.
You’ve played with a multitude of orchestras in the United States, and in South Africa. Can you tell us more about these different experiences and how they have influenced your current work?
I was fortunate enough to get my first real professional orchestra gig right after Interlochen. I went on tour with the KZN Philharmonic one of the top orchestras on the African continent. We toured France for two weeks to celebrate Nelson Mandela. It was some of the best fun I’ve ever had and also eye opening. This tour taught me what it really means to be prepared in the professional world. I take that lesson with me everywhere I go. I was also principal cellist of the Bochabela String Orchestra which was the main training ground for me in terms of playing in a section and leading. BSO is the flagship ensemble of the Mangaung String Project, an outreach project in Bloemfontein, South Africa which teaches classical music to children from previously disadvantaged communities.
Can you tell me more about the Mangaung String Project? How did you first get involved?
The Mangaung String Project started in the 90’s in Bloemfontein after the American bassist Peter Guy, who had recently moved there realized that children in South African townships had no access to classical music. So he decided to start teaching a group of 5 students at Bochabela Primary School in Bloemfontein. Today the program has over 500 students in several cities near Bloemfontein.
I was first introduced to the program when I was 11. They came to my primary school to give an outreach concert and offer lessons to students who were interested. Many children applied to study. It was fun. We all had to start on violin but after a few months I switched to cello because it was big and I had become tired of the violin sound.
You speak SIX languages! Have you have ever experienced a linguistic mix-up?
The differences between Sesotho and Setswana can sometimes be tricky to navigate but other than that, no. Although the six languages is a little unusual, most people in South Africa speak at least three languages proficiently by the end of high school.
Can you tell us what your favorite place is in your hometown? Why is it your favorite?
I have too many to speak of in this instance, but I can tell you that a place I go to most often, is the music school where our program is based. It has been my home since I was 11 when I started violin. I spent all my afternoons and Saturdays there until I moved to America. Some of the most vivid memories in my life were made there. I also love the chaos at the school there children playing everywhere, teachers trying to get them to practice and just a general joy about the place. I really love it.
What are some cultural differences you’ve noticed from South Africa, the United States, and other places you have traveled to? How has the adjustment to these cultural differences been? Do you have a story of a funny cultural misunderstanding?
So many. But perhaps the most surprising [difference] when I first arrived in the US and [actually] in my travels to Europe, is how people relate to one another in the western countries. In South Africa, people are so much more open and speak to and empathise with one another so much more easily I find. We call this the principal of Ubuntu. It is difficult to translate this but it essentially means humanity; an understanding that we are because our neighbour is. Adjusting has been fine for me thus far.
What is the biggest misconception about South Africa that you’ve experienced?
In America, people think all South Africans speak either Afrikaans or Zulu. This could be for a multitude of reasons but South Africa has 11 official languages all which are distinct and independent. These languages have their own rich histories and literature that is specific to each tribe which the language originates from.
For those of us who know less about South Africa, can you give us a little more information about the people and cultures of South Africa? Or, do you know where we should start our own research?
Well, where to start with this… South Africa has 11 official languages. Nine of these languages are these tribal languages, Sesotho, Setswana, Sepedi, I s’Xhosa, I siZulu, Venda, Ndebele, Swati and Tsonga. The other two are English and Afrikaans which came to our people through colonization, English from the Brits and Afrikaans because of the Dutch.
There is a saying in Sesotho which says, “Motho ke motho ka batho.” This roughly translate[s] to, “a person is a person because of other people.” I believe this saying exists in all the languages of the South African tribes. This idea is central to our beliefs and South Africans are more compassionate and open as a result. We are by no means perfect, but every foreigner I have met seemst to feel the same way about South African people of all races and cultures.
You’ve traveled pretty extensively, where is one place that you not had the opportunity to visit yet, and would like to go to, and why?
This changes throughout the year for me but recently I have made a few wonderful friends from Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Colombia. They have told me fascinating stories about their cultures, food and abundant nature in their countries. I would love to go and experience it myself.
Now that you’ve studied in the United States for over 5 years, what advice would you give to a student who wants to study away from home for the first time?
Try your best to have an open mind at all times. Living overseas, one meets people who have had lives so different from one’s own that it can be difficult to relate to people. Don’t be deterred by that, it should make you want to learn more about the many different ways people have found to deal with this thing we call life.
According to Instagram, you’ve spent time with some very interesting people. Do you have any favorites?
I might sound like a bore but, that will always be my beloved mother. She was the queen and I miss her always.
If you could have any professional job at Juilliard (President, admissions, working in the international student office), which would it be?
I love the idea of leading a school and helping to create the best possible environment for students to learn. So I would say President but I also really want to play in the Juilliard quartet so I guess I’ll have to say those two jobs.
Do you have any hidden talents that you would like to share?
I sang a lot when I was with the Bochabela String Orchestra. It was fun, I still enjoy singing.