Mandla Mlangeni: Born to Be

Mandla Mlangeni: Born to Be
Seton Hawkins By

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I want to inform the people around me, I want to be a beacon of light to my community, and I especially want to be of service to my community. Not even just in music, but in the message I want to bring to the community, of us loving ourselves, of us being kinder to ourselves, and of us seeing a bigger vision of diversity and a realization of what we want to do. —Mandla Mlangeni
Mandla Mlangeni has been engaged. The South African trumpeter, composer, and bandleader oversees three groups, notably the Amandla Freedom Ensemble and the Tune Recreation Committee. Additionally, his works are marked by an intense effort to explore and connect with social discourse in the country today. Indeed, from the Tune Recreation Committee's naming nod to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to the Amandla Freedom Ensemble's latest project Born to Be Black: A Celebration of the Conscious Soul exploring black identity, black culture, and black pride, Mlangeni tirelessly endeavors to ensure that Jazz serves a social function for people. For him, the music and its practitioners have a role to play, providing a space for dialogue and discussion, and utilizing their art to drive social progress.

All About Jazz: You've previously mentioned in interviews that "the trumpet chose you." Can you talk about that?

Mandla Mlangeni: I was schooled in Soweto. That's where I started my formal music education. I used to play recorder, and because of the lack of instruments in the school, the only instrument available for me was the trumpet. I was impatient; I actually wanted to play saxophone and clarinet. So I said, you know what, I'll play trumpet anyways. I thought it was an easy instrument that I'd be able to master in a couple of months. It's proven to be quite a challenge, and I'm still learning it! I play no other instrument apart from that.

AAJ: In picking up the trumpet, you entered into a rich legacy of great South African trumpet players. At what stage did you become aware of that legacy?

MM: Well, I was aware of it from the beginning. For me to get the sound of the instrument, I had to listen to its practitioners. From early on, I was very steeped in the tradition of where the music came from. My earliest influences were Louis Armstrong, Lester Bowie, Wynton Marsalis, and obviously Bra Hugh Masekela. My biggest and most immediate influence for a long time was also Bra Feya Faku. Later in my varsity years, I received lessons from Marcus Wyatt, who encouraged me to apply to study at the University of Cape Town, and also filled out some forms for me to attend the Youth Jazz Festival in Grahamstown. In order for me to get the sound I wanted, I knew I had to acquaint myself with the tradition in order to mold what I wanted to do.

AAJ: You continued your studies further at the University of Cape Town. What was that experience like?

MM: The University of Cape Town was an eye and ear opener! I had the incredible opportunity to be in daily contact with many of my contemporaries now. We all had divergent tastes in the music we enjoyed, the likes of Kyle Shepherd, Shane Cooper, Bokani Dyer, and many of the guys in the scene. Cape Town is where I formalized a lot of my training. I had the opportunity to play in the big band, the orchestra, and the environment of Cape Town helped. It's a tourist city; every night, something is happening, and I watched gigs and went to jam session. My formal and informal education in music was grounded in that.

From there, I knew what I wanted to do in my music, and I knew what that meant, to be in Cape Town and immersed in the scene, and to try and create something that would make me stand out from the crowd.

AAJ: Historically, there had been musical distinctions between the music of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Did you find that to be the case?

MM: Yes and no. You find that a lot of musicians from Cape Town actually move up to Joburg, and you find that they become absorbed into the scene. With Cape Town, the focus is different; it's more in the school of BeBop and the tradition of Charlie Parkers, Dizzy Gillespies, and it's focused on the Jazz tradition and playing the changes. Whereas in Joburg, it's more cosmopolitan, you have more influences because you have more diverse cultures from all over the world. Cape Town is more the place where you honed your craft, and then Joburg is the place where you had to present it.

It was ironic, because I was born and raised in Joburg, but I had to go to Cape Town to hone my craft. I was in Cape Town until the time I was ready, and then I came back to Joburg, and that's when the journey found its meaning.

AAJ: While in Cape Town, you took part in a lot of community outreach and service with brass bands. Can you talk about that?

MM: I come from that tradition, and it's how I learned music, with informal community music centers. They're an integral part of music education, and I think they're how you grow audiences of tomorrow. I feel that I need to immerse myself in community, and that it's a huge disservice if I just play music and don't interact with the community. In Cape Town, I was a coordinator for brass band activities at the Solms Delta. That was a role previously held by Alex van Heerden. Due to his passing, they got someone to fill his tasks, and I took over some of his responsibilities together with Adrian Brandt who was in charge of spearheading that operation, especially in going out into communities, particularly the farmlands where they aren't exposed as much to the music.

I feel that is very important to me, and it's something I still do. Every project for me has a workshop component, of making the music as accessible as possible for future audiences, not just for people who can afford the music. That's where I came from, and if I had not received those opportunities, and I don't know where I'd be. These actions make a big difference; you find years later a student who was a part of a workshop comes up to you and says, "man, I attended your workshop and I started listening to Jazz more." It brightens my world.

AAJ: You formed your own brass band, the Native Groove Collective. Was it around this same time?

MM: The Native Groove Collective was formed in 2010. I wanted to celebrate our heritage. And one of the programmers for the City All Sessions came to a concert and loved the whole concept. It was part of me making an endeavor to actually perform the compositions of composers, the likes of Khaya Mahlangu, McCoy Mrubata, or Abdullah Ibrahim.

That's something lacking in Cape Town. They tend not to acknowledge local practitioners, and instead focus on the American art form, or give more importance to artists who are not from there. Of course, Jazz is an American art form, but we've formed it in our own way. It's a language that we've carved out for us to understand it here in South Africa. That's the beauty of it, and it was part of that call for me to say, "I have not set foot in America, but I know its music. What is happening in South Africa? Who are the people in South Africa who form the culture and the music here?"

You have people here like Khaya Mahlangu who was part of a seminal band called Sakhile, who shaped the music scene here. You have the likes of Bra McCoy, who toured a lot with Hugh Masekela, and those people are never spoken about, even when you go to lectures about it. The focus was never on us, on what we did as a people, or the strides our parents and grandparents made so we could be a part of society. And that acknowledgement-which also led to another concept of mine, Born to Be Black-notes that yes, Black is beautiful. We come from a turbulent past, but let us also acknowledge the beauty. Let me acknowledge the light I can contribute to the world. Let's dismiss the negative associations with blackness and what "black" is, and be the guiding light to bring audiences closer together.

I saw the Native Groove Collective as a chance to be in dialogue with South African music and actually perform it as a brass band.

AAJ: It's interesting you bring up Khaya Mahlangu and McCoy Mrubata. Both of them have separately noted the 1976 uprisings as a turning point in their lives and music. And for Khaya and Sakhile, their piece "Isililo" addresses the uprisings whilst tapping into Zulu musical traditions to do so. You are also referencing local traditions in your own efforts; can you talk more about that?

MM: Our history has so many parallels between what happened in South Africa and in America with regards to segregation and to apartheid. For the most part, South Africans looked up to Black American traditions, which were a model for blackness. Black Americans seemed to be in control of their destiny. We have since learned that they were oppressed like us, they were denied the right to exist in many ways.

When we say tapping into tradition, we are acknowledging where the music comes from, acknowledging that the music is embedded in a deep sense of Africa. You find the connection with American music retracing its roots to Africa.

Then you find us as South Africans, aspiring to the American ideal, and we forget where we come from. When Americans come here, they see something that for us is simple or mundane, but they see the diamond, the jewel, and they take it and make something out of it.

We've got traditions and our own thing in our rich diversity. It's something we need to acknowledge and share with the world. I think for a large part that's something we haven't yet grasped. We need more avenues for us to express it. We like Americans' contribution to music in the form of Jazz, culture, art, and dance, but in only taking that we ignore who we are. We don't give voice to our message. I want to go back and re-trace steps, and see how it can relate to my immediate environment and our community.

AAJ: That beautifully sets up the Amandla Freedom Ensemble. When did all of these ideas weave together to establish the ensemble?

MM: They've always been woven. I think I just formalized it by calling it the Amandla Freedom Ensemble. Going back to Joburg and having to start all over again, it's when I was in contact with many of these great artists. They encouraged me to do something that could lend voice to what I wanted to say.

AAJ: On the ensemble's debut album, Bhekisizwe, can you talk about the decision to title it in tribute to your father?

MM: The reason why was because I never really had the opportunity to know my father. My father contributed a lot, not just for his country, but for his immediate community. He was an exemplar to those around him. For me is the epitome of manifest destiny in an African way. He came from humble beginnings: when he started school he started at a very late age, at 11, and went on to define what he wanted to do. He knew his calling from early on, he wanted to restore justice and he wanted dignity for his people, which at that time were not happening.

He found his voice through becoming a human rights lawyer. Through that, he worked on very high-profile cases and uncovered, through the law firm he was working with, one of the atrocities of the apartheid government, the forces in Vlakplaas. His death was untimely, and for me not having him physically there but sharing word about what he had done filled a large void in me.

My father is imagined in my life. I see him as a beacon of light, an inspiration. I think, were he alive, how would the circumstances of the people around him have changed? How would the circumstances of my life have changed? How would South Africa have evolved? Would he have been part of the change to make it a better place? It's that force of human life, and you can never see what the future holds. But to me, it's an ode to him and to keep his memory alive, that's the most important thing.

Not to say that it's just an acknowledgement of my father. A lot of credit is given to my mother, because she's the one who carried me, who encouraged me to do music. She paid for my classes, and she taught me what love is. She persevered, through hardships she persevered and looked forward to the promise of a better life. She wanted to make life better for the people around her, as much as possible, and I greatly admire that. It taught me to give back with regards to my music. That's what I want to do: I want to inform the people around me, I want to be a beacon of light to my community, and I especially want to be of service to my community.

Not even just in music, but in the message I want to bring to the community, of us loving ourselves, of us being kinder to ourselves, and of us seeing a bigger vision of diversity and a realization of what we want to do.
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