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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.

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