The Amandla Freedom Ensemble reconstructs our sonic reality

Mandla Mlangeni with Amandla Freedom Ensemble members Ariel Zamonsky, Oscar Rachabane and Gontse Makhene. (Ignatius Mokone)

Mandla Mlangeni with Amandla Freedom Ensemble members Ariel Zamonsky, Oscar Rachabane and Gontse Makhene. (Ignatius Mokone)

So, darling, I’m almost ready for you.

That’s something at least a few women would like to hear from one of the country’s hippest trumpeters, Mandle­sizwe Mlangeni (29).

I, for one, had certainly been holding my breath since, three months earlier, the Soweto horn man promised he’d let me hear his debut album before its official release.

Now I’m on the floor of a room in Observatory, Cape Town, with Mlangeni, who is in bed, his arms folded under the covers, after a long night of a very well received performance at Straight No Chaser followed by ­partying at Café Ganesh.

Since he got drunk with inspiration watching Abdullah Ibrahim with the WDR Big Band at the Bassline in Johannesburg in 2004, he says, cutting an album has been his goal.

“The album was always at the forefront of my mind. It was just the economics that was a deterrent and, obviously, the way that the industry is designed. Making an album had to be on my terms. First and foremost, the music had to be in place, and the sound, and the aesthetic of what I wanted to do had to be in place.”

Most of the music on Bhekisizwe was composed over two years, but it was all recorded on one day in April.

“On the day of the recording it just happened. The resources were there. It was just a natural progression where everybody, and more, that I ever dreamed of coming to play were on it. And it far exceeded my expectations,” Mlangeni recalls, occasionally rubbing his eyes.

He is still overwhelmed. Not everyone can claim to have Afrika Mkhize, Yonela Mnana, Mthunzi Mvubu, Oscar Rachabane, Tumi Mogorosi, Ariel Zamonsky, Shabaka Hutchings and Ganesh Geymeier on their debut album.

The day of the recording was pregnant with Mlangeni’s excited courage to seize the moment and his faith in that “just right” feeling. Conveniently for him, his Mr Right Nows were also his dream guys. With no idea when he would have them in the same setting again, he went all out.

“It was just that leap I had to take. The personnel was just right and, at that time, it felt right. We recorded and we played what we could. Shabaka had to leave. Ganesh also had to leave. The guys on the project had other commitments. Either this could be a huge success or it could be a huge flop. It was so, so crazy. I went through so many feelings, all at one go,” Mlangeni recalls.

The result is an avant-garde feast of dynamic sound, bebop references and contoured playing.

No one was there just to make up the numbers. Mlangeni had no interest in being the best musician on the album. “There always needs to be someone in the band who’s got some kind of skill that I don’t have, and who has a voice that can add gravitas. Everybody in the band reflects an attribute I aspire to.”

It’s undoubtedly too early to say whether Mlangeni’s debut album will be a huge success but, unlike most Dezemba love affairs, it’s far from a flop.

The composition and arrangement of every song is a celebration of all the featured instruments.

“I’m very much inspired by the music of Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, that big sound that’s so colourful. I really, really love colour. I love dynamics. I’m into improvised music, what you’d call free jazz. It’s like: ‘Guys, I’m having a dinner party. Bring your own dish,’” says Mlangeni.

It’s this approach to composition that gives Mvubu the space to make jaws drop with his provocative phrasing, and Geymeier to wreak havoc with just a riff. With every listen you understand why, for example, Mlangeni has enlisted the services of not one, but three tenor saxophonists. The necessity of every instrument is crystal clear.

“Bhekisizwe” was baby Mlangeni’s version of his father’s name. Bheki­zizwe Mlangeni, a human rights lawyer, was killed by Vlakplaas death- squad operatives, who planted a bomb that exploded in headphones he was using. Mandla was five.

“This album is dedicated to my pops. I’m saying what any son would say to his dad: ‘I want to make you proud.’ I think he left a legacy, and I think I’m doing my part to fulfil it.”

Mlangeni senior’s legacy breathes throughout his son’s socially conscious music – from Lesego ­Rampolokeng’s brutally honest demythologisation of post-apartheid South Africa on the album sleeve to the multilayered Zim’s Whim and nostalgic Soldier’s Lament.

The title track alone is worth the album’s price, and is deserving of special mention. First, because Bhekisizwe is a cripplingly sexy tune with all the makings of a future standard. Second, it is the album’s most literal reference to his father.

At first listen, you’d be forgiven for longing for that last dance you never had with your saxophone-playing dream lover at the local shebeen the night before he got on that train to exile. Composed almost 10 years ago but still relevant today, the tune is a call to action – to be conscious of the state of the nation.

“It was my first real composition,” Mlangeni says.

Despite the message and title, the song itself is not bossy. It courts you rather than telling you what to do. Most of the first half seduces you with sax solos by Mvubu, Geymeier, Hutchings and Rachabane.

Mlangeni can see us losing every­thing in the fire, and he’s caught between wanting to be the hero and wanting to call for help. As the song progresses, Mlangeni’s vulnerability becomes apparent in the wail of the horns – jumping into the fire, salvaging what little he can, and bringing the ruins to show you the damage being done. Then the piano launches a more urgent plea that shakes you into paying attention as only Afrika Mkhize can.

“I think it resonates with a lot of people in that, in all the mess and the clutter that’s happening around them, they can still find a sense of centeredness,” Mlangeni says of the song, which is a live hit.

“The best thing about this tune is that people can sing it back, and that part of that tune lives with them until the next time.”

Mlangeni’s album’s launch tour has been extra special thanks to the support of Oscar Rachabane, grandson of the legendary saxophonist Barney Rachabane. “Oscar is one of my greatest teachers in terms of assimilating the jazz idiom, the bebop idiom. His style encompasses the very definition of South African music,” says Mlangeni.

When Rachabane takes a solo, Mlangeni is like a little boy watching his hero perform the most mind-bending trick he’s ever seen.

“Just by virtue of me hanging around him, a lot of other musical worlds have opened themselves up to me. It took a lot of years to establish the kind of trust that we have. He takes the lead musically. I take the lead in just being the big brother.”

With Bhekisizwe, Mlangeni is telling the world what direction he would like to follow. “I want to get into improvisation and how we deconstruct and reconstruct our sonic reality. The album is a step towards that direction,” he says.

It’s a brave statement to make as a young musician in a world that’s definitely watching. Sharing your plans means risking being judged on whether your journey got you anywhere. But “arriving” is not the goal.

“I don’t think you ever arrive,” Mlangeni says. “As soon as you have that ‘I have arrived, I am a master, I am a guru, I am enlightened’ attitude, you stop learning. “I don’t think I want to be in a position where I stop learning, because I think as soon as you stop learning you stop living.”

Bhekisizwe by the Amandla Freedom Ensemble is available on iTunes, and at independent music shops.



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