May 7 2019. It is the eve of South Africa’s sixth national general elections and the posters punting presidential candidates in Soweto are as frayed as the country’s body politic, disintegrating in the biting autumn sun like Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s “Rainbow Nation” dream has over the past 25 years.
“I don’t know who I’m going to vote for, bra, it’s emotional,” says Mandla Mlangeni, echoing what feels like the position of millions of fed-up, fucked-off South Africans. “I voted three times and all those three times, I’ve been wrong.
“Politics is more racially divisive than it’s ever been,” says Mlangeni, launching into a critique of the major mainstream political parties. The DA remains focused on white entitlement. There is a duplicity in considering ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa as the country’s saviour given his inertia as chairperson of Lonmin’s transformation committee, which was responsible for the housing conditions that led to the 2012 strike in which 34 mineworkers were killed by police. Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema’s “contradictory” public utterances harness public anger and discontent in a recklessly populist manner that masters the art of propaganda and attracts media sound bytes. These racialised emotions, he presciently observes before the final election results reflect an upsurge in the Freedom Front Plus’s fortunes, are also what the right-wing parties are also mobilising around.
Yet, over the past few years, it has become obvious what the 32-year-old Mlangeni does do: play the trumpet, lead bands and compose music in a manner that brings memory, experience, improvisation, musical curiosity, social consciousness, elegy and celebration together to allow for a deeper consideration of our personal and communal present.
Mlangeni is at the younger end of a golden generation of musicians that includes Nduduzo Makhathini, Kyle Shepherd, Kesivan Naidoo, Melanie Scholtz, Siya Makuzeni, Tumi Mogorosi, Bokani Dyer and many others inquiring about the “new” South Africa through contemporary jazz.
Yet, his story, even down to the names of the bands he leads — the Tune Recreation Committee and the Amandla Freedom Ensemble — confirms an intimate connection to the new country born after apartheid’s dehumanising violence.
In Mlangeni, and the music he creates, are the stories of our past, present and future. Our fatalism and fractures, our schizophrenias and contradictions, our grand failures and our small victories. These themes are overt in compositions such as KeSona (a response to the State of the Nation interruptions that characterised Jacob Zuma’s tenure as president) and more ethereal and hard to place in pieces like R.O.A.D (Resurrection of a Dream) where he collaborated with transcendental maskanda guitarist Madala Kunene.
The hypothesis that the lack of prosecutions following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) ensured perpetrators of violence were never held accountable, leading to an illusory reconciliation project — and this moment of polarised racial animosity and distrust — is embodied in Mlangeni’s life story.
His father, lawyer Bhekisizwe Mlangeni, was part of the legal team representing apartheid assassin Dirk Coetzee at the commission of inquiry into state death squads. Coetzee had testified about the National Party government’s knowledge and sanctioning of political assassinations before he fled to Zambia. A parcel bomb sent to Coetzee by Eugene de Kock, the commander of the apartheid-era C10 counter-insurgency police unit responsible for the torture and killing of numerous anti-apartheid activists, found its way back to Mlangeni’s law firm.
At the TRC hearings Mandla Mlangeni’s mother, Sepati, and grandmother, Catherine, spoke in horrific detail about the day in 1991 when Bheki Mlangeni loaded a cassette from that package, marked “Evidence, Hit Squad”, into a player, placed the earphones over his head and pressed the play button. A “big explosion, a big noise” followed.
Bheki Mlangeni was dead. Mandla Mlangeni had not yet turned five.
“The TRC, if anything, didn’t give us closure, especially as a family, and in many ways, it retraumatised us because there was no real sense of an improvement in our lives afterwards. We were more fortunate than thousands of other South Africans because we found out what happened to my father, but many did not,” says Mlangeni. “I don’t understand how De Kock was made the sacrificial lamb of the apartheid regime while all those other leaders got on with their lives. The problems we face today are a direct result of that failure to institute criminal charges against them.”
He is adamant that restarting a “national discourse” on apartheid’s atrocities, rather than demanding further amnesia from black families who still do not know the who, how, where or why of their lost loved ones, is the only antidote for South Africa’s sociopolitical predicament.
Mlangeni says the violence of the death of his father and the subsequent emotions “feels like it’s my story, but that story of my father also resonates with many South Africans”. He says the manner in which South Africans accept violence as a way to resolve something — whether it is a domestic dispute or a political protest — is directly linked to our unresolved past.
Mlangeni felt “isolated” and withdrew into himself after his father’s death. As a 14-year-old, however, he was introduced to jazz performance by Innocent Ngwane. One of those idiosyncratic characters who populate Pimville in Soweto, Ngwane taught music to local kids out of his battered Nissan Sentra.
“He was passionate about the music and didn’t care about the money. He had all kinds of instruments in his boot and he made us believe in ourselves. During our lessons we were taught to use all our senses: we had to learn it, we had to feel it, the improvisation was already there,” Mlangeni says.
He admits that at the time “music was a search for father figures”.
Aside from Ngwane, there were many other elders for a young kid growing up in Soweto to latch on to. Greatness was around every corner: Jonas Gwangwa’s tour manager lived nearby and he was hassled into taking Mlangeni to gigs. Boundary-defying saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu was around another corner and Mlangeni remembers eavesdropping on Sakhile’s recording sessions. He pestered and begged his way into gigs and local tavern jazz sessions.
At 17 he befriended saxophonist Oscar Rachabane, who was starting to show precocious signs of emulating his grandfather, the great Barney Rachabane. “Everything changed then. Oscar came from jazz royalty and was a prodigy himself. Our relationship opened my eyes to music — from really listening to Charlie Parker and hooking into be-bop to understanding the possibility of music,” Mlangeni says.
After high school, he attended the National School of the Arts where exposure to students from other artistic disciplines broadened his musical palette and provoked conceptual elasticity. He completed his music degree at the University of Cape Town. During this period Mlangeni was learning from an array of musicians, from trumpet player Marcus Wyatt to pianist Andile Yenana, and was a part of the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Orchestra.
His appetite for music — soaking up lessons from technique to phrasing and composition and learning to hustle in the music industry — was voracious. Likewise, his partiality for alcohol.
Mlangeni is frank about an alcoholism that threatened to scupper his career. He started drinking at the age of 14, partially to forget trauma and loss, and partially because that’s what young people do.
This continued into his twenties and Mlangeni was feeling increasingly marginalised in the jazz scene. He says he started both the Tune Recreation Committee and the Amandla Freedom Ensemble as a response to so few musicians wanting him to perform as a sideman.
He laughs now about once playing outside a jazz club and getting into a fight with its manager or the other crazy shit that liquor led to. His mood becomes sombre when describing what caused him to go clean: the sudden death in 2015 of a musician who he was planning to collaborate with, drummer Sisa Sopazi.
“Growing up, that culture of drinking was normalised in some way, valorised almost. But with his death, I became aware of how little I had achieved in music and how much I still wanted to do,” he says.
To the surprise of his contemporaries, Mlangeni rocked up sober for the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown that year and stayed that way until its close — no mean feat considering the Dionysian excess there. He has been sober ever since.
He says he was always serious and passionate about music, but sobriety did change him in one profound sense: “I was certainly more present when performing.”
Being in the present is an essential part of the improvisation that Mlangeni describes as “the now composition” and which he loves to explore. His collaborations with giants like Blue Notes legend Louis Moholo-Moholo and European modernists such as Shabaka Hutchings confirms no little measure of tenacity and virtuosity in this pursuit.
Or the idea that improvisation affords this perennial outsider to be both a part of, and apart from, the music being created on stage — depending on his mood, or on colour and context. This is apparent during a gig at the
Rainbow Restaurant and Jazz Club in Pinetown outside Durban in 2017.
The Africa Freedom Ensemble are at the arse-end of a month of touring in South Africa and Mozambique. The group is slowly disintegrating because previous venues have yet to pay them. Musicians are tired and ratty and can’t wait for the tour to end — some have already gone AWOL and there is a pick-up bassist in the mix.
They get on stage. Moholo-Moholo lifts the group up and drives them towards the musical kraal where his insistent drumming demands conversation with the jazz ancestors. Hutchings obliges, as does Mlangeni. Sometimes the latter appears completely in the present, at others completely consumed by it. His trumpet playing reeks of the emotions of the previous weeks as it does of the previous decades. By the end of the first piece, the crowd is sent into a delirium for the rest of the gig.
This reciprocal affinity with audiences has translated into the critical acclaim of his recordings. The Tune Recreation Committee’s debut album, 2017’s Voices of our Vision, was nominated for Best Jazz album at the South African Music Awards while The New York Times rated it as one of the best jazz albums of the year. The follow-up, Afrika Grooves with the Tune Recreation Committee, which features Afrika Mkhize on piano, has also been attracting rave reviews. Likewise, the Amandla Freedom Ensemble’s Born to be Black.
It has also led to his being named this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, ensuring him one of the headlining spots at this year’s National Arts Festival. And more invitations to delve deeper into his art and his country, including a residency at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) humanities department, which will result in the Oratorio of a Forgotten Youth: Musical Reflections on the Youth of ’76, which will be performed on the eve of the 43rd anniversary of the massacre of schoolchildren in Soweto on June 16 1976.
Mlangeni says he has spent the past few months scouring the Mayibuye Archive at UWC for imagery, away from those of an immortalised Hector Pieterson, to “interpret sonically”. He has also been speaking to neighbours and those who lived that day and years afterwards, as an entire generation gave itself to struggle, to inform his research.
He says mythologising that moment, but away from political expediency and cliché, is important because “in the midst of all that chaos and death there is something that defines who we are”.
Mlangeni hopes to draw a genealogical line through this idea of South African youth identity from June 1976, through the 1980s and 1990s, the #FeesMustFall moment and right up to the present in a collaboration with artists such as poet Koleka Putuma, the UWC Choir and the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra under the directorship of Mandla Mbothwe.
He seems, inescapably, perfectly situated to do so.
Mandla Mlangeni and the Tune Recreation Committee perform at Bushfire in Swaziland, from May 24 to 26, and at the Bassline Music Festival at Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill on the same weekend. They perform at the Zakifo Festival in Durban on May 31 and at the Oratorio of a Forgotten Youth at Cape Town’s ArtsCape Theatre on June 15. Check online for details