Joy of Jazz: Prince Lengoasa – soulful playing that sometimes saves souls

NOTE FROM GWEN: Financial Mail didn’t have room for this. But the interview — and Prince’s reflections on the role of the Salvation Army in South African jazz — offer insights into another hidden aspect of our musical history, so, even after the concert has gone, I reckon it is worth posting.

Personal celebrations and over a century of jazz history were on show when Springs-born trumpeter Prince Lengoasa and the Amaqhawezikazi Big Band played Joy of Jazz on Thursday 24th September.

Prince Lengoasa
Prince Lengoasa

The date was the shared birthday of two celebrated singers: Letta Mbulu and Sibongile Khumalo, and the repertoire reflected their songs, with vocalists including Lindiwe Maxolo, Nomfundo Xaluva and Lengoasa’s own daughter Motheo. The all-woman instrumental ensemble mixed the talents of jazz professionals such as bassist Romy Brauteseth and pianist Thandi Ntuli, with those of other working musicians who have risen through the ranks of Salvation Army music education – a key source of skills for the whole South African music industry since the 1880s.

The words are regularly mis-quoted, but what Salvation Army founder William Booth actually wrote in 1877 was: “I rather enjoy robbing the devil of his choicest tunes…It is like taking the enemy’s guns and turning them against him.” Booth marched his first formally-constituted brass bands through London’s desperate, impoverished East End in 1878. By the Army’s Fourth International Congress in 1914, it boasted 1,674 bands in 56 countries, including South Africa, where a cornet-playing missionary had first established a Cape Town chapter in 1883.

Township conditions were right for the Army to make an impact. “Think of all those little open spaces in the townships,” says Lengoasa. “In the open air, if you have just a trumpet, a tuba and a drum, you can make a lot of noise and draw people to your message. And donated instruments could be lent out to kids who couldn’t afford their own, and who were shut out of music education by apartheid.”

Every Christmas shopper, even today, has heard the bright, brassy sound of the Salvation Army bands playing carols in shopping malls. “All that practice,” remembers Legoasa, “playing sometimes right through December. I tell you – by January, my jazz chops were so hot!” He says that distinctive sound has certainly influenced his approach to arrangements, and particularly the way he writes for horns – “but those textures won’t be the only ones coming through at Joy of Jazz. I’ve commissioned arrangements from others too, including Kaya Mahlangu, Africa Mkhize and Denzil Weale. So familiar songs such as Music In The Air, Mountain Shade and Not Yet Uhuru are getting a whole range of fresh treatments.”

The music of Mbulu and Khumalo, the trumpeter says, was a strong influence on his musical growth. This concert let him bring together his extensive career in jazz and popular music and his direction and teaching work for the Salvation Army. He was born into the Army, travelling the country with parents who served as officers, and gaining some of his own musical education in the ranks. He is currently lay Bandmaster for the 125-year-old Johannesburg City Corps band. But Lengoasa has also spent 11 years in jazz outfit McCoy and Friends, teaches, has scored theatrical productions, and worked with Umbongo, Caiphus Semenya, the Gauteng Jazz Orchestra and currently the Victor Ntoni tribute band, the Mzansi Ensemble.

Rather than simply evoking any “Salvation Army Sound”, Lengoasa wanted the performance to demonstrate that “ people who’ve learned in the Salvation Army tradition can come together in harmony with people from jazz and really make something happen.”

The gender dimension is significant too: “We have just come out of Women’s Month, and we can show powerful women players in the army and police bands as well as in jazz.” He cites, among many, trombonist Zanele Madondo, a police band player and teacher. From the early years of the 20th Century, photographs survive of fearless, long-skirted female Salvation Army musicians playing every possible instrument. For women, this particular path into music offered an escape from the stereotypes of singer or parlour piano-player.

Sanctified strings: Salvation Army musical soldiers in the Nineteenth Century
Sanctified strings: American Salvation Army ensemble, early C20

In South Africa, the training provided another rare, important opportunity: to learn staff notation, rather than the sol-fa scale that was the norm in African choral teaching, which handicapped choristers in growing wider music careers. “That’s why,” says Lengoasa, “so many players progressed from the Salvation Army into jazz, or municipal, or military bands. They already had the right skills. I could sight-read at six.”

He lists classical composer Mzilikazi Khumalo – a former Salvation Army euphonium player – the late drummer Lulu Gontsana – who started in the Army on trumpet –, saxophonist Mahlangu and trumpeter Sydney Mavundla. There have been many more.

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Lengoasa wants to keep the Amaqhawezikazi project alive after Joy of Jazz. It’s another item on his to-do list, along with academic studies, a long-postponed album project as leader, continuing work with the Mzansi Ensemble – and, still, his work with the Salvation Army: “We need to be reviving that open-air concert thing. The needs haven’t gone away, and music can offer healing on so many levels.”

Joy of Jazz runs from September 24 – 26 at the Sandton Convention Centre. A full programme is available at http://www.joyofjazz.co.za/downloads/JOJ2015Program.pdf and tickets can be booked through Computicket.

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