A friend remarked there was something that felt “historic” about the Amandla Freedom Ensemble’s Born to Be Black concerts last Thursday and Friday at the Orbit.
Partly, history was carried in the multi-generational (and multinational) nature of the line-up. Musicians ranged from veteran drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, born in 1940, through pianist Andile Yenana, born in 1968, to Mlangeni and his peers, all in their 20s and 30s. A majority South African ensemble also included Argentina-born bassist Ariel Zamonsky and Memphis-born reedman Salim Washington.
History was also in the vast range of South African – and international – references the music contained. No collection of standards, this (although some of Mlangeni’s melodies, such as the ballad Bhekisizwe, are set fair to attain that status). Rather, the history emerged from a feel here, an allusion there, or a cleverly-woven quote somewhere else amid a dazzling tapestry of free improvisation. That was an indication of how knowledgeable even the youngest players on that stage were about the multiple traditions they inhabit and enrich.
Some musicians are born to be bandleaders; others are not, and Mlangeni clearly belongs to the former group. He has the compositional ability to craft unique repertoire, and the energy to make gigs happen. Both those qualities have been apparent for a while. What was more strongly showcased in the Born to Be Black ensemble was another vital bandleader’s quality: the ability to curate enembles.
With a master drummer like Moholo-Moholo on stage, it might have seemed superfluous to add yet more drums. Yet the multiple pulses of Moholo-Moholo, Tumi Mogorosi and percussionist Gontse Makhene not only built the required intricate polyrhythms, but also offered a set of distinct rhythmic exchanges within the larger discourse of the band. That happened all over the stage: reedman Oscar Rachabane’s unique edginess debated with Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s romanticism; Yenana and Zamonsky shared quiet, contemplative ideas even as the horns flew free, dissonant and loud.
It all fitted together; it all worked, and it allowed audience ears to shift between the big, rich aural canvas of the whole band and the smaller conversations and individual explorations happening simultaneously onstage. Another South African-led band, the Brotherhood of Breath, shared that gift for offering a layered set of musical discoveries within the same performance – and that was another slice of the historic feeling that suffused Born to Be Black. (And if you want to know why multidimensional ensemble experiences are more important than the bravura of a grandstanding solo, see this excellent NY Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/08/arts/music/grammys-tend-to-focus-on-heroics-in-singling-out-the-jazz-solo.html?_r=0 )
We saw a fine collection of jazz Grammy winners last night, and a benchmark of South Africa’s contemporary awareness is that several have recently played on SA stages, including singer Cecile McLorin Salvant (at Joy of Jazz), bandleader and composer Maria Schneider (at Grahamstown), and genre-busting contemporary outfit Snarky Puppy (at Cape Town). Congratulations to all of them. Here’s hoping that another multiple winner, hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar – and the jazzman responsible for the intriguing, intelligent sonic textures of To Pimp a Butterfly, Kamasi Washington – make it to these shores soon.