“Playing music is a bit like being an evangelist,” muses trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni. “You have to make peace with the fact that you won’t stay in one place forever. All you can do is teach the community, build a network, spread your message – and then you move on.”
Mlangeni is describing the compelling second track, uMuvangeli, from his Tune Recreation Committee (TRC) debut album, Voices of Our Vision (https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/tunerecreationcommittee ). But he’s also invoking space and time in the life of a musician: travel, work in various places with various people and, over the years, an instrumental voice that also moves on; learning to say different things in different ways.
The TRC (and, yes, the pun is considered and wholly deliberate) is Mlangeni’s “Cape Town band”, with compositions crafted with the character of that city’s musicians and audiences in mind. The band comprises artists he encountered through UCT and through the city’s various live platforms, for this incarnation including respected multi-instrumentalist Mark Fransman – who also mixed and co-produced – guitarist Keenan Ahrends, bassist Nicholas Williams, drummer Clement Benny and vocalists including Zoe Modiga. Also guesting is a figure from another stop on Mlangeni’s musical journey, his family ties with KZN, in the form of veteran guitarist Madala Kunene, who’s heard on uMuvangeli. “That track plays on tradition, but it’s also a way of making people think,” says Mlangeni.
“Making people think” might be the slogan for all Mlangeni’s outfits. The trumpeter is very conscious of the need to “build the brand” – he uses those words – by getting the TRC to speak to certain Mother City audience sensibilities: “It’s more accessible; there are more vocals, more groove.” But he’s always steering what, for him, is a vital line between the opportunism of aligning narrowly with slogans, parties or factions – “That would be opportunistic” – and the opportunism of making shallow music for the sake of sales.
“Musicians are people who hold up a mirror to change. The music has to be about something and come from somewhere real…On the other hand, there’s this ‘jazz’ image of being totally serious – forgetting that we’re also lovers, family, friends, people who like to get their boogie down. And I want audiences to have that feel-good thing, but without ever sacrificing artistic integrity.”
For Mlangeni, his time in Cape Town was important in helping him untangle the purposes of music. While there, he also taught young brass players from impoverished farm-working backgrounds around Stellenbosch and Franschoek. It was a door into new communities: “My Afrikaans definitely improved! The kids I was teaching found solace and an outlet in music: they wanted to play as loud as possible, and to play tunes that were as current as possible. And here was I, teaching the standard brass-band repertoire!” That tension made him think a lot. “When I was a facilitator in that setting, the primary tool had to be acceptance. You had to say: Come as you are. It’s not how high or loud you can play, but how we can all come together to make the music happen; to reimagine ourselves as protagonists in our own stories.”
Voices of Our Vision is full of people and their stories: the wandering evangelist; the playful dance of Hop n’Skop (co-written with pianist Yonela Mnana, but a song that wouldn’t sound out of place from the Sons of Table Mountain); the melancholy, urgent, slightly desperate folk dance of Balkan Zulu.
That last is another of Mlangeni’s personal stories, and that of the band he toured with in Scandinavia: UnderDogs International. “I was the only Zulu guy in that band,” he recalls, “so that was my honorary title. They were refugees, because of the war in Serbia. And there was that mix in their sound of sadness and dancing. It wasn’t a deliberate attempt to copy some other music: it was what I was immersed in at the time. And you get surprises – it was somebody there, not here, who hipped me up to Credo Mutwa!”
For those who know Mlangeni from the music of the Amandla Freedom Ensemble, the TRC recording won’t spring too many surprises. The composition and arrangement are definitely more groove-led, with some tracks, like the nu-soul Troubles We Enjoy, definitely party-friendly (think Joe Bowie and Defunkt). But even there, the tight, imaginative playing and vocalese are tough enough keep the mind engaged in the absence of a dance-floor; it’s music as interesting as that of Bhekisizwe. And the flavour is definitely different, offering an introduction to musicians Johannesburg doesn’t hear often enough, particularly Ahrends and Modiga, about whom more below. The presence of Fransman adds a lot, not only in some very tasty solos, but also in the unexpected, enriching sonic textures of accordion and bass clarinet. You’ll find the CDs on sale wherever Mlangeni is playing – next up in Joburg, that’s likely to be late October, when the he launches the recording of the Born to be Black project, with Louis Moholo, Salim Washington, Andile Yenana, Kaya Mahlangu, Thebe Lepere, Bryden Bolton and more. There’s another album out now too, on vinyl: an LP of the Bird Song Ensemble, containing music developed for Kemang wa Lehulere’s most recent exhibition at the DeutscheBank Kunsthalle. The ensemble again includes Fransman and Ahrends, plus Oscar Rachabane, with European collaborators bassist Sebastian Schuster, drummer Thomas Worle and pianist Christoph Heckelar. Only 300 LPs were pressed, but some copies made it to South Africa; again, they’re accessible at gigs. Grab one.
Two of Mlangeni’s collaborators in the TRC also have albums out. Zoe Modiga’s Yellow: the Novel (https://www.amazon.com/Yellow-Novel-Zoe-Modiga/dp/B06XG64QRG ) has received a fair amount of airplay and broadcast coverage. It’s an ambitious, two-volume outing with many of the Cape Town jazz Who’s Who, including Bokani Dyer, Claude Cozens, Ahrends, Kyle Shepherd, Romy Brauteseth, Benjamin Jephta and many more. Modiga’s voice is a joy – smoky-warm and accurate, with subtle dynamics and clear diction – and she gets the kind of empathetic, intelligent accompaniment she merits from this big, diverse crew. The 2015 SAMRO Overseas Scholarship winner (and The Voice SA Top 8 finalist) has chosen to cover multiple vocal genres, not merely as a singer, but as a composer too. The 23 tracks ably demonstrate her accomplishment in that latter skill. We have too few good songwriters, and the industry needs to start seeking them out and using their work.
The repertoire tactic behind Modiga’s broadly autobiographical narrative – presenting the most diverse possible showcase – is one chosen by many vocalists on their debut albums. It can be, as it is here, frustrating. We hear everything Modiga can do, and everything she could be – and that tends to blur who she really is. Is she the contemplative soulstress of One Litre Deep or Shake? Is she the sassy popular singer of Uh Oh (Here We go Again)? Or is she the much more adventurous vocal artist of Inganekwane? Modiga definitely displays a distinctive, personal, composing/arranging character: layering sound upon sound. But as a singer, she is at her most interesting when her arrangements are leaner and she’s painting with space as well as sound. Although Yellow: The Novel is definitely worth buying and hearing as a comprehensive showcase, I’m rather looking forward, next time, to Yellow: The Edit.
Whenever I hear Ahrends, I want to invoke Pat Metheny – but not to suggest that Ahrends sounds “like” him. Rather, it’s the early ‘80s Metheny of As Falls Wichita, So Wichita Falls that I’m thinking of, and the almost magical sense of landscape, space, and movement that both musicians – in highly individual ways – convey.
Ahrends’ 11 tracks are all explorations: of ideas (Brotherhood; Inevitability) and of patterns in sound, such as the two Untitled tracks; one in five; the second in three. The first of those calls up the multi-layered complexity of traditional African music; the second, the lyricism of a love song – but neither in obvious ways. They’re probably the tracks in which the intensity of the teamwork with drummer Cozens makes the greatest impact.
Technically, Ahrends is a dazzling guitarist. Put simply, he does very difficult stuff. It’s not, however, the look-at-me bravura of the lead in a rock band. Rather, what you listen to are the melodies and the emotions conveyed. Only later do you think “Did he just…?” Brauteseth is the perfect anchor for those more adventurous excursions, but she can also assert a contrasting string voice, more solid and sonorous, as on the moving track Stories Behind Expression.
Narrative is the right title for an album that walks you through multiple sonic and personal meditations. In some ways, it brings us back full circle to Mandla Mlangeni’s evangelist, travelling, and shaping his own story.
This received from Aymeric Peguillan. Especially useful for readers outside Joburg who do not see some of these bands as often as they’d like:
Hope this finds you well-
You might have tuned in last Sunday to check the new series on SA Jazz produced by Militia Broadcast and broadcast on DSTV´s Channel 321 Sunday afternoons at 4pm.
This series of 13 episodes of 48 minutes each will present for the next few weeks some of the best young talents on the SA Jazz scene currently. Expertly crafted and with high standards of production, each episode proposes a live set of original compositions by a lead artist and his/her band with cuts into interview with the band leader. The series was shot at a beautiful private location in downtown Johannesburg (By Library Gardens) on the 8th floor.
Eban Olivier is the founder and artistic director of Militia Broadcast. It is under his direction that this series was produced. We (Eban and I) had the pleasure to first collaborate on the 1st anniversary of The Orbit Home of Jazz in March 2015 when we filmed the entire week of the festival that took place at the time. Following this great collaboration, Eban Olivier approached Aymeric Peguillan of PEGS MUSIC PROJECTS to executive produce with him the series. We are hoping to make additional series in the future to document the fantastic dynamic that exists on the local Jazz scene at the moment.
The series will air every Sunday for the next 12 weeks with a repeat the same day later in the evening.
Artists in order are as follows:
06 AUG – Nhlanhla Mahlangu ́s DaniMali (passed – last Sunday )
13 AUG – Vuma Levin Quintet
20 AUG – Benjamin Jephta Quintet
27 AUG – Siya Makuzeni Sextet
03 SEP – Mandla Mlangeni & Friends
10 SEP – Mkizwana Ensemble
17 SEP – Sisonke Xonti Iyonde
24 SEP – Newskool Sextet Ft. Tsepho Tsotetsi
01 OCT – Andre Petersen Quartet
08 OCT – Africa Plus Fet. Sphelelo Mazibuko, Prince Bulo and Lungelo Ncgobo
15 OCT – Keenan Ahrends Quartet
22 OCT – Luyanda Madope and H3 featuring Mthunzi Mvubu
29 OCT – Africapella featuring Titi Luzipo
Produced by Militia Broadcast.
Directed by Eban Olivier.
Executive Producers – Eban Olivier, Lance Stehr and Aymeric Peguillan
Sound and Backline: Smack Entertainment
Editor: Greg Pereira
Final Mix: Marius Brouwer
Production Manager: Willem Van Der Walt
August is South African Women’s Month: another excuse for opportunists (from all political parties, and none) to celebrate deeply stereotyped gender roles, shed crocodile tears about gender violence, and ignore South Africa’s ingrained, institutional patriarchy. Elle magazine has chosen to mark the month with a special edition on Women in Music. That’s a decent gesture, and, within its limitations, the magazine does a decent job.
Unsurprisingly, like most of what appears in the consumer/lifestyle media, any feminism is fairly lite. Paging through, we encounter Amanda Black as cover star; the fashion editor’s reflections and riffs on Ma Brrr’s sartorial style; an interview with US showbiz stylist June Ambrose; and mini-profiles of 13 other female musicians including Thandi Ntuli and Zoe Modiga. There’s also some consideration of women poets, and a back-page track listing that name-checks Makeba, Aretha (Respect, of course), Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Queen Latifa, India.Arie and Beyonce. South African music dominates, there’s demographic and genre diversity, the interviewees don’t seem to have been forced into hideous clothing, and nor are they asked any of the obviously dumb questions, or limited (except by the brevity of the edited stories) in how they might respond. From a fashion magazine, it’s as good as – if not somewhat better than – what we might have expected.
Except. (There’s always an ‘except’ or two.) Though the inclusion of DJs and a stylist offers slightly more career diversity than we usually see, Elle still reinforces the role stereotype haunting every female instrumentalist, composer, roadie, sound engineer, music writer, music scholar, lighting designer, organiser, manager, arranger, conductor and producer in the industry: ‘Can you sing?”
There have been many superb female vocal artists in the history of South African music, and in jazz more generally. (Please don’t call them ‘divas’; the term originated in opera but now carries sackloads of unpleasantly stereotyped gender baggage.) But as the small and arbitrary – there wasn’t room for more – selection of images accompanying this column illustrate, song is not the only thing women can do in music, and the singer/band set-up too often places women in a subordinate role, subject to the musical decisions of male musicians – and also too often compulsorily trussed up in tight dress, cleavage and crippling shoes. Check the boys’ club bias of most instrumentalists’ ‘jokes’ about singers. Ask any women vocalists you know about costume rules and audition practices (“Wear something low-cut”; “Can you bleach your hair”; “Let’s see you from the back…”; “How about we go out later..?”).
In most musical roles women face such pressures, but prejudice and exclusion are more marked outside singing. As blogging sax player Roxy Coss points out (https://roxycoss.wordpress.com/2017/07/15/never-enough/ ) learning to be an instrumentalist demands behaviour that runs directly counter to conventional female socialization. And until at least a third of the people in any band room are female, it’s harder than it should be to fight that. Less than a third of the women featured on Elle’s pages are non-singers; the context itself creates a subtext of ‘odd one out’.
Classical composer Sarah Kirkland Snider (http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/candy-floss-and-merry-go-rounds-female-composers-gendered-language-and-emotion/) also points out how women are pigeonholed as producing only music that directly accesses and expresses emotions – and then dissed for doing just that. In truth, some women do produce personal, emotional music. So do some men (often attracting, as Snider notes, the same kind of gendered disrespect) – and some don’t. Possibly the worst insult offered to women’s music that doesn’t fit the mould is “You compose/play like a man” – particularly when the moron offering it believes he is paying a compliment… Whether music is ‘good’ or not does not inhere in the music’s emotionality, or lack of such, or depend on the gender of its creator.
The discourse of the Elle interviews with female artists focuses intensely on the personal and the emotional. It would have been nice if some of the conversations had focused on the ‘how’ questions around music that any skilled professional loves to answer: ‘Tell us how you compose a song?’; ‘How do you shape your sound?’; ‘What’s it like, leading a band?’ and so on…
Interestingly, one producer does seem to have been asked those kinds of questions. He’s a man: Sketchy Bongo, filling the whole of the magazine’s regular ‘Unplugged’ arts page. The same hardworking journalist interviewed both him and the women musicians.
Of course, women are in music in offstage roles too, as the interview with Ambrose indicates. We have some extremely high-profile female music executives in this country too, such as Nothando Migogo pictured right.
But some roles never get written about. Think of the kitchen, cleaning and bar-service workers who keep the wheels of club life and live music oiled. It’s unglamorous, hard work, and often extremely perilous, as a 22-year-old, pregnant club worker discovered back in May. Walking home through central Johannesburg in the early hours – safe as she could manage, in the company of her brother – she was dragged off the street and gang-raped in the notorious ‘Mnyama Ndawo’ building. Her boss expressed astonishment: “It’s really painful what happened. She is a nice girl, she hardly goes out…”
And so stereotypes win out again – would it have been any less ‘painful’ if she had not been, by his definition, ‘a nice girl’? But this time, there’s a healthy added dose of willful employer blindness. He himself (or his boss) put the young woman and all her co-workers in harm’s way by not arranging safe transport home for people toiling for highly unsocial hours. Perhaps these other faces of women working in music deserve a few magazine features too?
And perhaps they’d get them, if we rejected, once and for all, the pervasive, reductive, pinkification of the collective fighting spirit that ought to be what we remember on August 9. Then we could sing, too…Vukani Makhosikazi
There have been too many deaths in the past few weeks: Johnny Mekoa, Ray Phiri, Errol Dyers. Better if they had not happened – but they did, and stirred up reflections on our collective national response. Because “when an elder dies, a library burns” – and given apartheid’s deliberate erasure of culture and memory (forced removals, with families permitted to carry little with them; re-tribalisation under the shadow of a whitewashed parody of “tradition) those libraries are becoming impossible to restore.
Politicians respond – sometimes timeously, sometimes slightly too late – with boilerplate tributes that often sound like the same track on repeat. There may be references to how the departed “died in poverty” – as though this was surprising, despite it being the condition of a majority of South Africans, particularly those in freelance, precarious and poorly-paid occupations like music. They rarely draw a link between musicians dying in poverty and the absence of, say, universal basic income grants, or more favourable tax, zoning and subsidy arrangements for live music, or a host of other music-specific and general measures that are the policy responsibilities of those same politicians. Without political will, more libraries will burn.
The media respond with obituaries. Or they do sometimes, at least: we all still remember the shameful silence of almost every major platform on the passing of the world-famous Pinise Saul and Lucky Ranku last year. Often those obituaries are as boilerplate as the political eulogies, showing signs of, at best, a quick trawl through Google for an album title or two. If, as was the case with Dyers, Google carries little, the obituary is perforce a short one. In most newsrooms there are no specialist reporters, and increasingly no in-house archive of interviews and profiles to consult. Past stories have not been digitised; current stories are hardly being commissioned or published. The Business Day Life page no longer even carries the word ‘music’. Alongside ‘books’, ‘theatre’ and other genres is merely the word ‘entertainment’, signalling how music has been stripped of any discourse beyond commodification. In newsrooms, there is already no music library to burn.
The academy – our universities and colleges – responds hardly at all. Dead politicians get libraries and research institutes named after them; graduate students are encouraged to research the minutiae of their lives and publish prolifically. Dead musicians? Not so much. When the last playing partner or fan who remembers Errol Dyers also passes, his memorabilia will have been scattered and his life and legacy will be reduced to that handful of not entirely accurate Google entries. That library has already burned.
So of course, we have to do it ourselves. Here’s the start of a discography for Dyers, compiled from what little public information exists. With the Cape’s flowering of young bands in the 70s and 80s,I can’t believe he didn’t participate in any project between District Six in 1976 and Mantra Mode in 1991. Can any readers of this blog add knowledge – not for any commercial purpose, but just so this particular library doesn’t completely burn?
Errol Dyers: a short discography
UPDATED ON AUGUST 3,4. Thanks to Nigel Vermaas, Attiya Khan, Rafs Mayet and Jonathan Eato who provided additional information. And now to Terrence Scarr and Patrick Lee-Thorpe too. More, please!!!
Sonesta 1997 (Sheer Sound)
Koukouwa 1999 (Sheer Sound)
Best of Errol Dyers & Friends 2003 (Sheer Sound)
(with Hilton Schilder and Steve Newman) All In One 2009 ( Swett Shoppe)
(As contributing musician)
Remember – District Six 1976 (CBS)
Vastrap Island 1991 – Robbie Jansen (Sea Records/EWM, CDSEK 101)
(with Abdullah Ibrahim) Mantra Mode 1991
Cape Jazz 2 compilation 1997 [Mountain Records (MOU 75020)] duo Errol Dyers /Basil Coetzee : “Majietas
Molo Africa 1998 – Winston Mankunku (Nkomo Records / Sheer Sound, NK0010)
(with the Sheer All Stars):
Live at the Blues Room 2002
The World in A Guitar (DVD) 2002 with Tony Cox and Steve Newman at the Market Theatre (ANYBODY GOT FURTHER DISCOG. DETAILS ONTHIS?)
Dudula2004 – Winston Mankunku (Nkomo Records / Sheer Sound, NK007)
Cape Jazz 3 compilation 2007 [Mountain Records (MOU 4488)] on “Sonesta”, and with Robbie Jansen on “Alabama”
Musical Democracy 2013 – with the Cape Jazz Band Mountain Records MOU4747
And here’s some video too – starting with this, originally posted by Tony Cox (thanks & respect!) of him & Errol at the Officers’ Club, Claremont, in 1986. The first clue to the thing no biographies currently tell us: about his work and collaborations in the ’80s. ASTOUNDING guitar solo: