“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.
Guitarist Keenan Ahrends has recently issued Narrative (http://www.deezer.com/en/track/145417836 ), primarily a trio recording with drummer Cozens and bassist Brauteseth, but with guest spots from Nick Williams and Sisonke Xonti. Like many other impressive recent releases (including Xonti’s own: see https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2017/07/10/sisonke-xontis-iyonde-and-the-death-of-the-south-african-music-press/ ) it has not yet received anything like the media attention it merits.
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.