Mandisi Dyantyis Somandla: almighty moving music

Sometimes an album is just so damn gorgeous that where it fits in the canon (“Yes, but is it JAZZ?”) is completely irrelevant. That’s the case with trumpeter Mandisi Dyantyis’ debut, Somandla, which I first heard a few weeks ago and which I’ve had on play ever since.

In my book, it certainly is jazz, and parts of the gorgeousness exist in the ways it invokes the historic voice of the jazz born in the Eastern Cape half a century ago.

Album.jpgThe word ‘voice’ is deliberate. Dyantyis is as powerful a singer as he is a trumpet player, and within the first few tracks he’s revisited memories of both Victor Ndlazilwane and Victor Ntoni, with exhortations that could get you on the dancefloor in Kuse Kude (plus a pinch of gravelly traditional vocalese too, at the end) and romantic crooning on Izingo. Further into the album, you think of Ringo Madlingozi as well.

We have to wait till the fourth track, Olwethu, to hear a trumpet solo, and then it’s one that combines bluesiness and dazzling runs with the brio of a Dennis Mpale.

But although you can call up all those historic names to sketch the feel of the music, they absolutely don’t define Dyantyis, because his compositions are his alone.

Dyantyis is a graduate from the UCT jazz school, and while the products of that milieu consistently produce intelligent, vibrant music, catchy hooks in the old-school sense aren’t always its most prominent feature. He seems to write them all the time. Even on more impressionistic numbers, such as the slow processional, Because You Knew (Less), the idiomatic common ground between horn and voice is so strong you can walk away humming.

A strong ensemble underlines all this: three alternate pianists – Andrew Lilley, Blake Hellaby and Bokani Dyer – plus Lumanyano Unity Mzi on drums, an empathetic Sean Sanby on bass and the inimitable Buddy Wells on reeds. Wells is responsible for many moving solos, including those on the lush love song Ndimthanda, and Ingoma Yenkedama – his power as a saxophonist has always lain in his ability to reach the heart (of a melody, a harmony, and the listener). And in case that latter ballad hasn’t pulled enough heartstrings, it warms up for the title track, which pulls even more with a plaintive, velvet-throated solo from Dyantyis himself and some equally velvet fingers from Dyer.

As well as uniting the horn as voice and the voice as horn, the album also draws out a clear line of descent from historic community singing (Molweni, Esazalwa Sinje), through the big bands of the Eric Nomvete, Ndlazilwane and Tete Mbambisa eras, to today’s complex, thoughtful jazz compositions of, for example, Feya Faku. There’s no mistaking where this music comes from – and not solely because of the language of its lyrics. The chords and harmonies born from overtone songs, the way solo and ensemble voicings are juxtaposed, and the restless canter of rhythms all position it proudly in relation to its roots.Portrait.jpg

Dyantyis is music director for the Isango Theatre Company, a position he’s held since 2008 and which has taken him across the world. Mood is obviously an important concern in theatrical composition, and here, on an album dominated by ballads, the overwhelming mood is spiritual and lyrical. That’s reinforced by an all-acoustic sound, and sensitive mixing from Murray Anderson. It’s unashamedly romantic music – not merely the hearts and roses kind, but more the love of god and community. So you might consider buying it for Valentine’s Day…but you’ll be playing it, and savouring the spirit and musicianship, long after that.


The politics score #2

I did promise to keep an eye on the arts and culture policies presented in election manifestos. That’s proving an easy job – because there’s hardly anything. The EFF document, launched on Feb 2, is strong on things to be made mandatory, but shares the pervasive malaise of the other parties: silence on implementation processes and where the money will come from.

It has one excellent proposal: an arts and culture teacher for every grade in every school. That needs some attention to teacher training and curriculum materials too, and perhaps we can read more of the intention from the manifesto’s advocacy of more scholarly publications in indigenous languages – definitely a progressive step. There’s also a proposal, in the section on Traditional Leadership, for “mass participation in cultural activities”: again, an excellent idea. Unfortunately, the words are so general that they could mean anything, including compulsory Reed Dancing. We need the phrase “access to create and consume the arts” upfront, and some indication of how. The creative economy, meanwhile – over-foregrounded (but at least present) in the ANC document – is invisible.

As for the GOOD Party manifesto, launched the other day, it contains just the usual platitudes and silences on the arts. Artists and musicians, we know, all love a good party – but they won’t find one there.

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