Mandla Mlangeni’s Afrika Grooves –different voices; a shared home

download-1Trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni is always a busy man. He’s launching two albums, and has two collaborations on the boil, both of which we’ll see at next week’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival. The Swiss/South African The Mill (whose first album, When the Wind Blows is out this month) features the trumpeter alongside Swiss bassist Marco Muller, reedmen Florian Egli, Matthias Tschopp and German Fabian Willmann, and South Africans pianist Yonela Mnana, trombonist/vocalist Siya Makuzeni, guitarist Vuma Levin and drummer Kesivan Naidoo.

Mlangeni first came together with these European musicians and regular South African collaborators at the Berne Festival, and the recording session took place when the players were participating in the Makanda National Arts Festival. “Two things make this kind of project possible,” he says. “Having two bases – here and in Switzerland – splits the costs of quite an expensive nine-piece group. And the support of the team at Pro Helvetia has been vital. They’ve been incredibly open to making new music, new networks and new collaborations possible.”download

But if The Mill unites together musicians who already know one another well and have workshopped a lot, Mlangeni’s other collaboration in Cape Town, rePercussions, looks likely to be a site of surprise and serendipity.

The idea of doing something exploring rhythm and the “reverberations of both the sound and the ideas”, he says, started some years back with Mlangeni, bassist Shane Copper and saxophonist Sisonke Xonti. The diverse commitments of those three meant the project stalled for a while. This new edition includes DJ Lag, Mobo-winning UK drummer Moses Boyd, and Tiago of the well-loved outfit 340ml. “I’ve been struck by Moses’ skills and his voice,” says Mlangeni. “But we’re all very different musicians, and I wonder what effect our working together will have on listeners…”

moses-boyd-jazz-drummer.jpgIt’s another example of the quality Mlangeni always seeks in his collaborations. “It’s not ‘we’re all different but really we’re the same’”, he explains. “It’s much more: we’re all different, and the music’s creating a place where we all belong. rePercussions is going to be an adventure of backgrounds and personalities.”

That’s certainly true of the other album he’s launching: Afrika Grooves ( ). Before you hear it, that might seem wholly predictable as the title of the second album from Mandla Mlangeni’s Tune Recreation Committee. TRC, after all, is the trumpeter’s “Cape Town” band – as opposed to the more Gauteng–sounding Amandla Freedom Ensemble. So far, both bands have concentrated on Mlangeni’s compositions, but where AFE has been challenging and upfront political, TRC has acknowledged more explicitly the club- and dance-rooted nature of much of the Mother City’s jazz groove. So – more slightly world jazz for jazzing, right?

And then you press play, and all those expectations get blown out of the water.

There are only two Mlangeni compositions on the album, the appropriately dreamy Lover’s Reverie and the closer Abazingeli – of which more later. The other five tracks come from pianist Afrika Mikhize (two), guitarist Reza Khota, bassist Nicholas Williams and drummer Clement Benny, with a powerful sonic contribution to all from Mark Fransman on tenor, bass clarinet and alto flute.

The album starts when Afrika (Mkhize) grooves: the opener, Kudala, begins with a classic mbaqanga structure – though the pianist says he was initially trying to avoid that I:IV:V chord progression – before taking off into something gentler and more lyrical, ending with fiercely intelligent foregrounded drumming from Benny. You could still dance to it, but you’d need to extend your repertoire beyond jive.

More composers, says Mlangeni, brings more of the ideas behind TRC into the music: it’s more collective, more democratic and grants everybody greater literal and metaphorical ownership. (UPDATE: For more about those ideas, see my interview with him at )He’s enjoying the current make-up of TRC (which has gone though a couple of incarnations). “Everybody is an amazing player, but we’ve all made different choices about how we balance live performance, teaching, studying, touring, profiling yourself, all the other things we do. This set-up gives everybody an equal platform.”

Mlangeni is deliberately lightening his own burden of multiple roles as musician, marketer and promoter. He’s currently Artist-in-residence at the UWC Centre for Humanities Research, and is drawing in other talents to share the work of making the music happen (respected promoter Aymeric Peguillan is organising the Cape Town appearances) – “because composing and practice also need time and honestly, me, I really just want to play!”

After Kudala, the compositions travel wide, through Khota’s meditative, constantly-mutating Diamond Mind, the impressionistic Lovers’ Reverie, Mkhize’s Herbie Tsoaeli tribute, Malume (the kind of brisk post-boppish tune Voice used to play so memorably) and Williams’ softly-landscaped Red Room. There’s still plenty of groove – the tricky patterning of Benny’s drum textures holds the sound together perfectly – but there are also memorably tuneful melodies and some gorgeous solos. On the sleeve note, Fransman describes the enterprise as: “singing, dancing, questioning, answering, but always listening”, and that’s what comes across: musicians entering the spirit of one another’s compositions and helping all the tunes to grow. And, promises Mlangeni, “Recordings are always an archival catalogue. They’ll be different again the next time you hear them: five or six months later, the music has always changed.”

The current TRC

The closer, Abazingeli, wraps the whole concept up and ties it with gold string. It takes us back to the basics of groove, using layered percussion (with guest Tlale Makhene) and overdubs to compress what can – and has – been a 20-minute track into six. It manages to allude simultaneously to the worldlier sounds of the first TRC album, and the outness of Mlangeni’s collaborations with Shabaka Hutchings.

There are dozens of delights on Afrika Grooves, but it’s for the compositions and arrangements that I keep on listening to it. It’s definitely a space where distinctively different voices comfortably inhabit a shared home.

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