Mandla Mlangeni is a jazz trumpeter and composer who has become a popular fixture on local and international stages. A gifted bandleader, Mlangeni has carved out a name for himself with various bands and ensembles, including the Amandla Freedom Ensemble, with which he has released two albums.
Fluent in the language of jazz — with a BMus from UCT — you are also a very inquisitive and versatile artist who seems comfortable playing in a wide range of styles, from classical to jazz to indigenous African music. With your different bands — the Tune and Recreation Committee; the Native Groove Collection; and the Amanda Freedom Ensemble — you seem set on exploring new forms of musical expression. What do you think you gain from your versatility?
I listen to a wide variety of music. I was fortunate enough to receive solid classical music training at high school which gave me a good foundation on my chosen instrument. I believe in the message the music carries and how it finds its expression from the artist/s. I also do not like to be bogged down by styles — I am more interested in making lasting musical connections with the artists I collaborate with and also to give audiences a feeling that that they can always associate when listening to my music.
Can we talk about growing up in Soweto in the 1990s? Your father, Bheki Mlangeni, a human rights lawyer, was killed at the beginning of the decade when he was investigating apartheid hit squads. You were just a young boy at the time. What led you to music? Why the trumpet? And who were your primary musical influences? What do you think the role is of music in society — can it help change or heal us?
I was born in 1986, at the peak of the State of Emergency. At the time of my birth my father had been in detention without trial for nearly six months. Hence I got the name Mandlesizwe (‘strength of the nation’). I believe my birth inspired my father to work harder towards the emancipation of his people so that my generation could enjoy the fruits of freedom without fear of indignation based on the colour of our skin. I believe apartheid deprived Africans of their true humanity. My father’s efforts were part of a movement by many like him to combat the evils of this degrading system. Although a casualty of apartheid, his selfless sacrifice for me to achieve a better life is what keeps me going.
Growing up, I was filled with so much pain and resentment at not being afforded the opportunity to have a father. My mother had to be everything to me and made sure that everything I needed was taken care of. Still, with all her efforts to make my life better, I wanted to know how it felt to have a father who would teach me how to play soccer, give advice on how to navigate the murky waters of life.
I was about four-and-a-half years old when my father was sent a parcel bomb. I remember it as though it was yesterday. It was a very traumatising experience that catapulted my life into chaos. It remains to this day the single biggest trauma I have ever experienced. Seeing your father blown up into pieces is something that no four-year-old should see.
Because of my father’s involvement in politics and activism, he would carry me on his shoulders and take me to political rallies and that’s where I first heard struggle songs. They were my earliest reference to music.
Growing up, I sang in the church and school choir and picked up recorder along the way. Trumpet was not my instrument of choice; I wanted to play saxophone because it was all shiny and had those cool buttons. Trumpet was the complete opposite, I thought — it only had three buttons and did not look like it would challenge me like the saxophone. It was only through the encouragement of my music teacher Mr Innocent Ngwane that I started to take the trumpet seriously. He gave me the Arban cornet method, widely regarded as the Bible of trumpet study.
It was only after a couple of months of playing trumpet that I began to envisage a life in music. I saw it more as a calling of sorts to find my voice through music and to effect the change I wanted to see. It afforded me opportunities to travel, meet new people, and be inspired by great artists and performers. I saw music as a way out of the struggles of everyday life. Every time I played my trumpet I escaped to new and wonderful worlds where I could channel my creativity. That is what I believe music can do: it has the power to heal and allow to access other portals that no other art form can quite do.
You were selected as part of the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Band back in 2006. This year, the Standard Bank National Schools’ Big Band will be playing music arranged and composed by you. What do you find exciting about working with young musicians? What is the future looking like for jazz in South Africa?
It is incredibly humbling to be writing music for the Standard Bank National Schools’ Big Band. It feels like I have come full circle from being in the ensemble almost 12 years ago and now the recipient of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz. It is a welcome opportunity to focus on a passion of mine, which is writing for large ensembles. It is largely because of the efforts of the Youth Jazz Festival that South Africa enjoys a thriving music scene today, bringing learners into contact with top-flight jazz musicians from all around the world who congregate at NAF and, for six full days, give all their time to nurturing and guiding young musicians. The foundations for a thriving jazz scene take root at the Youth Jazz Festival. I believe if such systems are kept in place, music in South Africa will continue getting better.
As a side note from a musician trying to establish himself on the South African music scene, I feel it is important that my music is played and performed by younger musicians. It is imperative that we as musicians are able to create systems and practices that allow for the sharing of our art especially if it builds future audiences and appreciation for what you.
You travel overseas regularly — Sweden, Switzerland,Germany, Norway — and have played with some celebrated musicians. What are your highlights of your career thus far?
I wish I could travel and perform even more regularly for more people around the world, sharing the joys of music! I have many career highlights, but one that stands out is performing alongside one of my idols David Murray in December 2017. That was an epic adventure that I was not prepared for. Performing with people who challenge me to be a a better person and musician is always a highlight as I get to take home a wealth of knowledge that informs my future endeavours.
What does winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award mean to you? What projects or collaborations can we look forward to in the future?
I look forward to touring the universe — being the first jazz musician in space playing for an intergalactic audience… On a more serious note, I would like to work with all the generations of musicians who have influenced the current jazz discourse.
You have two shows on the programme as Standard Bank Young Artist. What can audiences expect?
I will be bringing my two groups to the Festival — the TUNE RECREATION COMMITTEE and the AMANDLA FREEDOM ENSEMBLE. We will be playing material from our released albums. I’m looking forward to the Festival as an opportunity to bring people into my world and hopefully chart new grounds with regards to forging new partnerships and connections. [Click on the links to book your tickets.]