Interview
Courtesy of Mandla Mlangeni

In Conversation with Mandla Mlangeni: 'Jazz music was also considered pop music at some time. It was music for the youth.'

Meet Mandla Mlangeni—the South African trumpeter who took home the prestigious 2019 Standard Bank Young Artist Award.

Mandla Mlangeni is a jazz musician and trumpeter whose Cape Town-based collective, the Tune and Recreation Committee, has released two albums to date including Voices of Our Vision back in 2017 and more recently, Afrika Grooves.

Mlangeni's sound is markedly intentional and seeks to explore the cultural diversity of the African continent in all its glory. He also challenges his listeners and brings varied socio-political challenges and histories to the fore whilst simultaneously creating a refuge in music as a whole.

Born-and-raised in Soweto and a music composition graduate of the University of Cape Town, Mlangeni is the recipient of the prestigious Standard Bank's 2019 Young Artist Award and performed at its annual jazz festival.

An exceptional trumpeter, Mlangeni began studying music at an under-resourced school as a young boy. The waiting list for instruments, the saxophone in particular, was incredibly long and he would have had to wait a couple more months for his turn were it not for one of his teachers who kept a trumpet in the boot of his car. Mlangeni began playing the trumpet at 14 and he's been playing it ever since.

Growing up with the sounds of jazz emanating from his neighbor's house introduced him to the genre and its numerous artists. Not one to be bound by strict categorizations, Mlangeni says, "I don't think I'm only a trumpeter. I think of myself as a musician and as an artist, and I use music as a canvas to paint."

Mlangeni has performed alongside the likes of South African jazz veteran Hugh Masekela, kwela and mbaqanga music great Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse and saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu—to name but a few music giants.

We caught up with him to talk about being a young musician in a genre often steeped in misconceptions and stereotypes, his current projects and what it feels like to be at the prime of his music career.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


You'll be performing at the National Arts Festival. Talk me through some of the things that you've been doing to prepare for that.

Been quite a couple of things that I've been doing, and it's actually been a whole preparation—six months running. Ahead of this, I've had a series of tours, performances, recordings, and I've released an album, some of which I'll be premiering at the DSG Hall in Makhanda—the Standard Bank Jazz Festival. I'll also be presenting my two hours experiments at Freedom Ensemble and the Tune Recreation Committee.

In an era where hip-hop and pop are really dominating the youth scene, how are you navigating the world of jazz as a young musician?

Well, you make music. You continue to make music and we continue to be true to ourselves and stepping beyond categorization. What the role of the artist is in society is beyond the confines of any genre or style. So with me, I mean, I see myself as a musician and an artist. Jazz for me is the root for it all. It's what has given birth to a whole lot of genres, and at some stage, some point in existence, jazz music was also considered pop music. It was music for the youth. I think there's a misconception around jazz because of how people like to typecast it as being for whiskey-drinkers or much older people.

YouTube www.youtube.com

Was there a defining moment or a series of defining moments that moved you towards jazz?

Well, it made sense to me because I played a musical instrument. I picked up the trumpet. I started off playing classical music and from classical music, my neighbors were listening to jazz music. I'd listen to the sounds of Louis Armstrong so in that sense, it was music within my environment and music that I went to school for as well.

At school, my peers were playing this music. I spent my weekends and my after-school time around people who were listening to that music. So it made sense for me to actually check it out.

What are some of the sounds that inspire the unique sound that you have?

I think generally the sounds that inspire me, are the sounds that I hear in my head, the sounds that are in my environment, or essentially concepts that I'm thinking about. I think I want to explore more of the cultural diversity that exists in our country and on our continent. That's something that I don't think I've given too much focus. And it's not particularly just in the realm of music as well.

There are things that happen around me like, with the threat of war now with Iran, there's so much hurt, and there's so much depravity in this world that you actually you don't know how you find yourself in that position. And then you always find refuge in music and all the arts. So, I'd like to use my art, or my medium of music as a platform for artists to share their stories.

The Troubles We Enjoy / Mandla Mlangeni's Cape Town tour 2015 www.youtube.com

Would you describe your art and the way you go about creating and sharing it as being political?

I like to think of all art as being political. It shares its own stories. But in terms of its message, it's one of hope; it's one of despair. It's so many elements. In my entertainment, I also want to make you aware of things that you might not have necessarily thought about. Or challenge you as an audience. My job is also about asking those questions that face a society.

How would you describe the visibility of jazz in South Africa, particularly among young musicians like yourself?

The music that we do is a very niche market and a lot of corporations tend to stay away from it, whereas it's easy to identify with the A.K.A.s of this world. It's not that our music is less refined or not as good. It's just that there's just no representation. You find yourself where jazz or predominantly that kind of music was the norm because maybe the influence other global, the doors to other global influences were not yet opened. And you find that once that happens and the doors to democracy and freedom open, you get an influx of so much music and influence.

We tend to not let go of the ways that we knew, and we tend to forget where we come from and who we are. And I think in many ways that has happened to the music in South Africa. And, I think, speaking to that, having structured programs that can educate audiences, or having more exposure to the music, you know, for people at a young age would be extremely beneficial for this artform.

Courtesy of Mandla Mlangeni

What are some of the other performers that you are looking forward to seeing at this year's Standard Bank Jazz Festival?

I'm looking forward to seeing Amy Jephta, Gabrielle Goliath, and there's also Megan-Geoffrey Prins, my counterparts in the Standard Bank Young Artists Award. It'll be a week full of jam-packed activities. And it's also the one time of the year where artists of all genres and all disciplines actually congregate for a week, for weeks on end, being audiences among the audience. That's what makes it the most exciting festival.

READ: Meet South African Artist Gabrielle Goliath, the 2019 Recipient of the Prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award

After the festival, what are some of the things that you're looking forward to for the rest of this year?

I'll be writing some new music to different formats and looking to actually explore territories, not just in South Africa. I'm looking forward to a tour in the Netherlands. And fingers crossed, there's another tour that's also been planned. I can't talk too much about that at the moment though.

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The 'Silverton Siege' Soundtrack is the Sound of Resistance

Netflix's new film Silverton Siege features a varied and impressive soundtrack that grounds the film with tone and character.

At the end of Silverton Siege, Netflix's new original movie, the gun-toting duo of Calvin (Thabo Rametsi) and Terra (Noxolo Dlamini) walk fearlessly towards the open bank doors for another standoff with the police. They knew their fate was death.

The scene drowns in alarming red lights, then cuts to black with the sound of gunfire. Zamo Mbutho’s "Asimbonanaga" plays next; the song is a mournful acapella invoking the mood of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.


Directed by South African filmmaker Mandla Dube, Silverton Siege features a soundtrack that grounds the film with tone and character. These songs are forged in an African revolutionary consciousness. From Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat anthem "Zombie" to Philip Miller’s "Hamba Kahle Umkhonto." In the case of South Africa, they re-enchant the role songs played in galvanizing people against apartheid.

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Fela’s "Zombie" starts to play when the trio, with a hostage taken along, leave the bank and head for the chopper. What transpires afterwards is the group knowing they have been set up. Sechaba is pulling out a gun when he’s preempted by Calvin. He’s disarmed, struck in the face and forced out of the chopper, then manhandled back to the bank along with the group.

Released in 1976, "Zombie" criticizes the military as tools of oppression by the Nigerian government. It strikes a parallel to the helicopter scene. Sechaba, a Black South African, is an asset of the police. By extension, he’s in service for the white ruling class aiding the capture of the freedom fighters. What’s teachable here is that in the process of fighting oppression, the enemy doesn’t always look like those in power, but could be anyone from the grass-root.

Although they look like the oppressed, these people aren’t committed to revolutionary warfare or liberation. Their orders come from above. The next time we hear another song in the background, it is Chicco Twala’s "I Need Some Money." The scene finds Calvin and Aldo pushing out trolleys stacked with cash in the bank’s main hall. Soundtracking the scene with this song diffuses the tension, inverting the serious stakes with its shangaan-disco liveliness.

"I Need Some Money" was released in 1986, and it was the first hit from the South African artist and producer. What does it mean to need money during this time? The global economic crisis didn’t spare South Africa, with rising inflation, unemployment and weakening of its currency. But Calvin isn’t interested in the money. This is another inversion that occurs. An economic downturn in the country where seeking material provisions would be justified is juxtaposed with the revolutionary mindset of his group.

The trolley is now outside the bank, where Terra and Calvin hold a Black American man at gunpoint. While Langerman tries to reason with them, the American pours fuel all over the trolley on orders from the duo. Engulfed with fire, Johnny Clegg and Juluka’s "Impi" comes on. Calvin walks sideways towards the press with their cameras and shouts, “Free Nelson Mandela!”

This shifts the trajectory of the story. Nelson Mandela was sent to prison in 1964 for treason and opposing the apartheid regime. The clamor for his release in the film is underscored by the sheer stature of Johnny Clegg, who wasn’t just a singer and songwriter but a huge figure in the fight against apartheid.

Silverton Siege woman gun

Photo Credit: Neo Baepi/Netflix

His band, Julukua, was one of his successful racially mixed groups. Off their second album, African Litany, which was released in 1981, Impi is Zulu for ‘’war.’’ His version of "Asimbonanaga" was made with his other band Savuka from their album Third World Child and was dedicated to political prisoners, especially Mandela.

Silverton Siege isn’t a film without a body count. Outside the bank demanding for the release of Mandela, Calvin and the bank supervisor Christine (Elaine Dekker) have put away their differences. Unfortunately, she’s shot by a rooftop sniper from the SWAT team.

"Hamba Khale Umkhonto" permeates this scene where she dies. It’s forlorn and mournful. When Silverton Siege —which was released on Freedom Day last month — ends, the sacrifice of the trio becomes symbolic for what comes later: freedom.


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