Preserving SA’s Music Legacy: An Interview with AFE Bandleader Mandla Mlangeni

South African jazz music, particulalry in Johannesburg, is undergoing a renaissance where young musicians are taking the baton from the older genration and reimagining it in a contemporary way. We speak to one of the leading young lions, Mandla Mlangeni, bandleader for the Amandla Freedom Ensemble.

Before we talk about your debut album, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your journey with music and your role in the Amandla Freedom Ensemble?

I was born in Soweto. My first encounter with music was when my dad brought me a toy piano from one of his visits abroad. Both my uncle and aunt were sangomas and participated in a number of rituals – so music has always been a constant feature in my life. I could probably sing struggle songs before I learned how to sing church hymns. 

My primary role in the Amandla Freedom Ensemble is that of a facilitator more than anything else. I organise the day-to-day organisation of the band, plan tours, write and arrange the music and also play the trumpet in the band. The rest of the cats in the band have the arduous duty of looking cool and rocking up to the gig in grand fashion….jokes. We all have responsibilities in the band from the logistical to the musical. Over the years I have learned that it is imperative to delegate certain tasks to certain members so as to ease stress and lighten the workload.

Amandla Freedom Ensemble (5)

Tell us a little bit about the Amandla Freedom Ensemble, how it came about and some of the collective’s influences?

The Amandla Freedom Ensemble (AFE) is an urban arts music collective of young musicians dedicated to the advancement and preservation of the South African music legacy. We participate in artistic dialogue and collaborations with many of the living legends of South African music, particularly jazz and indigenous music.  

The AFE is a cultural movement founded on the pillar of promoting opportunities for everyone to experience live music. As an ensemble, we are committed to promoting quality and artistic renewal through collaborations with established musicians and workshops with composers/arrangers, with the mission of contributing to the canon of our dynamic musical heritage. 

We’ve been described by the Jazz Times as an “urban arts ensemble which wraps elliptical melodies in three-part harmonies, rich with impasto, swinging like broken chandeliers”.

Is there any connection to Jonas Gwangwa’s Amandla Cultural Ensemble?

There is a sense of reverence/homage to the elder, as we take on the mantle and continue the struggle on a different frontier…the minds and hearts of the listeners. We are for the attainment of a musical freedom that is well aware of the tradition yet seeks to recreate, interrogate and assimilate the fervour of our times.

The AFE carries some political connotations. How do you think music/art acts as a form of protest? What message do you wish to express through your music?

I know it has some political ring to it…even the abbreviation of the band could be mistaken for a political party on the outskirts of George Goch.

Music is a very powerful tool to convey any message, whether it be political, social or religious. What matters most to me and the music the AFE makes is the true intention of the music. So a question I ask to myself is “What am I trying to say and how am I going to say it?” and then I go about putting it in a musical context that is interpreted only by the timbre of instruments.

Our message is very clear and simple, an open mind is your passport to enjoy the ride…we explore a diverse range of musical landscapes. Our sonic journies are always linked to the vibe of the audience.

Artwork by Sheldon Wins
Artwork by Sheldon Wins

Jazz music is often viewed as old and highbrow. South African jazz has seen an emergence of young practitioners who are not only reinterpreting the music for themselves, but are also attracting younger crowds to jazz shows. Why do you think that is?

Jazz was born in a brothel on the streets of Louisiana, it was played by the dispossessed and disenfranchised. Jazz is a black American art form with a history that can only be paralleled to the suffering and injustices caused to its creators and pioneers. That in itself is a political statement. It has stood the test of time and has informed the music of the world all in the space of a century.

Jazz lends its voice in a variety of guises. I think the advertising industry and other industries have misled the masses into believing that Jazz is for the educated. Jazz innovation has always been pioneered by the young, they lend the voice to the currents of new trends and influences. So it is not surprising that there is a re-emergence of jazz amongst the youth.

You’ve just released your much anticipated debut album Bhekisizwe, named after your late father. What was the writing and recording process for the album? What can people look forward to hearing?

I can only hope that it will be well received. The album is indeed dedicated to my dearly departed father, my purpose and intention was to carve out a space for genuine musical dialogue between the musicians and imagine my father alive in this day and age. I wonder what his thoughts would be. Would he think that we as black Africans have made progress? Do we have a right to our dignity? Or would he think that all the blood spilled was in vain? So many questions…very little time.

The pieces performed on the album were workshopped months, even years prior to the album recording in different guises under my various bands, such the TRC in Cape Town, so I knew exactly how they were meant to sound. I played the music so much before that I knew the strengths of the musicians performing them and the interpretative liberties they could make.

Artwork by Mzwandile Buthelezi
Artwork by Mzwandile Buthelezi

Your event posters and album cover art are described on your website as “artvism”. Who have you collaborated with and how do the visuals extend the message of the music?

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to curate performances with many exciting artists and have thus learnt to strike a balance in choosing artists who would best lend their artistic voices in the message we are trying to convey. Art and music are not mutually exclusive so in choosing the album cover I sought the talents of a fine artist by the name of Dathini Mzayiya, the graphic design genius of Mzwandile Buthelezi who did the layout of the album, and the sharp photographic lens of Rethabile Phakisi.

Apart from the Amandla Freedom Ensemble, who are you listening to?

I always enjoy listening to the classics of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong, Clifford Brown, Woody Shaw, Sonny Rollins and our very own Louis MoholoMoholo, The Blue Notes, Bra Feya Faku, Bra Bheki Mseleku, Bra ZimNgqawana and a host of other musicians.

What do musicians and art practitioners alike need more of?

We need access to information and artist based forums that can be incubators for creative endeavours.

Where can we buy the album and see the ensemble next?

The album is available for download on CD Baby and iTunes under the Amandla Freedom Ensemble, and listeners can get a hold of the disc via independent music retailers such as Just Cd’s in Braamfontein, MabuVynl, Revolution Records and the African Music Store in Cape Town. People can also go to our Facebook page and order directly from us.

Our next performance is on Friday, 27 November at 7:30pm at the State Theatre as part of the African Music Nights at the Rendezvous Stage.

Amandla Freedom Ensemble (3)

Photographs of the Amandla Freedom Ensembe by Ignatius Mokone.

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