It’s dog days and high noon in Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital. The time calls for icy refreshments and a telephone call with the musical man of the moment, Mandisi Dyantyis. Conversely, it’s a temperate day in the legislative capital as the maverick composer, songwriter, trumpeter and vocalist sits in Cape Town, slurping some hot beverage or other.
The most compelling act on the country’s musical circuit today, every show Dyantyis announces is a sell-out within days. His second album, Cwaka, released in December 2021, is fast confirming facts laid bare since the spring of 2018, when he marked his campaign as a bandleader with the release of his debut, Somandla.
Dyantyis has since taken hold of powerful propositions. His singing, trumpetry and the concepts that govern his approach to composing are concerned with much more than music – and he is alive to it. This becomes clear early on during the series of lunch-hour phone calls that constitute this interview.
To understand the musical mystique radiating around Dyantyis, one has to drink from the well that raised him. He is a child of the township of New Brighton, due north of Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape, which is a fountainhead of a great jazz tradition and the home of giants like master trumpeter Feya Faku, the late saxophonist Zim Ngqawana and many others. However, it’s the underappreciated story of “New Brite” as a seedbed of choral music that calls for careful consideration.
“Two of the country’s biggest choirs are from New Brighton,” Dyantyis says. He holds up The Mighty Matthews Singers and the Joy of Africa choir as exemplary standard bearers of this tradition. “Then you can imagine there were a whole lot of other small choirs made up of many people struggling to be good enough to make it into these two big ones,” he says, describing the energy that suffused much of his childhood.
More than nurturing the ambitions of young choristers, this environment “affected how we carried ourselves as kids in general. We felt special about being part of a choir. We behaved and thought of ourselves as being different. We were kids of about nine or 10 years old. And yet, we aspired to some dignity!”
More than the individual
Choral culture or “choir psychology”, as Dyantyis puts it, instils certain values in choir members. To be a member of a choir is to commit to the idea that “how you sound as a group matters more than the prestige of any individual singer”, he says.
Dyantyis believes the decline in South Africa’s choral culture, both as a secular social activity but especially in churches, coincides with the rise of “individual lead singers or ‘solo stars’ who are backed by groups of singers. Church choirs are not like they used to be.”
“There’s none of that community of spirit,” he says. This lack of a communal ideal can also be seen as a symptom of a larger decline in social mores. If this sounds a tad like high moralist reflection, credit the fact that Dyantyis is a believer, a committed Christian in the Protestant mould.
Arriving in Cape Town as a first-year student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2002, he searched and found a home away from home in the Rosebank Methodist Church. The parish gave him a place among fellow believers to commune with the music too. It took a while after joining, but Dyantyis would become part of a crop of music-minded members who sought to start a worshipping choir.
“At first I would just come to church on Sunday, sit at the back and suffer silently about how bad the singing was,” he remembers. “It kept getting worse. It’s like God was saying ‘You will suffer until you rise up and sing’. My plan was to just be a simple member of the church. But, well, the music called on to me,” he says.
Thanks to social media, this side of his life is available to witness too. There is a YouTube clip of Dyantyis conducting the Cape of Good Hope District Choir delivering the hymn Siyakudmisa Thixo. It’s a rare picture of his passion for the craft of the chorister. He hurls himself, thrusting and gesturing, leaping and lifting with every phrase as it lifts and swings from low to a rapturous diminuendo. It is glorious.
The most important thing
The sum of it all allows one to understand the kind of career path Dyantyis has chosen to arrive at his current station. Unlike many of his peers, following his musical studies at UCT’s music school he eschewed the allure of becoming a leading jazzman. Instead he took up a post as musical director of the Isango Ensemble, a theatre company based in Cape Town.
The nature of his role is remarkable. “Though there are musical directors who do play [instruments themselves], this is the job of someone who listens. It is a role that places you outside the performance,” he says, insisting that as a musical director “you are there to serve the larger body of the show and music as a corrective listener”.
Dyantyis credits the time he has spent with the Isango Ensemble as centrally formative, his “second university”. Over the years, part of the journey saw him craft the adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo. He also worked on Venus and Adonis, which opened the 2013 Globe to Globe season at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London. In 2017, Dyantyis would compose new music and reimagine some songs from World War I for Isango’s production of SS Mendi – Dancing the Death Drill, based on Fred Khumalo’s book.
These, along with other projects, have made Isango a very consequential training ground. Many of his adept listeners can hear its effects in his music today. Principally, it focused his ear on the supremacy of story, or the centrality of the libretto in the making of songs. “In theatre you learn to edit yourself. As musicians we are always looking for a good idea to grow our sound. In theatre, an idea is only good if it helps grow the narrative. This is the most important thing,” he says.
In fact, beyond individual songs, Dyantyis draws on theatre when approaching the design, sequence and structure of his records too. “To me it’s like a book. I am telling a story.” This means he aims for a coherent narrative flow from the opening to the concluding track. His albums are not a collection of musical pieces that show off his skills as an instrumentalist. Furthermore, one can argue that there’s never much divergence from the typical way Dyantyis sings or his method on the trumpet. He privileges the quality of his sound over a display of musical dexterity.
Laments for the dead
On Cwaka, this is best displayed in Zamile, dedicated to the late baritone Zamile Gantana, a founding member of the Isango Ensemble and a dear friend, who died in July 2020 from Covid-19. The song is a melodic chorus built on a simple, steady ghoema rhythm. Like a hymn, its melodic line pairs Dyantji’s B-flat brass with Buddy Wells’ warm and unhurried tenor in a duet. Their mutually empathetic phrases hug each other like two friends staggering along an empty road at dusk.
Zamile is a dirge. Accounting for its meaning, Dyantyis says: “I don’t yet have an easy way to talk about his passing. My heart is still confused about what to say. So we just play this melody for him and keep from falling apart crying.” This is in sharp contrast to how he approaches the memory of his late mother’s death with NguMama and Isigidimi. On the record, the former functions as a prelude to the latter. It’s very short – unlike the version he workshopped on the tour that preceded the recording.
“The two songs are about a phone call we will all get one day: telling us our mother is gone. It’s a call we are never ready for. So I don’t want to make it about me individually,” he says. In a way, while confronting heavy memories of his own loss, he is trying to craft and gift us with usable grammar to carry us through our own grief and sadness.
This keen ability to keep shaping a refreshing language may be the pact between him and his many followers: he gives them a way to experience the things that often go unacknowledged for a lack of words. His music invites them, like prayer, to tame the absolute and the banal terrors of the everyday. In this way, his music comes not unlike the way people are seized by religious rites and rituals.
Acts of devotion can speak to ethereal ideas and the everyday. Songs of protest are what hymns sound like when they dare to make common cause with the urgent political hungers of the people. How else could Dyantyis flow from Ziyafana Zonke, a chorus about the treachery of corrupt politicians, to Ndiyakholwa (I believe), a benediction about hope for a better tomorrow, with such ease? Sure, it is partly owing to the persuasive force of his humanising voice as a singer.
But whereas his followers see him as a soloist, a leading man, Dyantyis insists on being heard together with the collective: Wells on reeds, Steve de Souza on bass, drummer Kevin Gibson and pianists Andrew Lilley, Blake Hellaby and Lonwabo Mafani. Together they dare to be more than a band of separate soloists. They coalesce into a choir of voices, gathered like a song, phrase upon phrase, and offered in the unity purpose or praise.