Mandla Mlangeni trumpets economic freedom

The horn player’s new album, ’Afrika Grooves’, plays out the politics of his messages as he shares composition duties and takes control of the music’s mobility and accessibility.

“Playing music is a bit like being an evangelist,” says trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni. “You have to make peace with the fact that you won’t stay in one place forever. All you can do is teach the community, build a network, spread your message – and then you move on.”

This was in 2017, as Mlangeni launched Voices of Our Vision, the first album from his Cape Town-based outfit the Tune Recreation Committee, aka the TRC (the pun was wholly deliberate). Two years on and the TRC’s second album, Afrika Grooves, is out. He’s done plenty of moving on since then.

The TRC is one of many Mlangeni projects. He works with drum titan Louis Moholo-Moholo, among others, in Born to Be Black, and with other young South African improvisers in the Amandla Freedom Ensemble. Mlangeni also collaborates with European modernists, including reed players the UK-based Shabaka Hutchings and Swiss Benedikt Reising. He’s currently artist-in-residence at the University of the Western Cape’s Centre for Humanities Research and is the 2019 Standard Bank Young Artist for jazz.

In February, he was in a room crammed with musicians from half a dozen African countries at Zanzibar’s Sauti za Busara festival developing this year’s incarnation of the Swahili Encounters project. At the end of March, he heads to the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, where he’ll appear with two different bands, The Mill, a South African and Swiss collaboration, and groove-led exploration rePercussions.

Add to that Mlangeni’s energetic organising and educational activities, and his work promoting records and other band memorabilia, and one wonders how he finds the time for composing, practising and, indeed, life. But that’s changing and the new album starts to enact these changes.

Collective ownership

This TRC album features some familiar and some fresh collaborators: multi-reed player Mark Fransman, guitarist Reza Khota, pianist Afrika Mkhize, bassist Nicholas Williams and drummer Clement Benny. Compositions come from almost everybody.

Mlangeni explains: “I’ve always been aiming to reflect the ideas behind the music through how a band works. By asking band members to contribute tunes, we’re expressing more of a democracy, shared ownership of the music, the band, its creative output. It reflects back to the title of the ‘old’ TRC album, we’re starting to realise the vision by putting more voices into it.”

“And,” he confesses, “I’m also finally learning how to delegate.”

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At the start of Mlangeni’s life in music, immersing himself in a whirlpool of activities was intentional. He’s the son of the late lawyer and activist Bheki Mlangeni, who was blown up in 1991 by a parcel bomb sent by former Vlakplaas commander Eugene de Kock. The five-year-old Mandla was at home when it happened. It was when, as he puts it, “the trumpet chose me” that he started dealing with the shattering personal impact of that atrocity, dedicating his energy to saying something worthwhile through music.

The collective approach runs right through Afrika Grooves. All the tunes began as sketches, workshopped through rehearsal and performance and, he says, “still evolving into something different, showing the power of different minds working together”.

In the recording studio, he drew on the greater production experience of Mkhize and Fransman. “I’d just say, ‘It sounds a bit dull.’ But they could diagnose, maybe the bass levels aren’t right or it needs more reverb. So there’s shared ownership right through the value chain.” When a specific song is broadcast, royalties go to that individual composer.

Working people’s music

The mention of value chains illuminates Mlangeni’s shrewd interest in the business of music. The time he spent trying to handle all the different aspects of his projects taught him the importance of understanding the commercial side.

He’s able to count down swiftly and in detail how much making an album like Afrika Grooves costs. The figure tops R60 000, including payments to artists and recording personnel, “which must come first”, studio hire, mixing and mastering, design, registering the music, and printing and pressing the CDs. That last is the biggest element, at slightly above 25% of the total.

This discussion about the monetary side of music gets Mlangeni reflecting on the reluctance of well-heeled patrons to support music in an increasingly individualistic, commodified world.

“They’ll happily spend more showing off, buying me an expensive drink – and I don’t drink! – than on a CD. But that attitude comes at a cost. It’s a world of illusions,” he says. “You want a partner? How will it affect your status? You want a baby? How much will it cost? We’re losing that thing where people just rally round to support something because it matters.”

One of those illusions, he thinks, was “the illusion of a thriving Joburg jazz scene” created by the Orbit jazz club. He mourns the loss of the venue, the site of much vibrant creative exploration, but “the model was wrong. Joburg is a working people’s city. It’s got to be weekend music and one show can consume somebody’s entire spending money for the month.”

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In Cape Town, where he studied and is now based, “you have tourists and visitors who can spend more, more often, any night of the week.” Hence, he feels, although some regular venues have died there, too, “there are always going to be pop-up events and one-offs driven by tourism and the service sector”.

But the revival of elite, city-centre spaces is not Mlangeni’s main concern. The events he admires most in Cape Town are those run by Jazz in the Native Yards, a circuit devoted to sustaining jazz as the music of communities.

Economic freedom

That’s the other part of the vision, making music accessible, especially outside affluent areas. And there, too, Mlangeni has made progress.

He has acquired a PA system “so now we can go to a school hall or a community centre – or even a taxi rank – anywhere, and make music. Music is a microcosm of what’s happening around us. TRC’s music speaks about our mutual learnings as we develop the compositions, about how each of us had it growing up, for example, and how that’s shaped our music.”

And that’s where politics and PA gear come together in Mlangeni’s vision: “To spread those learnings, we need economic freedom. To control what we say in our shows, on our recordings; to control our mobility, our accessibility. To do that, we have to own our means of production.”

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