Sound and image evoke and honour spirit of June 16

Trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni’s ‘Oratorio of a Forgotten Youth’, at this year’s National Arts Festival, interrogates and reimagines personal and public history.

History repeats itself, and sometimes it’s tragedy twice.

In mid-June 1976, jazzmen, including saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu, abandoned their rehearsals at Orlando’s Club Pelican as neighbours brought news of children killed. That searing memory shaped the reedman’s later elegy Isililo (Tears of Soweto).

In mid-July 2021, the cast of trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni’s Oratorio of a Forgotten Youth – which addresses June 16 were just completing their last full run-through on the AFDA stage in Auckland Park before getting costumed for the official National Arts Festival recording. And then, he says, “They told us about the looting that was happening; it was getting closer.

“We had to choose: sit tight or go? Within the hour, I had to pack up and organise accommodation for the people who couldn’t travel home. And all the time we’re asking ourselves: is my family safe? It hit close to home for me, because I’ve got family in both Soweto and [KwaZulu-Natal] at risk from this ongoing onslaught against our people. But it hurts everybody. It’s our mothers, our sisters, who have lost their jobs in [supermarkets] or wherever. And chances are, those are the only breadwinners in their households. How will we go forward?” 

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That’s why the streamed video of the performance shows Mlangeni and the others in street clothes, not stage attire, the trumpeter striding the stage in a sombre black overcoat. “But,” he says, “because of what it says, it really means something for us to have made that piece on that day.”

Oratorio of a Forgotten Youth weaves together a spoken libretto from Lesego Rampolokeng, music from a Wits Jazz Ensemble, including pianist Yonela Mnana and bassist Ariel Zamonsky and from the Resonance String Quartet, song from the young voices of Vivacious Sounds and a backdrop sand animation from Tawanda mu Afrika. The work traces the historical roots of racism and colonialism, the rise of apartheid oppression and resistance against it, the heroic struggles of the 1976 generation, and how in Rampolokeng’s words,  “the beast of the past” haunts today’s unequal South Africa, where “the vaults of memory become Swiss banks”.

The oratorio had its genesis in the liner notes Rampolokeng created for Mlangeni’s debut album, 2015’s Bhekisizwe, and in the horn man’s own family history. His father, human rights lawyer and activist Bheki Mlangeni, was assassinated 30 years ago in the family home by an apartheid regime parcel bomb. His young son Mandla was there. 

Reimagining history

The trumpeter went through emotional turmoil growing up with those memories, and he says his sense of mission crystallised after watching a late-1990s play that engaged with the killing in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process: The Story I Am About To Tell. The play was produced by Bobby Rodwell, with words co-created by the Khulumani Support Group and Rampolokeng. 

“That was the cathartic moment,” says Mlangeni. “After that, I wanted to reimagine my history where I am more than just a victim, and to serve my community by affirming a different narrative than just government betrayal.” He wrote Bhekisizwe for his father. The beauty of the melody declared a conscious choice to remember and move forward afresh.

Undated: A screengrab of Mandla Mlangeni during a performance of Oratorio of a Forgotten Youth at the Artscape Theatre Centre in Cape Town. (Photograph courtesy of YouTube)

“I was deprived of my father, of a mentor who would guide me. The melody reimagines a conversation with him in the extraterrestrial realm of vibration: a message that can’t be translated into words. Whenever I perform it, that’s when I realise all over again what the music is there for.” The Oratorio concludes with Bhekisizwe, played by a visibly moved Mlangeni: “There were tears shed,” he says quietly. 

But the work didn’t always take the pared-back form streamed from this year’s Festival, which foregrounds that emotion so starkly.

Back to the drawing board

Its first incarnation was as a much looser 2016 Artscape production, with words from several poets, and an ensemble including Bryden Bolton, Mark Fransman and Amampondo’s Dizu Plaatjies. Then, in 2019, when Mlangeni was the Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz as well as the artist in residence at the University of the Western Cape’s Centre for Humanities Research, it was reconceived for a subsequent National Arts Festival on a grand scale as a formal theatre show, with full orchestra and choir, and pianist Afrika Mkhize contributing arrangements. That challenging organisational context was “a crash course in delegation”, Mlangeni says.

Then came Covid-19, “And how do you navigate those waters?” asks the trumpeter. “It had to be back to the drawing board: identify the core of the work, streamline it and stagger rehearsals so as not to have an outbreak. It was like playing Russian roulette: there is this thing called Covid; it’s highly transmissible  – but you want to present the work, preserve its artistic integrity, and artists need to earn as well as stay safe.”

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So Rampolokeng’s words were recorded separately in studio and the ensemble was pared down. “I didn’t try to reinvent the wheel or make it too complex,” he says. “The bigger picture was how to weave the stories together, using the instruments to add colour. I wanted us to be spending most time making music that complemented the performers, rather than in the studio afterwards … to keep everybody comfortable with known musical reference points.”

For Mnana, who contributed string and voice arrangements, the presence of Vivacious Sounds “was particularly poignant”. He’s been working with the young singers at their school for a long time, “and it was important as young people they got the chance to assert themselves in the freedom space of this music – rather than just [being shown] carrying bottles on their heads!”   

Shared rhythm

A fifth element in the mix alongside jazz instruments, strings, words and voices is Mu Afrika’s changing, growing animations, which are inscribed, erased and transformed in the ochres and blacks of strewn and layered sand. Mlangeni first met the artist during the 2016 State Theatre production of Song of Nongoma and worked with him on the 2018 music video Isikhumbuzo.

In this production, Mu Afrika shapes the roiling waves of the Middle Passage and the evolving landscape of a modernising South Africa. Invoking the feel of a historic Staffrider linocut, we see the clenched fist and open palm salutes of people in struggle steadfastly asserting themselves again and again.

“Of course, you realise I couldn’t see what he was doing,” says Mlangeni. “I had my back to the screen. But his was another kind of improvisation, and I think sometimes he was the main performer and we were the support – just imagine if we’d been in a room with an audience to interact with it all!”

Yet images and sounds meshed perfectly. “We just had to find our rhythm and share it,” says Mlangeni. It’s easy to imagine how well Rampolokeng’s live presence, lion-pacing the stage, would have fitted with the trumpeter’s moves as he directed, while the artist, dreads spinning and hands dancing, drew those lines in the sand.

Another of Mu Afrika’s recurring images is a sturdy tree, rising defiantly from erasure. It’s the same metaphor Mlangeni invokes when explaining why, despite horrors historic and present, the oratorio points to “better days ahead. The struggle made us self-reliant, tenacious, persevering. Many things have gone wrong, but the struggle has born trees with fruits that we still have to harvest. We just have to keep on working the land.”

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