The first time I was in Soweto, I crossed the street in front of Mandela’s house into a bar to have a shot called the Soweto toilet. Yes, I had already gone to take the pictures in front of Mandela’s house, I had done the required time. Yes, I had basked in the deep-seated glory of feeling like I walked where Mandela walked, at some point, and Desmond Tutu up the road as well. How could you not? When you get onto that street, the feeling is almost overpowering, as if their spirits are hovering, watching over the road, waiting to see who – well, who crosses the road to walk into a bar.
This bar was a simple one, with clean wooden benches and an area in the back that served traditional food. We had been on our feet the entire day, and I was interested in a different kind of nourishment. The shot had a lump of chocolate at the bottom, and a sweet tasting yellow liqueur to complete the insinuation of the name behind the product. I have to tell you, it was delicious.
Soweto, for me, in 2016, was full of big and small surprises and delights that I had not expected before I got onto that plane. There’s the Soweto they speak of everywhere else, in every Sarafina-like movie, in every urban legend. But I felt like the Soweto I was seeing, that I had what felt like history’s blessing to see, was closer to the truth – it was just a place with a culture, with a richness, that someone called home, as they sat on a wooden bench and watched life pass by.
This Soweto was Mandla Mlangeni’s Soweto. Strewn across a section of Jo’burg with parents who were not of means and could not buy him a saxophone when that was what he wanted to learn how to play. On their television in this township, Mandla recalls having seen one of the greats play; long hair streaming behind him in a scenic, practically ethereal melody – Kenny G. And for that reason – as children are often swayed by reasons as small as these – he decided that that was what he wanted to play. Sure, he hadn’t completely figured out how he was going to make that happen, seeing as theirs was not the most musical of families. But he was a most musical boy.
You see, Mandla loved music, and he surrounded himself with it from an early age – whether it was through the entertainment he sought out, or the television he was watching, or the like-minded friends he had who also wanted to build a musical dream. The drive was there, and the streets of Soweto thrummed with stories that could be told. There was inspiration galore.
And so little Mandla Mlangeni went to his local community centre, to the music school therein, to see if he could further this musical dream, into something more realistic. The community centre charged a fee of what is equivalent to about 100 shillings a year, to get lessons from the teachers there. Mandla was ready to pay and ready to play. He had seen the fresh-to-death Kenny G play the saxophone, and so, of course, that is what he wanted to test his talent on.
So much for best-laid plans of this man, though.
The day he arrived at the centre, there were no saxophones to play. Observing his crestfallen face, the music teacher quickly suggested that Mandla try his hand at the trumpet he had in his car. Mandla remembers thinking – a trumpet? What am I going to do with a trumpet? It only has three buttons! But these buttons were his only options, because if he didn’t take up the trumpet, he would have to wait for another six months for a saxophone to be available. Above all, the love was for music, regardless of where it was coming from. And so, he took the trumpet from the boot, wiped it down, and begun his musical journey.
For the record, Mandla never did really play the saxophone. He took to the trumpet and played it all the way till university, where he studied music, and decided that maybe he could do this for a living. Music, after all, was where he felt happiest, and most fulfilled. Music was what led him to the friends he met on campus who eventually formed his band, The Tune Recreation Committee. And it is this very same band, in Kenya for the first time for the Safaricom Jazz Festival, who were listed in the New York Times as the producers of one of the best albums of 2017, as well as the South African Music Awards of 2018 and 2019. And he did all this without a saxophone, starting from an outfit as simple as Kenya’s own Ghetto Classics, and rising to a pinnacle he never thought he’d see. Touring, playing, getting to go to parts of the world no one had dreamed of. Making inroads in connecting with jazz communities in Africa, and wider audiences who appreciate jazz – not to mention going around Kenya, conducting masterclasses and workshops, and teaching and imparting what they’ve learnt from a journey that started in a house in Soweto with a boy who liked music.
‘It’s a beautiful thing that Safaricom gives back to the community. I am happy to share stories, to reinvent and adapt myself and my band, and be true to who we are. It is a political act, to be true to yourself. And the inspiration cannot manifest in that way if it does not manifest in the music.’
There is a story, a dream, within you, that you are humming to. What are you going to do with it?