The ensemble put together by producer and trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni took the Great Hall audience through the stages of grieving the failed dream of freedom.  

The Amandla Freedom Ensemble led by the Standard Bank young artist for jazz 2019, Mandla Mlangeni, launched their interdisciplinary album Oratorio of a forgotten youth at the Wits Great Hall on Saturday, May 27. 

Mlangeni told IOL that the album was the culmination of a production that started in 2019, that sought to tell the story of how far South Africa had come in confronting its past.   

The production brought together a collaboration of musical ensembles, with their own distinct sounds, laced with provocative spoken word poetry and a visual artist who used sand to draw intricate images with his hands, live, to the sound of the music. The images changed throughout the production but the most memorable were clenched fists and trees that had African faces instead of leaves. The visual artist, Tawanda MuAfrika also created the album art.  

The empty stage was set up as though for a multi-piece orchestra with what initially seemed like too many moving parts. And when the artists walked onto the stage, it was difficult to know where to focus one’s attention. To the right, poet Lesego Rampolokeng sat at a desk with his anthology in front of him, a string quartet and a nine-piece choir behind him.

Jazz pianist Yonela Mnana set up with afro-jazz group A Brother Moves On and visual artist MuAfrika on either side of him. MuAfrika’s sand art was being projected on a screen at the back of the stage. Right at the front was the Amandla Freedom Ensemble with Mandla Mlangeni poised like a conductor with his back to the audience.  

Producer Mandla Mlangeni leads a large musical production, fusing poetry, jazz, choral and orchestral music. Photo: Morongoa Masebe

The Great Hall was half full with a mix of students and non-students, with the audience appearing as if they were in the creative industry by the colourful ways that they were dressed.  

Katleho Hubi, a third-year bachelor of fine arts student who attended the show, said that she was deeply moved by what felt to her like “a spiritual experience”. She said that the production had inspired her to want to explore the relationship between music and visual art in her own work.   

Mlangeni’s production took the audience from mourning to celebration by blending a bit of afro-jazz, afro-beat, classical, poetry and chorus like a true oratorio, which is a large-scale musical production that blends orchestral, voice and choral music.   

The first piece of the night, the gathering, started with Rampolokeng loudly reciting spoken word poetry that sounded like a lamentation over a broken promise. The slow introduction of the bass and a soft djembe drum began to drown out the poet and brought in the hum of the choir. The saxophonists led the trumpet in, and then everything went quiet, leaving Mlangeni in a trumpet solo. 

The choir was reminiscent of an African indigenous church, with the use of music as a medium for connecting with spirit. They took the lead on ubaba, a song about the search for a missing father. The entire ensemble joined into a melancholic sound of a prayer that for a moment seemed to be a petition that was no longer to an absent earthly father, but to a heavenly father, who seemed to be absent and blind to the pain of African people. 

The arrangement came together beautifully. Led by the protest poetry of Rampolokeng, the production carried the same impassioned energy that can turn a church service into a site of protest.  

The afrobeat sound of inkululeko brought Siyabonga Mthembu of The Brother Moves On onto the stage to lead in the demand for the freedom that democracy had promised. 

The drummer played the consistent sound of a marching band in #movement/soldier’s lament and Rampolokeng came back to remind us that “our hopes are buried alive”, when those who were at the forefront of fighting for freedom, turned to gatekeepers of the wealth that should have been shared amongst all.  

In darkness, all the different pieces of the ensemble seemed to do their own thing, like loud mourning at a wake deep into the night, all crying separately, over the same loss. Rampolokeng also cried in his own way, about the disillusionment of protests that yield nothing in the long term, even after lives had been lost. He juxtaposed the 1976 uprisings with the 2015 #FeesMustFall protests and expressed sorrow over the lack of change. 

Crying turned to celebration when the show closed with woza, which got the audience to its feet to dance and rang in my head long after the show had ended. The high tempo and vibrant piece goes “Woza mama, woza” but the audience recast it as “Woza Mandla, woza” as it sang along all the way out of the Great Hall.  

Vuvu rating: 9/10 

FEATURED IMAGE: Trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni leads a multi-disciplinary musical production at the Wits Great Hall. Photo: Morongoa Masebe