If you ever get a chance to see the Mandisi Dyantyis Quintet, you should, because it will make your life better, says CLAIRE ANDERSON:
On 21 May 2019 the Mandisi Dyantyis Quintet played at Hank’s Olde Irish on Bree Street, Cape Town. The show, organised by Real Wired Music, formed part of the Glenlivet Jazzology sessions: a series of free jazz concerts in the city on Tuesday nights. Mandisi Dyantyis, on trumpet and vocals, was joined by Buddy Wells on sax, Stephen de Souza on upright bass, Lumanyano Unity Mzi on drums, and Blake Hellaby on keys.
The small, oblong room where the band performs was packed with people: in booths, on single chairs, and sitting on the floor. The band played two sets, and most of the songs appear on Mandisi’s SAMA-award-nominated album, Somandla, released at the end of last year. The show began with the staple “Molweni” call and response, and by the time Stephen kicked off the second track “Kuse Kude”, every audience member I could see was smiling. Something about Mandisi’s compositions gets people laughing, clapping, stamping, and sometimes holding their faces in their hands, overwhelmed by the majesty of the music.
Band members a pleasure to watch
Though Sean Sanby plays bass on the album, Stephen’s knowledge of and love for the music is clear, and his playing is at once reliable and inventive. His interactions with other band members (especially Lumanyano) are a pleasure to watch. Lumanyano’s skill quashes any jokes about the drum solo being the time to get another drink. He played a solo before the interval, head tilted back and face lit with a beatific smile, and it was apparent that he loved it, and the audience loved watching him love it.
Buddy Wells’ solos were similarly excellent, eliciting loud exclamations from the crowd. His laid-back style draws out the melodies that weave through this music. Mandisi and Buddy each appeared deeply appreciative of the other’s sound, with Buddy sitting to allow the audience a better view of Mandisi’s alternation between singing with his voice and singing with his trumpet. On keys, Blake is equally adept at very restrained, sensitive and spacious playing, and wild, cascading solos (especially in the suite “The Other Side of the Story”). My only regret about the evening is that I couldn’t always hear the keyboard, though that could’ve been a result of where we were sitting.
Mandisi is “a praying man”
Mandisi Dyantyis is, in his own words, “a praying man”, and it shows. I once attended a funeral where Mandisi sang a dirge, and I couldn’t imagine anyone more appropriate. Whether in a church or a bar, his singing is simultaneously able to revere and console. And what, really, could give greater solace than making music which can carry sadness of that depth and also unite the living so well? His songs are about the real things: loss and lostness, God and love.
Mandisi’s voice is extraordinary in a formal way: he switches effortlessly from soaring vocal runs to a kind of growling reminiscent of overtone singing from the Eastern Cape. But it’s also extraordinary because of its ability to move people. It didn’t seem to matter whether or not the listeners understood the lyrics, which are in isiXhosa. Mandisi sings about the heart and from the heart, and the hand gesture of tapping his chest mid-song is the unforced result of feeling and expression.
The album grants the listener greater access to Mandisi’s genius for melody and harmony. (It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s the conductor of a church choir.) Live, he manages to recreate some of the record’s vocal layering by encouraging listeners to sing, and singing over that. Some of the audience split themselves up to sing the “hey ya” sections of “Ndimthanda” in three-part harmony, which says something about the accessibility of Mandisi’s writing.
Reciprocity and the experience of the live show
Reciprocity is central to the experience of the live show. As the evening progressed, it became clear that most of the attendees knew the words and were going to sing along, which made Mandisi’s eyes shine. (He joked that if he was lighter in complexion we’d see him blush.) His commentary between songs is often teasing: when he decided against explaining a particular piece, he said, “People who come to our gigs know this story, those who are new, welcome to the family”. As in any family, Mandisi wasn’t shy of scolding the audience for being too noisy between songs, or rousing everybody to sing someone happy birthday.
A few songs into the second set, about half the room was dancing, and by the time the band got to “Molo! Sisi” most of the audience was belting out the horn parts as loudly as the lyrics. The band’s rendition of the album’s title track, “Somandla”, brought the house down. The show ended the only way an evening like that could: with a standing ovation, pleas for one more song, and a final, blasting tune. If you ever get the chance to see the Mandisi Dyantyis Quintet, you should, because it will make your life better.
What: The Mandisi Dyantyis Quintet
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