Khaya Mahlangu: Man of Music

Straight out of school, Khaya had designs on becoming a doctor.He enrolled in first year medical technology in Polokwaneand second year at the George Mukhari Hospital in Garankua. But, “This was not my gig,” he explained. “I want to heal people with sound waves, I want to doctor them that way, naturally.”
Sound healing works and he is living proof. Photographs of him playing at the Hugh Masekela memorial, January 2018, show a skeleton of a man, unsteady on his feet.
At that point he was recovering from a stroke, two prostate cancer operations, and his kidney’s giving up. He could only move the first two fingers of his right hand.Now, two years later through engaging himself in physiotherapy, swimming daily and getting the fingers moving through piano exercises, he has transformed his health. He is highly charged and extending his impact to future generations.

As the music industry is “a tough scene and not for the faint-hearted,” as Khaya says, he is taking a long-term approach.

In late January 2020 as part of the Ike Phaahla live recording initiative at the Market Theatre, Khaya brought together the Soweto Jazz Orchestra –an eighteen piece big band of youngsters. The audience was blown away by the superb combination of youthful exuberance, stirring Improvisation, fine arranging, poignant history and masterful composition.
Of the players on the night, long-time friend, trombonist Danny Selsick and composer, arranger and trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana lead their sections with maturity, whist the youngsters shined around them. There was alto saxophonist Simon Manana and the lead trumpeter Siyanda Zuluwho impressed.The rhythm section was highly professional with the bass player Thembinkosi Mavimbele, leading with ears like antennae’s, and Mongezi Conjua on keys bringing that rollicking Our kind of jazz sound as Zakes Nkosi’s seminal marabi album was called.
All the time, Khaya Mahlangu lead from the front, playing, singing, conducting and sharing his intimate knowledge of South African jazz with the passionate audience.
The repertoire was a combination of old and new drawing on a Khaya’s musical history and the inspiration from fellow musicians. His tune Feya’s Dance was a moving bebop melody riding over a typical marabi 1,4,5. The tune Nkosi Jabu, for Zacks’ son, the late Jabu Nkosi, picked up on the light and funky twist that Jabu brought to his father’s music.

Khaya’s musical journey began as a kid growing upin the melting pot of Soweto. His grandfather was a teacher and piano player. His father was from Emalahleni in Witbank, the same township as Masekela. His mother’s family came fromKing Williams Town where his uncle was a choirmaster. His other uncle was Selby Ntuli keyboard player, guitar, flutist and singer for The Beaters and Harari, and also uncle to Thandi Ntuli.
Khaya began his education with the great scholar and a gentleman Khabi Mngoma’s (Sibongile Khumalo’s father). Khaya studied trumpet at his youth programme under Molefe Phineas Phetoe, the father of Gibo (bass player)and Pule (piano player).
He boarded at Ohlange high-school in KZN, where he fell under the wing of school secretary, trumpeter Brian Thusi. Thusi’s father Reverend Thusi, “the gentle old man, full of hearty laughter,” as Khaya recalled, was a preacher at the Salvation Army and a family friend.
But after school he stopped trumpet and singing, and looked for the saxophone. He fell in with the great informal school of Soweto jazz - the Pelican Nightclub in 1976. Many of the big names of the erafrequented this spot.
“It was the only club,” he recalled.“It was so rough. If you were not playing right they would take you off stage and say listen to me this is how it is done. And you go home, and you blew to play like these guys.These brothers were great players, but they were not schooled or trained in the classic sense. They would just pick it up by ear. God knows they really worked hard just to synthesise bebop and have the technical proficiency to execute it as well.”
Dick Khoza was manager of the club and sat in on drums. “He had great ears,” Khaya said andwas a driving force behindgivingKhaya the opportunity to learn on stage in what he described as a “constant and gradual process of self-improvement.”
But Khaya’s mind worked in a way that he wanted to know the structure and devices that make music work so he went back to University but didn’t finish his degree. It was too classical, he wanted to play African music.
Victor Ntoni returned from studying at Berkelee school of music in Bostonin 1986. Khayawas at his house every morning in search of the theoretical knowledge of chord scale relationships.
Through learningthe various harmonic devices behind the sound, Khaya began to hone his big band writing skills. By1998 he was writing for SABC big band orchestra, writing the master scores from some of Ntoni’s compositions and other jazz standards. With Ntoni on bass, Hilton Schilder on piano and Vusi Khumalo on drums, they formed the band Iconoclast, with their only recording a video done at eTV.
One of Khaya’s passions is transferring the work of the great composers of South African Jazz for orchestra. He became music director of the Gauteng Jazz Orchestra under Johnny Mekoa and wrote the big band charts for the documentary of prolific composer Gideon Nxumalo (still unreleased).
Nxumalo contributed over 2000 compositions in various genres; choral, marabi, chamber music and swing jazz music and producedthe thrilling Jazz Fantasia, recorded 1963 at Wits great Hall with Dudu Pukwana and Kippie Moeketsi.
Nxumalowas of Chopi (Mozambique musical tribe) origin. He played xylophone and piano and broughtthe rhythms of the traditional Chopi dances into his compositions. Khaya makes the example of the composition Chopi Sticks, like “Chopsticks”.
He said, “That music fascinated me and inspired me to think about what I compose and how I compose. This music allows the intuitive process to take hold. Not everything will be tick tock tick tock like you get in theory. This is the stuff I really think about when I try writing our South African kind of jazz. I love to write in different genres – it is all beautiful,” he said.
Nxumalo worked for SABCs Radio Diffusion Service and many of his compositions were scored. But for many of the composers, their works were not written down and registered at the relevant agencies for copyright. These arrangements for big-band, not only preserve the legacy of the greats, but could possibly even revive income streams for their families.
Khaya’s desire is to put these compositions into a book format. His songbook will form part of a growing resource for South African music which started with the release of Cape Songbook by Colin Miller some years ago, and now includes Feya Faku’s songbook Lengoma, with other musicians also working on books.
Other than the famous band Sakhile which released five albums between 1982 and 2004, Khaya has produced three solo projects:To you my dear (1985) and Strings(1999) with Don Laka and Khululeka(2006) with Chisa records. Soweto Jazz Orchestra live at the Market Theatre will be released on DVD.
As the music industry is “a tough scene and not for the faint-hearted,” as Khaya says, he is taking a long-term approach. Soweto Jazz Orchestra are developing a constitution and website to fulfil the goal of registering as an NPO so they can employ themselves and fulfil their cause.

Struan Douglas

Struan Douglas is a freelance writer and author based in South Africa.