Yonela Mnana’s piano is the people’s instrument!

The piano, throughout its history, has remained a social instrument, a means of convening purpose, beauty, and message around it, from its European origins to South African townships. A pragmatist in curating his musical realities, jazz pianist Yonela Mnana exudes a profound confidence as he proves that piano harmonies and song can move listeners from quiet reflections to bursts of joy. His recent live concert at Gugulethu’s Kwa Sec jazz venue outside of Cape Town did just that as previously locked down fans welcomed his not-too-frequent visits to their village.

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A member of Sisonke Xonti’s band at Kwa Sec, Gugulethu, March 2021

Blind at birth, Mnana has molded his delicate fingers to express musically what freedom means to him. Well versed in South Africa’s apartheid history and how the piano played a role in developing the Black township sound of marabi, principally in the mining communities of Johannesburg and surroundings, Mnana continues to seek outlets of expression with his chosen instruments – his piano and voice, particularly in pursuing his PhD degree at Johannesburg’s Wits University in South African Solo Jazz Pianism where we can expect further clarity about this captivating instrument.

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With trombonist/singer Siya Makuzeni at 2019 Capetown International Jazz Festival

Born in the Transkei 37 years ago, Mnana schooled at Polokwane’s Siloe missionary boarding school for the blind, and furthered his life skills in Pretoria’s Mamelodi, absorbing a wealth of different linguistic and cultural influences along the way. Adding exposure to African and Western choral styles of music, kwaito, R&B, soul, and other popular music, Mnana’s grooming for local and international stages had found purpose. Currently, he navigates the Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban jazz club circuit with fellow musicians and friends such as Ariel Zamonsky, Sphiwe Shiburi, Sisonke Xonti, Mthunzi Mvubu, Nhlnhla Mahlangu, Lindiwe Maxolo, etc.

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With Sax legend Barney Rachebane at Roving Bantu, December 2019

Besides some collaborations with overseas groups, Mnana continues to perform, compose and teach choral works with various youth groups, including Soultee, the South African School Choral Esteadford and with Ezibeleni’s Vivacious sounds at its school for special needs in Katlehong . Baba was his first album released in 2016 to wide acclaim with mixtures of various soul, gospel, and jazz styles learned over time.

Following his journey, one discovers his admirable traits: his love for the common person, the grassroots, and the power of choral works to inspire the social collective to care and find identity. Careful focus on solo jazz piano, the subject of his current doctoral research, also indicates his curiosity with improvisation, but in a very personal way, attending to honest fundamentals attached to the South African musical idioms. Just as Chopin dared to take the elitism of the piano of his day out of the higher echelons of European society and into the more social salons of the serious listener and commoner, Mnana’s piano explains its arrival in the shebeen raves of South Africa’s townships where song and dance flourished along with whiskey and other antics. The piano became ‘the people’s’ instrument, moving from the Euro-centric Grahamstown of newly arrived settlers in the 1830s to mining communities of African workers in the early 1900s who sought a collective musical release from the drudgeries of underpaid and often dangerous work.

I wanted to know more…. about what makes Mnana tick…… We chatted during his brief concert tour in CapeTown end of March 2021…..

CM: Why ‘jazz’ ??
YM: Freedom is struggle. Improvisation or jazz wants to free us from the establishment, that which holds us from moving. So jazz is about struggle; it is freedom.

CM: How does piano contribute to this freedom struggle?
YM: A century after settlers carted their pianos to Grahamstown, the piano became the proponent of marabi music in the 1930s in South African townships where it became a household item and personalized as a means for entertainment in the most radical version. We have given it, rather, a purpose which reaches the ordinary person, I think. The other thing is that people like Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton , the way they used the piano in the bars in America, is the same way we use it with marabi.

CM: Yes, the boogie woogie and marabi were similar, weren’t they, in how they grew up?
YM: Not only in the corporate business but, in fact, these players were the hosts. The pianist was closer to the shebeen Queen who could hook you up to a drink or any other delicacy you wanted. Just the placement of a piano in the ordinary house, and the wretchedness surrounding it, was like a pilgrimage, trying to get back to our older self in a way. As students, there is a tendency to look first to the American music, those DVDs and CDs, and study those documentaries, rather than taking that music as a barometer of good music. They might mislead themselves by holding that American music as a standard, rather than looking inward, or being interested in our own people close to us, that have walked in those spaces where we have walked. They become colonized in their thinking, are taught ways of thinking about the content, and end up judging themselves as less competent against those foreign standards. So, we have to change these lenses and perceptions of ourselves through our teachings.

But, in contrast, the piano is a geographical thing, and not like a wind instrument that is very mobile. The piano is something you go TO …. In the same way you would go to the temple, or to the bedroom. There’s a specific psychology which you have to assume when you sit at the piano. You can pick up your wind instrument and blow any time. But for me, ‘going TO’ is a way of adapting because you get to play different pianos in different spaces, while remaining as the same person. You improvise, not because you play the same notes but because you have to find and be comfortable with whoever you are. For South Africans, there is the intent to cope with whatever comes their way, in whatever regime is happening. I’ve been to other Universities and theaters with different pianos and I like to reimagine other persons that have gone through that vibe. So pianists have to go where the piano is. There’s a wrestling, a battling, a desire to own it and make it ours.

CM: That’s an interesting way to look at it. But doesn’t the piano seem a bit elitist, restrictive as to who can go to it? Is it really social?
YM: I think we’ve taken away the elitism and brought the piano back to the people, like into their houses and communities… I don’t even think our houses were solid at that time. We had been taught that piano was something people had to learn in school. But for it to be played in the marabi shebeens was like a DJ going with his CDs and playing in these houses.

The piano became the instrument of the people!

CM: Talk more about this social aspect, and in the African context …
YM: I’m curious to hear more stories around that because we can begin to understand the kind of identity we’ve always had versus the hope we might have with this piano. The pianists now are trying to craft their way forward …. The old cliché: You can navigate when you know what happened in the past.

CM: Along that line, the social nature of the piano, you’ve done a lot of choral work with choirs, and even human rights and struggles involving women’s issues. Let’s just talk about the choral. How do you see the piano enhancing choral work in the African context?
YM: You know, the voice is the oldest instrument of all time. Choralism comes from our ceremonies, although the kind of humanity that subsumes it now is not the same as in the past, so it becomes another version of ourselves.

We’ve always had choral groups throughout time. But there a distinction – taking the themes of Black Mambazo – between a ‘vocal group’ and a ‘choir’. I know my harmonic understanding stems from my being in a choir during school. I’ve been a voice WITHIN those voices. If you think in terms of harmony, playing with chords on the piano, it’s all about voicing. So it’s harder to separate the piano from the voice, or voices, and choir. Abdullah Ibrahim took the harmony from the African Methodist Episcopal Church and played it as it is, without having to do all those voicings that Americans tend to do. It was like hearing the Church in the piano. So it was dualism between the piano and choir. A ‘vocal group’ is separate from that.

CM: Like Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney’s Ebony and Ivory ‘live together in perfect harmony’…… and the piano has the advantage of not just playing one note, but two plus.
YM: Yeah. Choirs plus piano equals harmony. That’s the common factor, really. And because most pianists tend to be composers, that’s why they tend to voice on the piano and voice for the choir. That’s just one dimension I can talk about.

A second point is that some choirs tend to sing a lot of Western stuff, with orchestration. So now, I prefer to re-orchestrate, that is through a kind of ‘reductionism’ of the piano. Most of the choirs here in South Africa that I have worked with get to hear just the piano, meaning they rehearse just with the piano chords. But when they rehearse with the orchestra, they wonder, what is this strange sound? So when I accompany the choir with my piano, I get to better hear the person singing, even if singing off key, and concentrate on helping that person rather than disappointing them. So now that I get to know the music, it’s easier for me to try to transpose and voice with them. Drum magazine journalist, Todd Matshikiza, of ‘King Kong’ fame in London was always being commissioned to write choral music, even a piece for Queen Victoria when she visited the then Rhodesia. Gideon Nxumalo and Chris McGregor also wrote for other instrumentations. I think for me, the choir is much more available to me then other instruments whereas other artists maybe found inspiration in writing for different instruments.

CM: I was wondering about your use of the term, ‘solo’ piano, because I think of the piano as being a social instrument where you play harmonies WITH others. The ‘solo’ again strikes me as being for your upper echelon of society in the European context where one plays for certain Nobility, etc.
YM: You say you studied piano privately, right? Alone. I see playing piano solo is the highest form of communicating with yourself; it’s a testing point of destiny. So it’s 360; we start by playing for ourselves, in the public which is the hardest, because you become exposed. Like with the marabi pianist, he never played with a lot of instruments; he played with himself. Like with the choir, when you play by yourself, you’ve got a lot of sounds on your hand. You have time to consider, and the chance to harmonize, to use your range, and you have the chance to be as silent or as loud as you wish. Without having to work towards specifics, like ‘We’re going to retard the music now” or “we’re stopping briefly here”, or…… Solo gives a carte blanche , like an open blank canvas, presenting a big big challenge. But this time, instead of playing for the King, we play for ourselves. I think with solo, it’s the best way of re-appropriating ourselves, to find our identities, to say “Today, I’m going to give myself my own time, my own freedom!”

CM: It’s often said that pianos cannot ‘bend’ the sound, like a guitar or other stringed instruments can. But when you played on the keyboard – now I’m shifting to digital – you could bend a sound electronically like you did yesterday at the Kwa Sec performance. What’s your take on digital or electronic music and what it can do, keeping to your love of the original sound of the piano?

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YM: For me, it’s really more of experimentation than anything else. I’m not a ‘piano perfectionist’ or purist in that sense. We South Africans don’t really have the luxury of choosing. But we have the ability to adapt to the situation we have. So, if the keyboard is in front of you, just see how far you can go!! For me, it’s a question of experience.

CM: So do you see hope for the keyboard? Would you like to experiment more with it?
YM: I haven’t thought about it like that. We’re forced to deal with what we have. For instance, some say we don’t provide our children with good nutrition. But our parents don’t buy lousy food because they wanted to kill us. They buy what is available at a cost they can afford. And yet, we still live on!

CM: I’m thinking of piano and dance, like when pianist Sibusiso Mashiloane dances or stomps with his feet, giving rhythmic beats when playing the piano. Do you dance when you play?
YM: I don’t think of it that way. There’s a thing with the pianist and their bodies. What happens with the body is….there’s no specification… but there’s an unfolding relationship with the piano as we play it all the time. There’s times when you’re quiet; other times when you really have to move. I saw that with Bra Andile (Yenana) and can hear it with Art Tatum because they play by themselves. That tapping is also another kind of freedom – not only the freedom to harmonize but the freedom to dance with it, stomp, bend your body. I mean, what Keith Jarrett does with his body is amazing! It’s beyond playing. You come to understand how you feel by looking at your body. So you find watching the pianist moving lends credibility to what the pianist is playing.

CM: You said you enjoy teaching children in the township.
YM: At the school I was with, the students are mostly singers. So I had to get them to see there’s more to music than just singing, and give them opportunities to explore musical styles, scales, etc. Many had finished school and were active in their Churches, singing more as a stylistic living and less as an art form. Already, these students are great observers, so I show them the status quo, the basics, and try to inspire. I think my presence is enough and the way I play. You have to be clear – you can’t teach people something you don’t know. But they tend to believe you better when you’re on the stage performing.

CM: When you finish your doctorate, you’ll continue performing, but will you be teaching at tertiary level?
YM: You know, I prefer to stay at school level. University students are chasing their own degrees, are arrogant (chuckle!)….whereas at school level, in the township, students concentrate more because they are limited in what they have to work with. They’re not privileged. So I have to enrich them with what they have. I wouldn’t mind having one or two lectures at University level as a staff member – I might have to go there because I need the money!

CM: Actually, I can’t see you there either. I see you more working and enjoying the grassroots level.
YM: Yeah yeah, I like it there! You see, the system – at tertiary…. You’ve got 45 minutes, and you’ve got to sign the register…..and go to staff meetings! No no no. I prefer teaching in the townships…..

CM: Where is this school?
YM: Outside of Alberton, in Katlehong. The schools around us come for instruction in afternoons. Our space offers much more a sense of community rather than an ‘academic’ environment as we encourage students to learn more from each other than with a top-down kind of education.

CM: Your social causes, particularly work with women and gender-based violence, have featured in your activism. What about the need to work with men around these GBV issues?
YM: For me, it’s not the issue of working with men per se. Rather, we work on important issues with the male students informally, outside of classes. We talk and laugh, then challenge, like “If you must fight, then why not fight among yourselves, rather than beat a person less stronger than yourself?” Practical stuff. At my school, we try to be less ‘top down’ in our communications; there is less of this ‘othering’ among students, meaning the way they relate to each other in the two genders. I think it’s much more balanced than what happens in society. If we can just foster these good behaviours, it might spread to others. Instead of being political and spewing manifestos, you know? We are encouraging the students to rise to their best levels of themselves because many come from squatter camps and from other horrible conditions. They learn to relate to each other as fellow humans and less as coming from different levels of society. Music brings a type of cohesion – like Ebony and Ivory, standing side by side!

CM: But a lot of that has died off, unfortunately….society is very different now….
YM: Yeah, but I think consumerism has caused that. You have a desire to be successful for yourself, to be higher than someone else. To have something that someone else doesn’t have. So these are the causes – we’ve lost that communal aspect of surviving and growing with each other. And even praying for each other.

As I thanked my musician friend for his time and thoughts, he concluded gleefully: “We can now use the hybrid chat by phone…and even go “beyond the masked” conditions facing us! Indeed, there will be the beyond…..

Last December 2020, Mnana premiered his newly composed children’s mass with his Vivacious Sounds choir in their concert, Regenesis: A New Beginning at Soweto’s Morris Isaacson Center for Music for children. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3K7_MFiRdQ Here, he offers how a bebop and swing solo piano in a R&B vein can enhance African choral harmonies.

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