Mandisi Dyantyis Serenades People’s Hearts As He Charts New Creative Paths In South Africa

Penning the narrative of his era, Mandisi Dyantyis invites us into his vision of South Africa. We meet the beloved jazz composer, instrumentalist and vocalist in Cape Town

Two weeks have passed since I met Mandisi Dyantyis at his recording space in a Methodist church in Cape Town's Rosebank district, and the soulful notes of "Molo Sisi" have become an enduring melody in my mind. Whether through his soul-stirring vocals, rhythmic prowess or heartfelt storytelling, Dyantyis' artistry effortlessly immerses you in a world pulsating with pride for his homeland. Jazz becomes the anthem of the people, yet within the lyrics, he shares intimate chapters of his own journey, laying bare profound cultural awakenings.

"Xola Ntliziyo", from his acclaimed second album "Cwaka", pierces directly into your heart, urging you to weave your own interpretations, while the lively beats of "Ungancami" stir an irresistible urge to rise and dance, so infectious is its energy. The Xhosa translation of "Molo Sisi"? "Hello sister, how are you? I've been wanting to talk to you for a while."

Mandisi Dyantyis
Mandisi Dyantyis

Dyantyis in rehersal, left, and in Bulungula in South Africa's Eastern Cape. | Photo credit: Fifty Four

Hailing from Gqeberha in Eastern Cape, the multifaceted musician commands sold-out crowds in large venues for his electrifying live performances. He's also the musical director for the theatre company Isango Ensemble, with whom he's travelled the world from London to Singapore and Japan, and has collaborated with numerous local household names - think the late Robbie Jansen, Moreira Chonguiça and Jimmy Dludlu. Penning the narrative of his era, Dyantyis grants us entry into his vision of South Africa - its intricate history and culture unfolding through his words.

In conversation with South African composer, vocalist and performer Mandisi Dyantyis

You were only seven years old when you started playing the trumpet. What did music mean to you growing up?

My home was a hive of people and every person I knew was involved in township music, sang in choirs or played; music was just normal. Even before I knew what it was, I wanted to do what they were doing - to be a musician, talk music, think it, write it and visualise it, unhindered by anything else.

You then studied jazz studies at the University of Cape Town. How has your artistry evolved?

In the early days, I wanted to sound like people I studied and was influenced by - as Cornel West says, "imitation is the sign of an adolescent mind". As important as that process was, I also had to find out what I wanted to say. It's a question you answer in increments, wherever you are in the world.

So what do you have to say and write about?

I've always written about what affects me. I'm a student of life and I live, you know? I wake up, I train; there's politics, family dramas. I'm fascinated by humans, the art of humans generally and the African and South African story specifically - the entire spectrum of it: Black, white, Indian, all of those things. I'll always speak up on people's plight because words change but actions don't. I'll also speak about faith and hope and people trying to find the light. For me, it's those words, signs, utterances and sounds that can pull it out, so I want people to listen to my music and know it's going to be alright.

Mandisi Dyantyis
Mandisi Dyantyis

Dyantyis in Bulungula, left, and in Cape Town

Can you tell me more about local life and how it affects your craft?

Life in South Africa is juggling between what you have and what you don't. Of course, it's changing slightly, and good stories come out of it, but it can change more. I try to live the most basic life, mundane and around people of all shapes and sizes, to create and be influenced by them. I read, I watch - I'm very connected to the tangible feelings of love, despair, loss, all of that. You always look at what you can do in your immediate environment and try to influence. That's life here, which has a beautiful Table Mountain, but also its shacks.

What's your Cape Town? Where would you take us?

I always tell people to just drive around. If we walked, say, 6km from here to there and back, we would have seen different kinds of classes on the same street - without turning anywhere.

What do you hope to achieve with your music?

To open thought, inspire, cushion. Music has a sense of cushioning you when it's right; you just feel heard and seen.

Your music is very comforting, for sure. How do you hope to inspire or motivate people?

I want people to feel seen. I think about the woman I see on my morning run - I run very early, at five o'clock - going to work. She probably leaves home at four and comes back home at seven in the evening, every single day. She doesn't need motivation - her motivation is her poverty. All she needs is to be seen, and if my music can do that, then I would have done something that I've always wanted for myself.

The duty is to build the human spirit and inspire and motivate it, so that it becomes a voice, a resistance and a culture -- for people to see what they deserve, and then act on it. My great hope is for people to understand their power and strength and to exercise it fully.

What inspires and drives you?

I still go to church and I love it. I love hymns, for instance, and sometimes a hymn's line just stays there, and you realise that without this line, life would be different. As a composer, I take strength from how these geniuses put something into the music that has made it so everlasting in its message and deliverance. For me, with the highs of performing, of people praising you, it's important to always go back to zero. The moment you hit the ground and you're rooted, that's when you're inspired.

Mandisi Dyantyis
Mandisi Dyantyis

In Cape Town, left, and during rehearsal

How can artists be agents of change?

I'm not a qualified psychologist or doctor - I'm a qualified artist, and so if I can do something to push the next person to be a doctor, I'm doing my job. By virtue of who we are, we need to do that thing that we do so well that it's almost irresistible. Especially with the arts - they're fast. You can either be this or that. There's a new wave coming. The music itself has its own path - my songs might make people dance or cry - and it's going to walk that path if you allow it.

Tell me more about the music scene here.

There's a copious amount of talent in South Africa. Because music, especially jazz, has been dealing with the issues we speak about now very practically. Historically, it's the music of the day; struggle music. Now, jazz is becoming the music of the people who chart a new path, with freedom as the story that pushes everyone, and people finding themselves culturally and personally. I reject the notion that jazz must be played in a small room, deep and abstract, because it attracts all generations and walks of life.

Which makes your music so special - I don't even need to understand Xhosa to connect with it.

One of my favourite musicians is Richard Bona from Cameroon, and he sings in a language I don't even know. I can find translations, but I don't - I take it in and create my own stories, which probably have nothing to do with what the songs are about.

How has travel opened your world?

I realised that there are different nuances and comforts, but that, ultimately, everything is the same. Especially as Africans, you discover what colonisation means and that some of these people really did bring their own lives here. Understanding how you navigate things, you see the dysfunctions within ourselves. Also, the rest of the world teaches you how vast Africa is. The first thing I realised in New York was that you can't see far, and I missed seeing far in Cape Town.

With music being such a force for good here, how does fashion and style inspire you? Whose work do you admire?

As for the scene, everyone's picking their path, and there's a growing audience around the world, which is really great. Lukhanyo Mdingi, Thebe Magugu, Rich Mnisi, Wanda Lephoto, MaXhosa, Sindiso Khumalo - they all do brilliant things. I look around the world, too; I love my Birkenstocks. Sometimes I see my music in colours and patterns and look for things that help put them all together.

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