Prince Lengoasa: Standing on the shoulders of giants

Pre-task: Different hats for different music greats

Prince Lengoasa is a trumpet player, composer, band leader, arranger and mentor. Prince was raised in the Salvation Army and studied music and conducting in South Africa at Dorkay House and in the United States. He has played many different styles, from marching bands music to jazz, classical, gospel, world music and mbaqanga. Prince has featured on a number of other people’s music and videos and albums. He was the musical arranger for many projects including the sterling Mzansi Music Project and recorded on the classic South African album, Sibongile Khumalo Live at the Market Theatre.

The first giant in Prince’s life was his dad. To Prince his dad was the finest male human being under the sun. His dad was a funny man and a beautiful soul. He was a minister in the Salvation Army in Kgaleshewe Village, in Kimberley. And Prince joined the Salvation army. Because of his dad’s commitment to work, young Prince got to travel around the country learning different cultures and how to appreciate the diversity we have in South Africa. In Sharpeville he walked in the field where people were killed during the Sharpeville uprising. In Kgaleshewe Village, he met the great Robert Tata Mangaliso Sobukwe. And in Mamelodi he met the great Geoff Mphakati and visited his house; a Mecca of arts and culture where great jazz musicians, painters and poets would visit.

It was in Mamelodi in 1974 that Prince heard Bra Hugh Masekela’s albums, Home is where the Music is, and Colonial Man , with the track, Vasco Da Gama. Taking inspiration from elder musicians is one way of learning music and getting inspired. Another way is travel. When Bra Hugh couldn’t return to South Africa from the USA due to Apartheid, he started travelling in Africa - to Nigeria, Congo and Ghana. This turned his way of thinking into a more Pan-Africanist view, as he saw the beauty and the importance of other parts of Africa. Bra Hugh’s sound changed when he mixed it with West African musicians. From his music being mainly instrumental and voice, now there was an emphasis on the drum, such as the talking drum, the djembe and agbadja drums. So, once we start thinking Pan Africanist, once we think these are our brothers and sisters, it enriches our sound.

Internationally, jazz and hats have always gone together. The big-band swingsters wore the Panama’s, the beboppers went for stetsons and afro-berets, fusionistas wore inverted-Andy-Kangol-caps and smooth Jazz bandannas.

But South African jazz takes this to the next level with many of the horn players wearing the peaks and dambuzas, some of the pianists wearing fezzes and sporti’s, bass players going for brimmed hats, drummers floppy hats and some even with no hat at all.

So with a career spanning 4 decades, always playing with the very best, Prince has seen just about every hat you can imagine. For him, hats represent different eras in the music. Bra Hugh Masekela loved to wear the 8 piece flat-cap from Germany. Jonas Gwangwa wore the beret. Ntate Caiphus Semenya, wears a toppie, the Muslim skull cap when he performs. And then of course, Bra Winston Mankunku wore the leather cap hanging on the side. The great Afro Cuban pianist, Chucho Valdez wears a Kangol cap facing backwards. Prince also loves wearing his cap like that.

South African jazz is a dynamic entity, evolving with culture, adapting to society's needs, always acknowledging and building up on the innovations of the past. The musical language is passed from generation to generation. Prince stands between the generations of the elders and the youngsters. The big thing for any musician is to teach the younger generation. He teaches at the Music Academy of Gauteng, Bra Johnny Mekoa’s school in Pitfontein, where he is engaged in passing on the musical baton of the elders such as Ntate Jonas Gwangwa, Bra Barney Rachabane and Bra Stompie Manana. The musical baton is not only the discipline of playing an instrument, but it is passing on the legacy and importance of our music. And the best way to keep the legacy alive, is to play the music.

And the great thing about South African jazz, is that it is collaborative. Just like uBuntu in action – if you are passionate about something, there is going to be someone else passionate about it. Collaborations are crucial to the growth of South African jazz because collaboration makes things easier and more beautiful by showing new perspectives and enriching and growing the skills and talents of one and all.

Now, answer the following Pre-task Questions

1. What Prince has learned from this amazing journey is that it is important to find your own voice. You can do this by identifying with somebody and learning from them. And then, finding your own voice. Now, which of the above-mentioned musicians do you identify with and why? Perhaps, tell us which of their songs you are learning from and how you are expressing your unique self through this music?

2. Prince came from the Salvation Army band, playing the classic marching band songs such as “Oh when the Saints.” So many of the great South African musicians have learnt their music through community. What kind of communities do you have access to learn from?

3. SA music icons on the bandstand have their own trade marks in clothing and in particular hats. These trade-marks make the musician look like a performer and stand apart from the crowd. What is your look? And how do you see yourself on stage?

4. Prince says he stands between generations. What do you understand by this and what do you know of the generations that have come before you, and about your own generation of musicians? Now watch the video “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.”  

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants by Prince Lengoasa

Post-tasks: Different strokes for different folks

From playing with and learning from giants – the likes of Winston Mankunku, Sibongile Khumalo and Zakes Nkosi, Prince has noticed one common characteristics. And that is their humility and their connectedness to the people. Prince tells the story of Winston Mankunku. He loved his mum. He came to Joburg for a gig. They rehearsed on Tuesday and by Thursday he missed his Mum so much he went back to Cape Town and dropped the gig. That is the depth of love he had for his mum. Mankunku had many opportunities to go into exile. He was internationally known. But, he loved his Mum and only left for a few gigs and came back, always making sure Mum was ok. So, he is one of the people who stayed behind to make sure South African music remained strong at home.

One of Prince’s most famous recordings, Live at the Market Theatre, was done with singer Sibongile Khumalo. It is one of the most listened to and studied albums on South African music. The album featuring all South African compositions was not only a musical break-out point for Sibongile Khumalo but it put all South African music on a pedestal and showed South Africa that we can stand head and shoulders with people from other parts of the world. This is the blessing of authentic South African music – it opens doors for one and all. Even though Sibongile passed away in 2021, Prince is at the forefront of keeping the spirit moving and keeping the music alive. Prince was the musical arranger for a tribute orchestra to bassist, composer, arranger, singer Victor Ntoni, called Mzansi Music Ensemble. This ensemble was a fulfilment of the dream of Victor Ntoni. Victor wanted an ensemble that would be like a school, where the younger generation would learn from the older generation. Victor was one of the most beautiful, prolific composers and arrangers we have ever had in South Africa. One of his most famous compositions from the album Heritage is Thetha, sung in an enigmatic and deep baritone style. One of Bra Hugh’s favourite composers was Ntate Caiphus Semenya, one of South Africa’s most prolific composers. But South Africa is best known around the world because of the voice. As Prince says, “If you think about it - South Africans are the voice people with groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Manhattan Brothers making an international impact.

Jazz needs better marketing

However, despite the great contributions by so many musicians, there is an unknown kind of lethargy in terms of selling South African jazz to the music industry. The music industry prefers pop music, or what they called bubble gum back in the 80s. This is because the music industry is about making money quickly. Music executives, like with any other business, want to see the “ching-ching.” But jazz music doesn’t really go “ching-chinging.” It is more like a “plonk plonk” because jazz actually sells – but it does not sell quickly – it sells over time.

Although jazz does not sell in the same volumes and as quickly as pop, kwaito, house, and amapiano, it still sells.

To this day, people still buy Yakhal’ Nkomo. Why? Because of the quality of that music. You can’t touch it. Sibongile Khumalo’s famous Live at the Market Theatre sold more albums than US trumpet ace, Wynton Marsalis, did at the time.

The lost South African songbook

The most important thing for any South African musician is to know our South African music. As Prince has pointed out – there are a lot of places where you can find a music score book by Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, but how often can you find in a shop or school the music of Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela, Winston Mankunku or Zakes Nkosi?

This is a huge gap in the South African music industry, and an initiative that can stand the test of time for hundreds of years to come. In South Africa, people are working on creating this sheet music all the time. It is therefore just a matter of time until all the different initiatives in creating the South African songbook are united and all the work in South African composition transcription and scoring is shared like a great big meal nourishing the whole South African jazz family.

Now, answer the following Post-Task Questions

1. Prince has guided us to some of the great compositions of South Africa such as the iconic jazz standard, Yakhali Nkomo by Winston Mankunu, Nomali by Caiphus Semenya, the compositions of Jonas Gwangwa and his own composition, Umbongo. What South African Jazz standards do you like to play? What is on your hit list?

2. Prince refers to Bra Hugh as having broadened his music knowledge by introducing a Pan Africanist sound. There is no better example of this than his collaborative album Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz. Prince calls South African music ‘music of the voice’ and West African music ‘music of the drum’. How would you fuse South African and West African music – voice and drum?

3. The lost South African songbook is the story of our age. Can you think of one South African composition that you would like to add to the evolving South African songbook? Can you listen, transcribe and annotate it, into a music score? Please share the score with your music friends and with us.

4. The power of collaboration is one of the virtues of our great South African jazz sound. In your experience, how has collaborations improved your playing and your music? Share with us the best that has come out.

5. The reason that it may seem like jazz music does not sell, is because it is not promoted like the other music is. So, there needs to be a shift in better marketing jazz. How would you go about creating a shift in promotion for jazz music?

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