“What started as a lunchtime concert for showcasing music by 8 former UCT music students led to something never anticipated.  From the energy they displayed at their rehearsals, something magical developed which led to incredible live performances.  As the telepathy they had grew stronger, they decided to be an official band which has since released a debut album that won an award, taking them by a complete surprise”

This year (2020) began with a lot of optimism for many jazz enthusiasts.   Many began making travelling arrangements to attend the 21st edition of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF).  The hospitality industry was gearing up itself to welcome jazz tourists to this festival which was to be held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC).  For the past two decades, 2 649 musicians have performed at the CTIJF, making it one of the most important events in the jazz calendar.

An impressive line-up of artists (local and international) was announced for the two-day event planned for 27 – 28 March.  Unfortunately, the festival did not place due concerns over Covid-19 which resulted in travelling ban imposed by many countries including South Africa.  One of the bands that was scheduled to perform at this international festival was The Unity Band, a group of music graduates who met while studying at University of Cape Town (UCT)’s South African College of Music in 2017.  “We are a diverse bunch of people with varying musical backgrounds who found common interest in the concept of jazz”, percussionist Lilavan Gangen told Jazz It Out.  They bring their different personalities in the form of musical ideas and encourage everyone to give their input.

The Unity Band. Picture by Daniel Rutland Manners

Drummer and vocalist Lumanyano Bizana, widely known as Lumanyano “Unity” Mzi, is the founder and bandleader of the band.  Born and raised in Cape Town, Lumanyano grew up in a musical family and has been playing music since the age of 6.  He is largely a self-taught musician who has been playing professionally since the age of 14 with local acts, including his father’s band.  The son of a reggae musician father has toured and performed with some local and international artists and bands such as Sibongile Khumalo, Zoë Modiga, UCT Big Band, Darryl Andrews Big Band, Nomfundo Xaluva, Dena De Rose, Normadic Orchestra and Mandisi Dyantyis to mention a few.

Lumanyano had always felt the friends would create an amazing performance when brought together.  “The best start of playing together was booking a performance class in a form of a lunchtime concert for us to showcase our music.  Our first performance was incredible”, recalling those early days.  The energy they displayed at rehearsals was magical, and decided to make the band official and booked more gigs.  Lumanyano graduated at UCT in 2017 and is working as a drum teacher at Campus of Performing Arts.

Jazz requires a lot of improvisation and The Unity Band are not an exception to this as a group of artists.  As a group of musicians from diverse backgrounds, they explore elements of jazz, hip hop, poetry, salsa, funk and at its core, the contemporary African sound. The band’s guitarist, Dylan Fine, believes that fusing of genres is something inherent in being young musicians in today’s times.  “Even if one is dedicated to a certain style like jazz, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that one has grown up listening to RnB, Hip-hop, Rock, Funk and so on”, he said.  The number of band members enriches its sound as they come from different musical backgrounds.

Founding member drummer Lumanyano “Unity” Mzi. Picture by Daniel Rutland Manners

Dylan started playing the guitar when he was 13.  Through diligence and passion, he has developed into a talented young guitarist fusing modern and contemporary sounds for a unique voice in the jazz idiom.  His versatility and adept approach to an array of genres has seen him perform with a variety of artists in all of South Africa’s major cities and abroad.  He is a regular in the Cape Town jazz scene appearing with his jazz quartet.  Dylan is a graduate of the South African College of Music (UCT) and holds a bachelor’s degree in Jazz Performance.

Members of The Unity Band are all highly sought-after individuals who pursue their music talents in many other successful projects.  One of those members is their auxiliary percussionist Lilavan Gangen.  This Capetonian specializes in drum set and percussion.  Like his other fellow band members, he obtained his Bachelor of Music in Jazz Performance at UCT in 2018.  He performs as a drummer for many jazz, pop and rock projects; while also working as a percussionist in orchestras, big bands and other contemporary styles of music.  His participation in music started very early as a drummer, violinist and vocalist at Rondebosch Boys Preparatory and subsequently Rondebosch Boys High.

While studying at UCT, Lilavan not only studied the art of jazz drumming but also found interest in other spheres of percussion, such as Western Classical, Latin and Indian percussion playing.  Growing up in the Hindu community of Cape Town, Lilavan was exposed to traditional Indian music from a very young age.  He has travelled to India to study Carnatic music and often incorporates these concepts in his own music.  This workaholic has made a name for himself in the Indian community, organizing shows and events that promote intercultural relations, as well as appreciation for Indian arts and culture.

Bassist Stephen de Souza. Picture by Daniel Rutland Manners

Thandeka Dladla is the only female member of the group.  A versatile vocalist who is equally at home in both jazz and Afro-soul spheres, she has recently completed her B Music in Jazz Vocal at UCT under the tutelage of Nomfundo Xaluva.  Her other mentors include Amanda Tiffin and Mandisi Dyantyis.  While completing her studies, she gained practical learning experience in the business aspect of music from working with some of the best of in their field of music, namely Nikki Froneman from Arte Viva Management and Gavin Minter at Real Wired Music.  This voice over artist still continues to gain knowledge and expertise in this field while continuing with her music career.  She also leads her own quartet which has had several performances.

When it comes to what The Unity Band can offer to its audience considering that improvisation plays a very important aspect in jazz as a music genre, their upright and electric bassist Stephen “Stevovo” de Souza is extremely confident and optimistic.  “Improvisation is a key aspect in our group.  We obviously figure out structures and some forms of songs but once that is established, it’s up to the individuals to add their flavour to the music”, he told Jazz It Out.  He acknowledges that improvisation can be tricky if everyone is giving their all.  “One of the most important factors for us, as an 8-piece band, is the listening aspect”, he added.

Stephen began his musical journey at St John’s College, in Johannesburg.  It was here where he developed an interest in the double bass.  He learnt a wide variety of genres but mainly focused on classical music and toured nationally and internationally with orchestras such as the South African National Youth Orchestra and the MIAGI Youth Orchestra.  Towards the end of school however, a UCT Jazz School Alumni, Justin Sasman, got him interested in jazz.  Stephen has obtained his Bachelor of Music from UCT where he specialized in double bass and electric bass.  He has recorded albums with the Darryl Andrews Jazz Orchestra, the MH Quartet, Money for Bali, the Mike Bester Quintet and the Murray Buitendag Quartet.  He performed at the 2019 CTIJF with Sekunjalo EduJazz Band.

Vocalist Thandeka Dladla. Picture by Daniel Rutland Manners

Ofentse Moshwetsi is the band’s alto saxophonist from Klerksdorp in North West province.  He journeyed into the academics of music (theory and practicals) at age 12, when he joined his uncle Arcs Moshwetsi’s community project called CAFCA Matlosana, a non-profit organization, where his keen interest in music education and more importantly, jazz music was aroused.  Before moving to the Mother City for studies, he wrote music examinations with the University of South Africa (UNISA) and obtained his Grade 5 music theory qualification while in high school.  Ofentse has been a member of the UCT Big Band since 2016 and has travelled beyond South Africa as a musician.  In 2019, he graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Music at UCT majoring in Jazz Performance.

The band’s trumpeter is Marco Maritz who also plays the flugelhorn.  He grew up in the Boland town of Paarl, in the Western Cape.  Marco obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Music at UCT in 2017.  In 2018 he was awarded with a graduate assistantship for the Johnny Mercer Foundation at Georgia State University.  He is currently pursuing his academic career at this university with a master’s degree in jazz studies.  Marco leads an active career as a sideman.  He has been part of many projects including The Mike Rossi Project, ZAR Big Band led by Marcus Wyatt at the Tshwane Big Band Festival, Grahamstown International Jazz Arts Festival Faculty Big Band performing with festival artist James Morrison, Georgia State University Big Band performing with residency artists Etienne Charles, Eric Alexander and Joe Farnsworth.

Lonwabo “Diba” Mafani is The Unity Band’s pianist, having started playing the piano at the age of 16.  His first piano teacher was his brother, Sabatha Mafani who taught him the basics of piano playing.  He has had numerous teachers over the years, including Dr Nishyln Ramanna, Kingsley Buitendag, and Annali Smith, but is largely self-taught.  In 2014 he was selected as the pianist for the Standard Bank National B Band directed by Brian Thusi and was re-selected in 2015 under the leadership of Mark Fransman.  He also graduated with a B Music at UCT in 2019.  He has performed as a session pianist around the country and has worked with likes of Lulama Gaulana, Hugh Masekela, Kingsley Buitendag, Chris Thorpe, Sakhile Simani and Gareth Walwyn to mention a few.

Percussionist Lilavan Gangen. Picture by Daniel Rutland Manners

April 2019 saw the release of their debut album titled “Fabric”.  The album won the Best Newcomer in Jazz at the Mzantsi Jazz Awards, just four months after it’s release.  “We were so surprised and excited at the same time because it had just been released, and we won the best newcomer in jazz, which made us so grateful to see our first album getting recognition and support”, Lonwabo told Jazz It Out.  The feeling the band was that of ecstasy to see all the time and effort they put in the album paying off as a young jazz band and giving them the motivation to carry on with the legacy of the great South African jazz legends that inspired them over the years. “We are even more excited about our future as a band”, he added.

The tune “Buya Ekhaya” is such an emotional ballad.  “The song was recorded during the period when the news was filled with mainly stories of children going missing and the rise in child trafficking”, Thandeka explained.  It is sung from the perspective of a parent who has just come to terms with the fact their child has gone missing and is now crying out saying “buya ekhaya, come home, I miss you and can’t make it without you”.  This is a song for the voiceless parents who go through the emotional trauma of missing a child whom they never know if they will ever be reunited with or will return in a coffin.

“Onset of Dawn” is a brilliant tune where the guitarist and the horns display mutual understanding musically.  “I wrote this song to capture the special time as dawn emerges from night.  As a guitarist the melody is centered around a chordal guitar theme which the horns follow and there is a purposeful space left between phrases for the horns to dance and express themselves”, Dylan gave the interpretation.  It’s a tune he had been playing with other groups for some time, but the range of instruments with the Unity Band gave it a whole new character and epic quality.

Their debut titled “Fabric”

Ofentse’s composition titled “Peccadillo” is reflecting on the character Peccadillo, which is lighthearted, jolly and of a style foreign to the indigenous sounds of South Africa.  “The message it sends is that you need not place any boundaries in the way that you express yourself, be that in music or through any other medium”, Ofentse told Jazz It Out.  The idea is to have fun while navigating your life’s journey and sometimes the inspiration and motivation required to keep going comes from places outside one’s cocoon comfort zone, and the only way those inspirations will reach you is when you open yourself up to them completely.

Through the tune “Rea Leboga”, the young musicians emphasize the importance of giving thanks when it’s due, as it is critical for one’s spiritual wellbeing.  “Being in a state of gratitude places you in harmony with your fellow man and with the universe”, Ofentse emphasized.  They pay tribute not only to the music giants, their friends and families who paved a more accessible way to enable them to enjoy the fruits that come with musical memories.  “We also pay homage to this very state of gratitude without which all the blessings prior and those still to come as a band and individuals would be a distant dream”, he added.  Giving thanks also encourages one to give back, which is a crucial element of ‘botho’ which build strong and united nations.

The Unity Band have put the disappointment of not performing at the CTIJF behind them.  Being included in the lineup of such a prestigious event is somethings they are grateful for.  They have performed in several virtual performances as a band and with their individual ensembles this year.  “One of the biggest lessons I think we have learned is that it’s important to have a backup plan if something like this (Covid-19) would ever occur again”, said Marco evaluating the year they have had.  Despite the challenges they had, they still remain united in cultural diversity and have long terms.  Without divulging too much, they gave a hint that they intent recording a follow up album to “Fabric” and work on a few exciting things.

Trails – The Unity Band

The group has performed at a couple of festivals such as Cape Town Jazzathon, the Artscape Youth Jazz Festival, Up The Creek Music Festival, and the South African Jazz Education Conference.  Their vocalist Thandeka believes jazz is an artform that historically reflected the times and in doing so garnered popularity and relevance as was needed.   She thinks remaining true to that essence will retain its popularity.  “I personally just don’t believe that popularity is what we should be striving for, instead we should continue to strive for excellence and truth in the music we create”, she asserted.

Like their Facebook Page – The Unity Band and follow them @theunitybandza on Instagram.  Thandeka Dladla is on Facebook and you can follow her @thandeka_dladla on Instagram.  Stephen de Souza is on Facebook and follow him @stevovo_wabantwana on Instagram.  Ofentse Moshwetsi is only on Facebook.  Dylan Fine is on Facebook and @kylldyll on Instagram.  Lumanyano Unity Mzi is on Facebook and @lumanyano_unity_mzi on Instagram.  Lilavan is on Facebook and @lilavan_gangen_ on Instagram. Lonwabo Mafani is on Facebook and @lonwabodibamafani on Instagram.  Lastly, Marco Maritz is on Facebook and @maritzmarco on Instagram.