It was as poet Vusi Mchunu wrote: “Johnny was an African jazz missionary out in Europe on a civilising mission. His origins and expansion took him from East London to Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Johannesburg, London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, New York and Buenos Aires. The collaborations and various band formations reflect a heightened quest for extending his home brewed music through improvisation. Whether with the famed Blue Notes with Chris McGregor experimentation sessions with Don Cherry, Johnny simply kept growing the African music.”
Johnny’s Swedish girlfriend, Magdalena recalled, “Johnny always listened to people talking on the metro, the bus, the taxi and used that while chanting on stage. Singing it out against South Africa, playing it on the bass against Western governments supporting oppression. He transformed every talk into direct statements, depending on the atmosphere of the concert. He felt that Europe does not understand African jazz as yet. Europe suffers from a superiority complex. And hence Johnny referred to the discipline of SA blacks. Like we saw Winnie Mandela on the TV just a day after they had bombed her house in Brandfort, SA. By the time the reporters came, she was dressed up for the interview and talking heavy things. His discipline was being able to handle difficulties. Even when times are bad, be descent in dress, in manners and eating habits. Stay awake and clean. may not be totally ideal, but our people’s discipline is one of the reasons why we have survived oppression.”
This Afrocentric approach was witnessed at the Festac Festival in Nigeria 1977, the largest gathering of African and diasporic black artists in the world at the time. “Energetic Johnny was right here as part of the SA contingent. It was an enriching cross-pollinating experience particularly with the colourful West African traditional music and dance. From thence on his instrument was to baptised the talking bass calling and responding to the talking drums. For Johnny the jazz idiom begins with the traditional African song, the zest, the celebration, the fusion of styles – Johnny put in many interpretations of folk songs and went along way to popularise these unknown gems introducing them to a wider international audience,” wrote Mchunu.
Mchunu confirmed: “Remembering Johnny’s boyish face grimace during an interview at the 1982 Gabarone Culture and Resistance Festival, one cannot but confirm his frontline commitment to social change through culture. Johnny’s quest in the anti-apartheid phase was to seek for a larger, fuller and more lyrical music that could stand its ground in the international arena.”
He called Johnny a “natural herbal healing artist” and wrote. “He ridiculed notions of primitiveness, backwardness and witchcraft that typified western understanding of African culture. It is generally accepted today that traditional medicine practice and culture remain at times the only repository of traditional song, costume dress and role playing. Johnny was at peace with this source and inspiration. His African village is a revered sacred space – a launching pad for his world healing mission.”
“His music evokes the Xhosa country side, ezilaleni, Nguni folklore, Methodist church harmony’s, foot-stamping dance beat, township and urban urgency and the improvisation of African jazz and the jazz avant-garde. Johnny belonged to that exceptional group of world musicians that were daring, bohemian, seeking to create new styles new accents and new musical connections. Grand Kalle of Congo, the wailing voice of Kippie Moeketsi, Miles Davis the jazz great, the big bass shoes of Charles Mingus and the daring figures of Ludwig von Beethoven.”