musicians arrival in Europe brought much change in perspective to all creative expressions of freedom. Although at the epi-centre of the artistic movement, was jazz music, the cultural confluences of South Africans artists in exile and their European counterparts was multi-disciplined. The confluence brought together avant-garde art, painting, poetry, theatre as well as jazz music. South African poets in exile such as Lefifi Tladi and artists such as Dumile Feni all made their invaluable contributions to the cultural movement for freedom abroad.
But what South African jazz musicians added was the sense of identity. South African Jazz, illustrated the jazz is African. And if Jazz could be African – then it could be European. And together South African musicians and their European counterparts created a new sound built on African roots – a combination of the freedom of jazz expression with decidedly political commitment.
The moving spirit of SA jazz in Europe was without doubt the Blue Notes. They influenced a lot of musicians across rock and jazz music in England, Scandinavia and Denmark.
The moving spirit of SA Jazz in Europe
Louis Moholo was the last survivor of this all-star Blue Notes band. In collaboration with a generation of inspired European jazz musicians, the Blue Notes certainly created a new language of a free music built on a deep African soul. And they were extensive in their impact. The Blue Notes was a powerful arrival of South African music in Europe. Louis Moholo spoke a little about the Blue Notes in an interview with Richard Scott.
He said, “We were strict and really very concentrated on this music. It was like something very urgent we had to do, and our first record was called Very Urgent. It was just like a flower that burst open.”
And the Blue Notes were good friends. “Mr Dudu Pukwana was a ton of music, he used to compose about four songs a day, even in the hardship of South Africa, and he practiced every day. Dudu was just the pillar of the Blue Notes. Dudu the blessed light, he was special. And Mongz was the darling really, the sweetheart of the band. Everyone loved him, Monz would knock us out, everybody! Then in South Africa we had Nic Moyake. Nic was the older guy to us, and we respected him, he had more knowledge of music – indigenous music, music of the heart. He was just music and he pulled us together in terms of strength. Everybody had a part to play.
“Then, of course, Johnny – every song that we played Johnny would cream it and make it so beautiful. Johnny was so musical, anything he did was … he was kind of like a godsend for us, he had some magic about him. And we knew from the start, when he was a young boy with a singing band and I was playing drums backing them, he was such a fantastic singer – singing the high notes with such ease. Then he switched from alto singing to bass playing, and he played it so well. He just fitted like a glove, he was in the same vibe as us, and he put the music of the Blue Notes where it was at. He was a gift from heaven.
“Then Chris. We would naturally get into songs, we would take them lightly, like kindergarten songs, and Chris, maybe typically of a Westerner, would leave no stone unturned and he saw the gold, which we didn’t because we were in the gold. He saw this beautiful music and did something about it. He organized it, put it into perspective from his musical knowledge. So, we had everything in there. Chris was very broad minded, a very, very clever cat. In the end he was very proud of us, and we were very proud of him, secretly.”
The European scene was totally different to the United States (US). In the US, the focus was on commercial music. Hugh Masekela’s ‘Grazing in the Grass’ was a commercial success, but when listened to musically, the South African’s in Europe were disappointed. When Hugh Masekela came to London he wanted to play kwela and mbaqanga. The rock groups were into mbaqanga. A lot of bands wanted to mimic that Fela afrobeat of this simple crazy riffs.
For example, Dudu Pukwana went to play with Gwangwa in the States, African Explosion. When he came back, he said “NO, Stop politics! We want money to pay our rent!” This is what Johnny explained in his interview with Aryan Kaganof. He said, “It was kind of a natural thing really to be in the Black Family Music, without compromise.”
And all the Blue Notes saw it that way. Mongezi Feza said, “Ugh but I don’t want to change the style,’ ’cos the style will change you.”
And through this dedication to the music – all the personalities from the Blue Notes gained great respect. A central meeting place in London was Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club. Here they met Ornette Coleman Archie Shepp, Jimmy Garrison and Roswell Rudd.
Wes Montgomery and Johnny Dyani had a chat. Wes liked Johnny’s “natural approach.” He said, “keep it that way because in jazz everybody plays what already somebody else is playing. He’s just playing, not contributing at all. You know there are very few originals.”
Roland Kirk told Dudu, “Do what you have to do in behaviour, and don’t let nobody live your life.”
And then the great trumpeter Don Cherry came into the club. Mongezi Feza was excited by that. He just said, “Find him for me.” And when he saw Don Cherry he made him put the trumpet down and said, “Teach me. You don’t play trumpet, you talk through the trumpet.”
What differentiated the Blue Notes was this curiosity, this hunger to learn and this inner confidence as to who they were. Nic Moyake was an original member of the Blue Notes, but he left exile and returned to South Africa where he died. When he met Wayne Shorter at a party for Dollar Brand, Nic told him, “You ain’t shit. What you play I played it before!’”
It’s like the famous story of when Johnny Dyani met Charles Mingus. Mingus was the heavy weight champion of bass at the time. He was known as a bully, and not easy to approach. Johnny approached him to play together. “It was a helluva night, I’m telling you,” recalled Dyani. After the session Mingus said to him ‘You sounded sharp’. Dyani replied, ‘You sounded flat.’”
The attitude of the South Africans in exile was unique. There was a confidence that is best described from the home environment they had just come from. In Europe the African approach was felt very strong and was at the forefront of a new musical language.
“Kwela and Township Jazz, take on a new significance: the significance of something once commonplace, but now lost. The significance of something personal, something unique that they, the South African exiles, might contribute to the kaleidoscope of European jazz,” wrote Peter Wilson.