The Sound of Freedom

[…]For over a decade Louis Moholo has been the only surviving member of the original Blue Notes. Nick Moyake died in 1969, Mongezi Feza in 1975, Johnny Dyani in 1986, Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana in 1990. However, their collective recorded legacy is nearly a hundred albums and, individually and collectively, they changed jazz immeasurably for the better. Moholo himself has played on countless great recordings, becoming one of the most distinctive and influential drummers of his generation. Apart from those albums by The Blue Notes and Brotherhood of Breath , he can be best appreciated with his groups Spirits Rejoice and Viva La Black, on Outback by Mike Osborne, In the Townships by Dudu Pukwana, Remembrance with Cecil Taylor, among many others. I spoke to Moholo at his North London home on March 20th 2002.

Can we go way back? You started in the 50s with The Chordettes.

LM: When I was about seven years of age, there was a cat called Molelekoa who had a youth band, and I was the drummer in that. Somehow I didn’t behave like a seven-year old in the band; my music was too advanced. First of all I was a cub, then I graduated to boy scouts, where I was near to the kettledrum and I was fired from there because I overplayed; I could hear some other things that other drummers couldn’t hear and the whole orchestra couldn’t hear. I didn’t realise it then, but I was a rebel in the making. When I was seventeen, I revisited the music. I felt like the music came back to me. I followed the urge. I had an ear for music because I was listening to guys like Charlie Parker, Mingus and Big Sid Catlett – who was the best drummer in the world ever.

Any South African jazz?

LM: It was there, but the SA whites owned everything, including the radio. (They still do actually. Although we are “liberated” they are still in key positions. They are still in power so to speak.) They did not appreciate SA jazz, so it was hardly on the radio. It was only in the townships that this music was surviving. When the whites wanted it, they wanted it on their own terms. For instance, at Gallo studio, they had their own man who played drums – like Motown used to do. This guy, I don’t know if he could play the bass drum or not, but you don’t hear any bass drum in the music of that era, just snare drum, cymbals and high hat. This is why when I played bass drum in our music, it wasn’t heard of, and they found it very strange to hear the bass drum happening. It is a shame, but it is a legacy of apartheid. The SA whites have fucked us up a lot, more than we think. We continue to discover how much damage there is.

[Several times in the interview, Moholo is keen to counter the view that Chris McGregor formed and led The Blue Notes. Currently, the only book about the band is by Maxine McGregor, Chris McGregor’s widow, and unsurprisingly it puts him at the centre of the story. Moholo is writing a book that will give his version of The Blue Notes story, the black version.]

After that, it seems that the next significant development was meeting Chris McGregor..

LM: Chris seems to be playing a very important part in our music. But we did meet some other people before we met Chris McGregor. When we met Chris McGregor, he met us as well. I always find it so difficult that [view that] King Chris McGregor came along and rescued us like Captain Marvel. He did not really. We did him a favour. There were no white musicians that could do it like we did. I am not the only drummer that played with him. Some other black drummers played with him. But those black drummers were better than the white drummers, I’m sorry to say. So we did him a favour. We joined forces together, rather than him coming and looking for a drummer. I demonstrated my drums to him. I was on the case. When we met up – me, Dudu, Mongezi, Johnny Dyani, Nick Moyake, Chris – we were on the case already. There is a lot involved in what we did, how we met Chris and for what reason. And I will put them in my book.

There was a festival that was happening in Cape Town and Chris McGregor came to look for me, he had heard of me. I went to the festival, playing with Ronnie Beer and some other cats, Tete Mbambisa, Danayi Dlova, Sammy Maritz, Bob Tizzard on trombone. And he heard me from then. There was a competition and I won the prize then, in conjunction with another cat called Early Mabuza who was a great SA drummer, and we shared first prize. From there The Blue Notes happened. It was like all-stars in the beginning.

And because Chris was white, things would go smoothly for him. He could talk the language of the white guys, he could enter into offices that I wouldn’t be allowed in. We used to play concerts in places where my mother wouldn’t be allowed in.

I wonder if the band would have lasted if it had remained in SA. The chances are that it wouldn’t have survived because of apartheid and the state of emergency whereby any black people more than three would be arrested straight away. A lot of trios, quartets and quintets disbanded because of this. And I was a bit political. So if we had stayed in SA, I think we would have been fucked up. The Boers would have succeeded in breaking us up. Fortunately, we had an appointment at the Juan-Les-Pins jazz festival that saved our beef. We never went back. For a good ten years we didn’t go back. First, Dudu and Chris went for a short spell. I followed. Mongezi never did and poor Johnny never did as well.

[Throughout this interview, and in his speech in general, Moholo uses the word “freedom” to refer to musical freedom and to personal freedom. For him, the two seem inextricably linked. He first encountered free playing shortly after experiencing freedom from oppression, on leaving South Africa.]

From Juan-Les-Pins you went to Switzerland.

LM: Yes, we had a gig at the Africana club. We met great musicians like Irene Schweizer and John Tchicai. Dollar Brand was also there, working with Makaya Ntoshko and Johnny Gertze. The musical development started. That brought home the fact that I am a rebel. I met some other rebels, musical rebels like Irene Schweizer, Pierre Favre. It made sense to me. Freedom made sense to me. I was looking for it all the time anyway. It was in me before then but I didn’t recognise it until I came overseas. I could feel the freedom straight away.

From there, you came on to London.

LM: Yes, London then was cream cheese musically. Thank God that we came to London at that time because London was the place, Mecca for music in the ’60s. To meet people like Joe Harriott, Tubby Hayes. There was a development happening here with people like Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, John Stevens, Trevor Watts. We gigged together, so there were people to play with, people to make sense with. And it was allowed for us to do that…

…in contrast to what you had experienced in SA.

LM: It was fantastic, exciting to break away from the chains. Like the old conventional way of playing the drum. All of a sudden it was taken into consideration because before that the drum was the last instrument in the totem pole, the drummer just kept the rhythm. When I started to play this free music, it was allowed for the drummer to be in front. And so we also got a lot of encouragement from people like Max Roach and Art Blakey who were leaders of their own bands. Not to say that they influenced me to do that – I wanted to do it anyway.

Then I met Steve Lacy and broke away from The Blue Notes. We went to Argentina [on a tour with Johnny Dyani and Enrico Rava]. In Argentina, some freak jumped on the bandstand and smashed my drums with a hammer, so everything was smashed. So all of a sudden I didn’t have any drums. So I kept on collecting this, that and the other. I didn’t have any money. I was in Argentina. I collected things like pots and pans – make do with this, make do with that. This became a fashion; little did I know but I’d started something. To me, it wasn’t from choice that I played these things, unlike some other cats who played these things. Milford Graves chose to do that; I did not, it just happened to be like that through poverty, through frustration. Through a love of music, I had to hit something.

Then I came with this instrument from Argentina when I finished with Steve Lacy. The first gig I did was to play at Ronnie Scott’s old club with this drum. And who comes to this gig we were doing with Chris McGregor, but Dave Holland. He was playing with Tony Oxley at Ronnie’s new place. By then, I’d had two years playing this kit and I was mastering it; I was flying on it. So Dave got so knocked out that he went and told Tony that he should listen to me. Tony came and all of a sudden decided to copy that. And then I heard that John Stevens was doing the same thing.

Around that time Brotherhood of Breath began.

LM:  When Johnny Dyani and I went to Argentina with Steve Lacy, Chris made do with the cats that were around, and at the back of his mind he wanted to make a superband but the penny hadn’t dropped. It dropped when we came back. So what happened is that we were also involved in the building of this big band. I don’t say it was our band. It was Chris’s band, but we jogged his mind. We helped in building this thing. If we weren’t geared up for it, maybe it would never have happened. We did a lot to support it. We lived together, we ate together, we discussed things together, and if I heard of an alto player that was good, I would tell him, and then that person would be in. We helped each other in that kind of way. If the rhythm of a tune was not fitting, if I heard another rhythm, it would be OK.

We worked together. He would just say “Free, man” or “Six-eight, man”. But there are so many flavours of six-eight that he would leave it up to me. I would hear the pulse – as Dudu would too – and just do my thing in the context of the music. The Blue Note guys who were in the band did this kind of thing, which influenced everybody that it was OK. But we didn’t say anything; Chris took all the credit and all that.

It sounds as if the credit that Chris McGregor got is a sore point with you. I had always thought of Brotherhood of Breath as a collective band, even though it was under his name.

LM: No, it was his band. I’m just trying to say that we worked together…When we left SA, it was under heavy manners. We went to Zurich and some white cats would come up to us and tell us that they liked us. And then we’d find out that they were from Special Branch. They would befriend us because we didn’t have much money. If someone gave us something we’d appreciate it. And because we are nice people anyway, that was maybe how we first of all lost our country, being nice, allowing these people to come to our country. So the same thing happened; some cat would be nice to us and the next thing he’d be saying “Fuck SA” and we’d join in because of how he’d been talking. And then the next thing you would hear was that your mother had been visited in SA. So we shied away. But it was not particularly hurting Chris so much because he was white.  So we didn’t trust anybody. We didn’t say anything. These people would talk to Chris, and because they were the same nation, or whatever. Chris was a nice cat anyway, but we were under heavy manners; something was happening to us that wasn’t happening to him. Even in SA we were fed up of it. If you see a white, you see an enemy. This is how they showed themselves to us. As people who hurt other people.

Oh, he was the leader, automatically. If there are four black guys and a white cat, it is assumed he is the boss. It is like when Charlie Parker had Red Rodney play with him and in hotels, where no blacks could be, he would carry Red Rodney’s trumpet as if he was the boy although he was actually the boss. It was that kind of situation. But maybe I’ll put it nicer in my book!

When did you first go back to SA?

LM: In 1972. Not to play. For a holiday. My mother was freaking out. She wanted to see me badly; my father had died. There were things that I’d left because we had semi run away. We left in a hurry, so things were not finished. So there were custom things – my people’s things -that I had to do.

I was in touch with SA, having been here in England. I grew up with Thabo Mbeki, Essop Pahad, Pallo Jordan. We are a little SA here too. It was a shock coming here, rather than a shock going back there. I knew that it was dire straits back there. I knew it because I grew up in it. It just came back to me, the same old shit was happening. It made me stronger actually to say: Yes. That’s why I left SA. I left for these reasons.

Somebody told me that jazz is dead in SA, a musician. I won’t mention his name because he’s not as revolutionary as I am. (I don’t give a damn. That is why I left SA. ) That is why I am playing this music. I know I would have made a lot of money playing pop music. A lot of pop bands wanted me to join them; John Lennon and Frank Zappa had an interest; I turned them down. I just wanted to play with Dudu and Mongs and Johnny Dyani. I thank God that I turned them down. I would have been a millionaire, though. But maybe dead.

It wasn’t until 1993 that you eventually played music back in SA.

LM: With my band Viva La Black. The political situation was in upheaval, so I went back into the lion’s den and stood up there, like I used to do when I was canvassing for the ANC. I went there knowing that if I said anything about anything that they would fuck me up. I did go there and I did name my band Viva La Black. That was challenge enough. They didn’t do anything to me because the music was tough. The music was saying more things than they were saying. This music saw to it that the Berlin Wall fell. We liberated our country partly through this music. Everybody gave a hand – Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Keith Tippett, Elton Dean, John Stevens, Johnny Dyani, Mongs. We broke the barriers; down fell the Berlin Wall.

You see the two as very interlinked, political freedom and musical freedom.

LM: Music is the healing force of the universe. The political disease that was there needed music to heal it up. I’m speaking from a musical point of view, and for my brothers.

How was Viva La Black received when you toured?

LM: I asked the main guys in SA what they were playing, who they were playing with, and they’d say they were playing rock. What? They’d say jazz is not happening there. You’d play it, but you wouldn’t survive.

Musically, you need to be here, but you feel comfortable there. A difficult position.

LM: Yes. It is like this. I would not have many gigs in SA. I just want to be there, get a piece of the action. But I would never retire. I would never divorce Europe or the west. I have an English passport; I will never give it away. I will always be in Europe.

I don’t want to be so hard. I don’t hate SA. I love it. I have big hopes for SA. We didn’t leave SA for gangsters to be running around killing us. We fought the war with the Boers. Now it seems we have to fight a war with the gangsters. Gangsters of all kinds – people who take other people’s land – that is why I say we have to fight in SA. In SA some people are allowed to play gigs while others are not allowed to play. There are a lot of festivals in SA but the Americans are taking over everywhere. The fight is not over in SA.

I love SA. I’ve got my people there but I’m telling the truth; they are not equipped for my music. It’s the legacy. [The Boers] stopped the music when it was in flight. They could see all this liberation, like Max Roach fighting with his music. Like his record “We Insist” was banned. Books, paintings, artists are banned. So there is this legacy. The white people of SA, they have the money, they are the promoters. They don’t want to be disturbed. They don’t give a damn about the music.

There is a lot of your music that we have not covered. You have been involved in many great sessions and albums. Looking back, what are particular landmarks?

LM: The Blue Notes were the thing for me. That was the band for me, the fountain. It all comes up from The Blue Notes. It made it easier for me to deal with the other cats. To be born in that beautiful country, the rhythm of that country is fantastic. So when I played with all those other guys although we’re not playing rhythm, the pulse of the heart beats a certain rhythm so you cannot say we’re just playing free music not rhythm. It made it easy for me to deal with situations in music. Also, apartheid did that too, made me that much angrier that much more awake to the vibes of the universe. The world is like this, you will come across things like this. You will meet people like Cecil Taylor and the way to deal with them is to open up this bag full of experience, and it brings the right frame of mind.

The Blue Notes were the thing for me. I’m still suffering from not being able to play with those guys. Even if I was not playing with them, just because they were around I would hear their music on the radio. If I heard Johnny Dyani, that was going to be my food that would make me survive musically for the next three months. It was spiritual rejuvenation. I didn’t have to go to SA to get spiritual rejuvenation. Just by looking at Dudu, just seeing his eyes would knock me out. And now those eyes are no more, they’re gone.

John Eyles is a music journalist who has written for many publications including The
Independent Catalogue, Avant, Rubberneck, Jazz on CD, Jazz Express and The
Jazz Rag. He currently writes for All About Jazz, BBCi, Opprobrium and
SoNoMu websites. He lives and works in London.

 

[…]For over a decade Louis Moholo has been the only surviving member of the original Blue Notes. Nick Moyake died in 1969, Mongezi Feza in 1975, Johnny Dyani in 1986, Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana in 1990. However, their collective recorded legacy is nearly a hundred albums and, individually and collectively, they changed jazz immeasurably for the better. Moholo himself has played on countless great recordings, becoming one of the most distinctive and influential drummers of his generation. Apart from those albums by The Blue Notes and Brotherhood of Breath , he can be best appreciated with his groups Spirits Rejoice and Viva La Black, on Outback by Mike Osborne, In the Townships by Dudu Pukwana, Remembrance with Cecil Taylor, among many others. I spoke to Moholo at his North London home on March 20th 2002.

Can we go way back? You started in the 50s with The Chordettes.

LM: When I was about seven years of age, there was a cat called Molelekoa who had a youth band, and I was the drummer in that. Somehow I didn’t behave like a seven-year old in the band; my music was too advanced. First of all I was a cub, then I graduated to boy scouts, where I was near to the kettledrum and I was fired from there because I overplayed; I could hear some other things that other drummers couldn’t hear and the whole orchestra couldn’t hear. I didn’t realise it then, but I was a rebel in the making. When I was seventeen, I revisited the music. I felt like the music came back to me. I followed the urge. I had an ear for music because I was listening to guys like Charlie Parker, Mingus and Big Sid Catlett – who was the best drummer in the world ever.

Any South African jazz?

LM: It was there, but the SA whites owned everything, including the radio. (They still do actually. Although we are “liberated” they are still in key positions. They are still in power so to speak.) They did not appreciate SA jazz, so it was hardly on the radio. It was only in the townships that this music was surviving. When the whites wanted it, they wanted it on their own terms. For instance, at Gallo studio, they had their own man who played drums – like Motown used to do. This guy, I don’t know if he could play the bass drum or not, but you don’t hear any bass drum in the music of that era, just snare drum, cymbals and high hat. This is why when I played bass drum in our music, it wasn’t heard of, and they found it very strange to hear the bass drum happening. It is a shame, but it is a legacy of apartheid. The SA whites have fucked us up a lot, more than we think. We continue to discover how much damage there is.

[Several times in the interview, Moholo is keen to counter the view that Chris McGregor formed and led The Blue Notes. Currently, the only book about the band is by Maxine McGregor, Chris McGregor’s widow, and unsurprisingly it puts him at the centre of the story. Moholo is writing a book that will give his version of The Blue Notes story, the black version.]

After that, it seems that the next significant development was meeting Chris McGregor..

LM: Chris seems to be playing a very important part in our music. But we did meet some other people before we met Chris McGregor. When we met Chris McGregor, he met us as well. I always find it so difficult that [view that] King Chris McGregor came along and rescued us like Captain Marvel. He did not really. We did him a favour. There were no white musicians that could do it like we did. I am not the only drummer that played with him. Some other black drummers played with him. But those black drummers were better than the white drummers, I’m sorry to say. So we did him a favour. We joined forces together, rather than him coming and looking for a drummer. I demonstrated my drums to him. I was on the case. When we met up – me, Dudu, Mongezi, Johnny Dyani, Nick Moyake, Chris – we were on the case already. There is a lot involved in what we did, how we met Chris and for what reason. And I will put them in my book.

There was a festival that was happening in Cape Town and Chris McGregor came to look for me, he had heard of me. I went to the festival, playing with Ronnie Beer and some other cats, Tete Mbambisa, Danayi Dlova, Sammy Maritz, Bob Tizzard on trombone. And he heard me from then. There was a competition and I won the prize then, in conjunction with another cat called Early Mabuza who was a great SA drummer, and we shared first prize. From there The Blue Notes happened. It was like all-stars in the beginning.

And because Chris was white, things would go smoothly for him. He could talk the language of the white guys, he could enter into offices that I wouldn’t be allowed in. We used to play concerts in places where my mother wouldn’t be allowed in.

I wonder if the band would have lasted if it had remained in SA. The chances are that it wouldn’t have survived because of apartheid and the state of emergency whereby any black people more than three would be arrested straight away. A lot of trios, quartets and quintets disbanded because of this. And I was a bit political. So if we had stayed in SA, I think we would have been fucked up. The Boers would have succeeded in breaking us up. Fortunately, we had an appointment at the Juan-Les-Pins jazz festival that saved our beef. We never went back. For a good ten years we didn’t go back. First, Dudu and Chris went for a short spell. I followed. Mongezi never did and poor Johnny never did as well.

[Throughout this interview, and in his speech in general, Moholo uses the word “freedom” to refer to musical freedom and to personal freedom. For him, the two seem inextricably linked. He first encountered free playing shortly after experiencing freedom from oppression, on leaving South Africa.]

From Juan-Les-Pins you went to Switzerland.

LM: Yes, we had a gig at the Africana club. We met great musicians like Irene Schweizer and John Tchicai. Dollar Brand was also there, working with Makaya Ntoshko and Johnny Gertze. The musical development started. That brought home the fact that I am a rebel. I met some other rebels, musical rebels like Irene Schweizer, Pierre Favre. It made sense to me. Freedom made sense to me. I was looking for it all the time anyway. It was in me before then but I didn’t recognise it until I came overseas. I could feel the freedom straight away.

From there, you came on to London.

LM: Yes, London then was cream cheese musically. Thank God that we came to London at that time because London was the place, Mecca for music in the ’60s. To meet people like Joe Harriott, Tubby Hayes. There was a development happening here with people like Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, John Stevens, Trevor Watts. We gigged together, so there were people to play with, people to make sense with. And it was allowed for us to do that…

…in contrast to what you had experienced in SA.

LM: It was fantastic, exciting to break away from the chains. Like the old conventional way of playing the drum. All of a sudden it was taken into consideration because before that the drum was the last instrument in the totem pole, the drummer just kept the rhythm. When I started to play this free music, it was allowed for the drummer to be in front. And so we also got a lot of encouragement from people like Max Roach and Art Blakey who were leaders of their own bands. Not to say that they influenced me to do that – I wanted to do it anyway.

Then I met Steve Lacy and broke away from The Blue Notes. We went to Argentina [on a tour with Johnny Dyani and Enrico Rava]. In Argentina, some freak jumped on the bandstand and smashed my drums with a hammer, so everything was smashed. So all of a sudden I didn’t have any drums. So I kept on collecting this, that and the other. I didn’t have any money. I was in Argentina. I collected things like pots and pans – make do with this, make do with that. This became a fashion; little did I know but I’d started something. To me, it wasn’t from choice that I played these things, unlike some other cats who played these things. Milford Graves chose to do that; I did not, it just happened to be like that through poverty, through frustration. Through a love of music, I had to hit something.

Then I came with this instrument from Argentina when I finished with Steve Lacy. The first gig I did was to play at Ronnie Scott’s old club with this drum. And who comes to this gig we were doing with Chris McGregor, but Dave Holland. He was playing with Tony Oxley at Ronnie’s new place. By then, I’d had two years playing this kit and I was mastering it; I was flying on it. So Dave got so knocked out that he went and told Tony that he should listen to me. Tony came and all of a sudden decided to copy that. And then I heard that John Stevens was doing the same thing.

Around that time Brotherhood of Breath began.

LM:  When Johnny Dyani and I went to Argentina with Steve Lacy, Chris made do with the cats that were around, and at the back of his mind he wanted to make a superband but the penny hadn’t dropped. It dropped when we came back. So what happened is that we were also involved in the building of this big band. I don’t say it was our band. It was Chris’s band, but we jogged his mind. We helped in building this thing. If we weren’t geared up for it, maybe it would never have happened. We did a lot to support it. We lived together, we ate together, we discussed things together, and if I heard of an alto player that was good, I would tell him, and then that person would be in. We helped each other in that kind of way. If the rhythm of a tune was not fitting, if I heard another rhythm, it would be OK.

We worked together. He would just say “Free, man” or “Six-eight, man”. But there are so many flavours of six-eight that he would leave it up to me. I would hear the pulse – as Dudu would too – and just do my thing in the context of the music. The Blue Note guys who were in the band did this kind of thing, which influenced everybody that it was OK. But we didn’t say anything; Chris took all the credit and all that.

It sounds as if the credit that Chris McGregor got is a sore point with you. I had always thought of Brotherhood of Breath as a collective band, even though it was under his name.

LM: No, it was his band. I’m just trying to say that we worked together…When we left SA, it was under heavy manners. We went to Zurich and some white cats would come up to us and tell us that they liked us. And then we’d find out that they were from Special Branch. They would befriend us because we didn’t have much money. If someone gave us something we’d appreciate it. And because we are nice people anyway, that was maybe how we first of all lost our country, being nice, allowing these people to come to our country. So the same thing happened; some cat would be nice to us and the next thing he’d be saying “Fuck SA” and we’d join in because of how he’d been talking. And then the next thing you would hear was that your mother had been visited in SA. So we shied away. But it was not particularly hurting Chris so much because he was white.  So we didn’t trust anybody. We didn’t say anything. These people would talk to Chris, and because they were the same nation, or whatever. Chris was a nice cat anyway, but we were under heavy manners; something was happening to us that wasn’t happening to him. Even in SA we were fed up of it. If you see a white, you see an enemy. This is how they showed themselves to us. As people who hurt other people.

Oh, he was the leader, automatically. If there are four black guys and a white cat, it is assumed he is the boss. It is like when Charlie Parker had Red Rodney play with him and in hotels, where no blacks could be, he would carry Red Rodney’s trumpet as if he was the boy although he was actually the boss. It was that kind of situation. But maybe I’ll put it nicer in my book!

When did you first go back to SA?

LM: In 1972. Not to play. For a holiday. My mother was freaking out. She wanted to see me badly; my father had died. There were things that I’d left because we had semi run away. We left in a hurry, so things were not finished. So there were custom things – my people’s things -that I had to do.

I was in touch with SA, having been here in England. I grew up with Thabo Mbeki, Essop Pahad, Pallo Jordan. We are a little SA here too. It was a shock coming here, rather than a shock going back there. I knew that it was dire straits back there. I knew it because I grew up in it. It just came back to me, the same old shit was happening. It made me stronger actually to say: Yes. That’s why I left SA. I left for these reasons.

Somebody told me that jazz is dead in SA, a musician. I won’t mention his name because he’s not as revolutionary as I am. (I don’t give a damn. That is why I left SA. ) That is why I am playing this music. I know I would have made a lot of money playing pop music. A lot of pop bands wanted me to join them; John Lennon and Frank Zappa had an interest; I turned them down. I just wanted to play with Dudu and Mongs and Johnny Dyani. I thank God that I turned them down. I would have been a millionaire, though. But maybe dead.

It wasn’t until 1993 that you eventually played music back in SA.

LM: With my band Viva La Black. The political situation was in upheaval, so I went back into the lion’s den and stood up there, like I used to do when I was canvassing for the ANC. I went there knowing that if I said anything about anything that they would fuck me up. I did go there and I did name my band Viva La Black. That was challenge enough. They didn’t do anything to me because the music was tough. The music was saying more things than they were saying. This music saw to it that the Berlin Wall fell. We liberated our country partly through this music. Everybody gave a hand – Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Keith Tippett, Elton Dean, John Stevens, Johnny Dyani, Mongs. We broke the barriers; down fell the Berlin Wall.

You see the two as very interlinked, political freedom and musical freedom.

LM: Music is the healing force of the universe. The political disease that was there needed music to heal it up. I’m speaking from a musical point of view, and for my brothers.

How was Viva La Black received when you toured?

LM: I asked the main guys in SA what they were playing, who they were playing with, and they’d say they were playing rock. What? They’d say jazz is not happening there. You’d play it, but you wouldn’t survive.

Musically, you need to be here, but you feel comfortable there. A difficult position.

LM: Yes. It is like this. I would not have many gigs in SA. I just want to be there, get a piece of the action. But I would never retire. I would never divorce Europe or the west. I have an English passport; I will never give it away. I will always be in Europe.

I don’t want to be so hard. I don’t hate SA. I love it. I have big hopes for SA. We didn’t leave SA for gangsters to be running around killing us. We fought the war with the Boers. Now it seems we have to fight a war with the gangsters. Gangsters of all kinds – people who take other people’s land – that is why I say we have to fight in SA. In SA some people are allowed to play gigs while others are not allowed to play. There are a lot of festivals in SA but the Americans are taking over everywhere. The fight is not over in SA.

I love SA. I’ve got my people there but I’m telling the truth; they are not equipped for my music. It’s the legacy. [The Boers] stopped the music when it was in flight. They could see all this liberation, like Max Roach fighting with his music. Like his record “We Insist” was banned. Books, paintings, artists are banned. So there is this legacy. The white people of SA, they have the money, they are the promoters. They don’t want to be disturbed. They don’t give a damn about the music.

There is a lot of your music that we have not covered. You have been involved in many great sessions and albums. Looking back, what are particular landmarks?

LM: The Blue Notes were the thing for me. That was the band for me, the fountain. It all comes up from The Blue Notes. It made it easier for me to deal with the other cats. To be born in that beautiful country, the rhythm of that country is fantastic. So when I played with all those other guys although we’re not playing rhythm, the pulse of the heart beats a certain rhythm so you cannot say we’re just playing free music not rhythm. It made it easy for me to deal with situations in music. Also, apartheid did that too, made me that much angrier that much more awake to the vibes of the universe. The world is like this, you will come across things like this. You will meet people like Cecil Taylor and the way to deal with them is to open up this bag full of experience, and it brings the right frame of mind.

The Blue Notes were the thing for me. I’m still suffering from not being able to play with those guys. Even if I was not playing with them, just because they were around I would hear their music on the radio. If I heard Johnny Dyani, that was going to be my food that would make me survive musically for the next three months. It was spiritual rejuvenation. I didn’t have to go to SA to get spiritual rejuvenation. Just by looking at Dudu, just seeing his eyes would knock me out. And now those eyes are no more, they’re gone.

John Eyles is a music journalist who has written for many publications including The
Independent Catalogue, Avant, Rubberneck, Jazz on CD, Jazz Express and The
Jazz Rag. He currently writes for All About Jazz, BBCi, Opprobrium and
SoNoMu websites. He lives and works in London.

 

 

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