Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Jazz: The African Sound

“The African Sound … spells out clearly the character and direction of South African jazz towards its own territorial identity – a vigorous, lively, good-humoured swing which you will not find anywhere else on earth, North America included.” So wrote the Johannesburg Star’s critic Richard McNeill of the original release of this album.

This album of original South African jazz is unique in many ways – it was the first album of South African jazz composed, arranged and played by an all-South African big band. At the time of its release in 1963 it was unique also in that the band members were both white and Black. At the time this was almost unthinkable in South Africa.

The uniqueness also came from the fact that the band which made it had a very circumscribed life – the band was together for a total of three weeks, during which time they rehearsed, did a number of concerts and the recording.

In September of 1963 there was a jazz festival at the Moroka-Jabavu Stadium in Soweto. This festival was underwritten by the brewers of Castle Lager Beer, South African Breweries (now SABMiller). All the best-known names in South African jazz were there and, although the festival itself was not a great success, some great music emerged from it.

Maxine McGregor, widow of Chris McGregor, who was responsible for the arrangements on the album, writes in her book Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath:

“Chris took advantage of the proximity of all the best jazz musicians in the country to persuade the breweries to back him in another venture – a big (17-piece) band with the musicians of his choice. They gave him a week to arrange, teach and rehearse with the band, and during that time he did not sleep at all. Chris was not given to arranging music very fast; he gave a lot of thought and time to his work, but once done he rarely had to amend anything. He would sit up all night writing the arrangements and during the days set about teaching each musician his part and trying them out together. Not all the musicians could read music which was an added complication, but as they were used to playing by ear they were astonishingly quick to pick up the arrangements. Twenty-four hours for each song, seven by the end of the first week; then they played several concerts in the townships round Johannesburg and in Benoni and Boksburg.”

The result was a band that, in spite of their different backgrounds and experience, came together in an amazing way to make some truly original and beautiful music, a classic in South African jazz.

It was a project that pianist, composer and arranger Chris McGregor had been dreaming of for some time: “I have waited for years to hear a band composed of the brightest stars in South African jazz and my note-books are full of projected personnel and worthwhile compositions for such a venture, the fruits of listening to and being involved with this lovely thing, jazz music in South Africa,” he wrote in the liner notes to the album.

As McGregor would say in an interview with Graham Lock some 20 years later: “I’m an absolute nut for big bands. I love the colours and the energy flow of big groups. I’ve always been ultra-attracted by that organisation and putting-together capacity that was so uniquely Duke’s. I love playing, arranging, composing – the lot!”

McGregor’s love for “playing, arranging, composing” certainly comes through on this album: two of the six numbers are his own compositions, all the arrangements and of course he is leading the whole enterprise from the piano. The other four compositions on the album are two each from Kippie Morolong Moeketsi and Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim).

The album opens with Kippie’s song “Switch” which McGregor arranged “to showcase his alto playing.” It’s a medium-tempo number which McGregor writes “has no real key but has a feeling of departure and return through the riff used as introduction and coda.”At just more than six minutes it is the longest track on the album.

Next up is Dollar Brand’s “Kippie” which, as McGregor writes, “was composed by Dollar to express the way he feels about Kippie and I have arranged to express the way I feel about both of them.” After a short ensemble opening, there follows a long passage of piano, bass and drums, setting the generally reflective tone of the piece. The bridge before Kippie enters on clarinet is carried by two tenors and another alto (Nikele Moyake, Ronnie Beer and Dudu Pukwana). Kippie’s clarinet solo is simply stunning, and at its end I keep wishing for more. The somewhat Ellingtonian climax with all the horns leads into Kippie’s soulful ending.

The mood changes abruptly with the energetic opening bars of Brand’s “Eclipse at Dawn”, in which the theme is laid down by Kippie on clarinet, accompanied by Dudu Pukwana on alto and Mongezi Feza on muted trumpet, before an understated but swinging piano solo by McGregor before Kippie gets down with his clarinet again, swinging like crazy! Kippie’s solo is followed by a great tenor solo by Nikele Moyake. Some great trombone sounds in the bridge and then it’s back to the theme with Kippie, Dudu and Mongezi.

Eight years later McGregor would again record Eclipse at Dawn, this time with the Brotherhood of Breath at the 1971 Berliner Jazztage festival. This time the song becomes the springboard for an exuberant free blow, introduced by a long, slow introduction with a mostly bowed bass by Harry Miller leading interpolations from various instruments. In this version of the tune McGregor’s piano is hardly heard at all and the solos are taken by Nick Evans on trombone and Mike Osborne on alto. Altogether a very different take on the song showing what a difference exposure to the freer jazz atmosphere of Europe had made to both McGregor and Pukwana, who were in fact the only two musicians on this album who had also been part of The African Sound.

But back to The African Sound. The next track is the swinging, up-tempo “Early Bird” by McGregor, a tribute to drummer “Early Bird” Mabusa. It is marked by energetic ensemble playing by all the horns in dynamic exchanges with Mabusa’s drums, plus some great solo work by, among others, a young and up-coming alto player Barney Rachabane whose passion and exciting playing are already noticeable. An elegant solo by McGregor is also a feature of the track.

After all the energy of “Early Bird” comes Kippie’s reflective, beautiful ballad “I Remember Billy”, his clarinet leading into some wonderfully sonorous phrases from the whole band, with muted trumpets adding gentle highlights to the sonic landscape. The brass section really dominates for a few minutes before Kippie comes back with some soulful clarinet responses, before he signs off the whole thing.

Next up is another McGregor tune listed on the album as “Now” but more usually called “Manje” which is the Xhosa word for “now”. This is the only tune on this album apart from “Eclipse at Dawn” that McGregor recorded elsewhere. It was recorded twice by McGregor’s group The Blue Notes in the following year, 1964, on albums released many years later called respectively “Township Bop” and “The Blue Notes Legacy”. It was recorded twice again in 1971, this time by McGregor’s later big band the Brotherhood of Breath, on albums also released many years later: “Bremen to Bridgwater” and “Eclipse at Dawn”. Another version of the song was recorded in 1975 and also released on the “Bremen to Bridgewater” album. The Blue Notes came back to the song in 1977 on an album called “The Blue Notes in Concert Volume 1” released by Ogun in 1978.

As McGregor wrote in the liner notes this song was “about” Nikele Moyake, the great tenor player who does most of the soloing during this big band showcase number, with the rest of the horns roaring enthusiastically behind him. A fitting end to a great album of classic South African jazz.

The masters of this album were lost from the Gallo tape vaults and could not be found when the company wanted to re-release it as part of their “African Heritage” series. The re-release was made possible by a South African jazz who used to buy two copies of any South African jazz album he liked, and typically kept one of the copies sealed and unplayed. Luckily he had such a copy of this album and the CD was mastered from the sealed, unplayed vinyl. Fortunately the sound of the original album was so good that the re-mastering from vinyl was very successful and the CD sounds amazingly fresh and full.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Visionary Environment – Helen Martins and The Owl House of Nieu Bethesda







“On a cold winters' morning in 1976, at the age of seventy-eight, Helen Martins took her own life by swallowing caustic soda.” (From the biography of Helen Martins on the official Owl House Foundation site http://www.owlhouse.co.za/)

So ended the tragic yet somehow beautiful life of a colourful character whose artistic vision and psychological depth went mostly unnoticed by her neighbours in the dusty, out-of-the-way Great Karoo village of Nieu Bethesda.

Helen Martins, who went on to create the fantastical sculptures and decorations of the Owl House, was born in 1897, the youngest of six children born to “Oom” (Uncle) Piet Martins and his wife.

Nieu Bethesda is a small village in the Great Karoo, founded by the Rev. Andrew Murray, in a valley of the Sneeuberge (Snow Mountains), in1875. It lies in the shadow of the Compassberg, which, at 2 540 metres, is the highest mountain in the Eastern Cape.

My former wife Joan and I visited there in October 1999 and were entranced, as are so many others, by the Owl House. The spirit of Helen Martins is almost palpable in the house and its fantastical garden.

The small house is full of colour and shimmer from the ground-glass wall covering and the large panes of coloured glass in the windows. The interior was where Miss Helen, as she was known, started the transformation of her modest home back in the late 40s or early 50s. For this stage of the transformation of the house she used two local workmen to enlarge windows and help with the painting and installation of the ground glass wall coverings.

The garden is crowded with camels and owls and people of all kinds, many with skirts of coloured glass bottles, most of them facing East.

According to the official website of the Owl House Museum the number of visitors to this fascinating place has reached more than 15 000 annually. This begs the question, Why? What is it that people look for there? What draws them to this rather strange place in a very out-of-the-way corner of South Africa, far from the beaten track, far from any glitz or glitter?

The house itself is small and architecturally nondescript. And yet more than 1000 people visit it each month on average. Though I must admit the day we were there we were the only visitors, so I’m not sure when these 1000 people visit. Maybe in holiday seasons. We visited in a very low season.

Nieu Bethesda itself is a really beautiful place, calm and peaceful to the point of somnolence. And like so many such places full of stories and legends.

One of the most potent of these is the story of Miss Helen and her Owl House. Is the house the beginning or the end of her “Road to Mecca”? Is her garden of wonders and delights a happy or a sad place?

For the people of Nieu-Bethesda it was in her lifetime a place of mystery and fear, a place which loudly disturbed the Calvinist calm and quiet of their town with its Christian symbols facing the Muslim Mecca, with its brooding sexual questioning. Even her relationship with the workman Koos Malgas became an affront to the burghers’ sensitivities in the depth of apartheid South Africa.

Athol Fugard’s moving play “The Road to Mecca” is about this confrontation between the repression of convention, symbolised by the character Marius Beyleveldt, and the defiance of the visionary, embodied by Miss Helen.

It is tempting to see in Miss Helen’s outpouring of creations, her obsessive covering of the walls of her house, evidence of sickness, of a diseased mind, as in what has become known as “outsider art” or , in Jean Dubuffet’s term, “Art Brut”. This kind of art has become well known and widely studied and certainly there are similarities with Miss Helen’s creations.

Dubuffet wrote about Art Brut that it was created without reference to “worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion” and was largely self-taught. Miss Helen certainly created from what Dubuffet called “solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses”, but she was at the same time, perhaps paradoxically, concerned for the preservation of her creations, and was concerned to some extent about their acceptance by others. She wanted, according to the Owl House Museum website, to be recognised as an artist.

One of the most famous “outsider” artists is the Swiss asylum inmate Adolf Wofli, who also wanted to be recognised as an artist. His output of drawings shows he had what is termed a “horror vacui”, a fear of empty spaces, and so his many drawings are obsessively covered with no white spaces left. Was there a similar fear at work in Miss Helen? I would suspect so, though I would not imagine her to be mad, as Wolfli undoubtedly was.

What she undoubtedly was, was a sign of contradiction in an era and place of conformity. Graeme Revell, who has studied the music that Wofli composed, has written that Wolfli’s music brings us to “The realisation also that our aesthetic sensibility is constrained by our limited perceptual ability.” In other words, what we see (or hear) is limited by what we are able, as culturally determined, to see (or hear).

Which brings us back to the question of what people come to the Owl House wanting or expecting to see? Is it a morbid fascination with or expectations of seeing symptoms of a sick mind? Is it the attraction of the merely picaresque? Or is there some sense of coming into contact with something deeper. Some deep connection with the origins of human creativity, perhaps?

Dubuffet on outsider art again: “After a certain familiarity with these flourishing of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade."

However I would not characterise the Owl House as “outsider art” but rather as a “visionary environment” as in the following definition: “Visionary environments ("fantasy worlds") are extensive/large-scale artistic installations (buildings, sculpture parks, etc) intended to capture intense subjective/personal experiences (dreams, fantasies, obsessions, etc) of their creators. The subjective/personal nature of these projects often implies a marginal status for the artists involved, and there is a strong association between visionary environments and outsider art.” (Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visionary_environments - accessed 140808).

What l was left with at the end of our visit was a somewhat wistful feeling, a feeling that Miss Helen haad been trying to communicate something very deep, very powerful to anyone who would visit her house, but somehow that something was at once so fleeting and so obscure that to grasp it might destroy it, that in the looking at it too deeply its meaning might be lost. The feeling was something like what Wolfli wrote towards the end of his life: “Some day again – in the dark wind – sweet childlike innocence will come.”

Perhaps that is what the owl house provokes, a sense of childlike wonder and curiosity, something will-o-the-wispish, playful yet sad, fleeting and profound, that evokes in people a nostalgia for what can never be. A paradoxical coming together of darkness and innocence, symbolised by the ethereal quality of the constructions in the Camel Yard, made of such earthly and commonplace materials yet pointing to something far other.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Hiroshima: A Terrible Memory burned into the bodies of hundreds of thousands

>“Hundreds of people who were trying to escape to the hills passed our house. The sight of them was almost unbearable. Their faces and hands were burnt and swollen; and great sheets of skin had peeled away from their tissues to hang down like rags or a scarecrow. They moved like a line of ants. All through the night, they went past our house, but this morning they stopped. I found them lying so thick on both sides of the road that it was impossible to pass without stepping on them.” - Michihiko Hachiya lived in Hiroshima during the Second World War. He wrote an account of the dropping of the atom bomb in his diary on 6th August, 1945. Retrieved from the Spartacus Educational website at http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/2WWhiroshima.htm

“It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued from Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with a fighting skill of which they have already become well aware.” - President Harry S. Truman, speech (6th August, 1945)

Thus was the era of nuclear war introduced to the world this day some 63 years ago. And for the past few years it seems to me that the world has lost sight of the horror, the sheer inhuman horror of that era.

When the so-called “Cold War” ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall citizens of the world have been lulled into a kind of torpor and perhaps moral quietude about this issue. Maybe all the other horrors of the modern world have eclipsed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I wonder about that.

I wonder if racism could be involved. I wonder if Japanese lives are less valuable than occidental, and particularly United States, lives. Or is it a reflection of the fact that the Japanese at the time were enemy combatants, systematically dehumanised in the propaganda of war, as Islamic people are now being made victims of similar propaganda in the wake of 9/11?

Nuclear weapons have not gone away. They are still in the arsenals of combatant countries around the world, some acknowledged, and some unacknowledged. And that fact alone is extraordinarily scary.

As Jonathan Schell wrote in The Fate of the Earth in 1982: These bombs were built as "weapons" for "war," but their significance greatly transcends war and all its causes and outcomes. They grew out of history, yet they threaten to end history. They were made by men, yet they threaten to annihilate man. They are a pit into which the whole world can fall - a nemesis of all human intentions, actions, and hopes. Only life itself, which they threaten to swallow up, can give the measure of their significance."

Some years ago I was in Germany at the beginning of summer and walked with a friend up a gently swelling hill covered with, I think, beech trees, and these lovely little yellow flowers all around on the soft green grass, birds twittering in the branches and the sun warming our backs as we walked. It was so peaceful, so gentle, so quiet.

And then my friend quietly remarked, “Do you know that below this hill, some metres under our feet, are many megatons of nuclear warheads?” That kind of shattered the peace of the moment for me.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant scientist who led the team which developed this terrible weapon, is said to have thought, at the moment of the first successful detonation of an atomic device, of a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita, the famous Hindu scripture, a quotation from the Eleventh Chapter, entitled Visva-Rupa-Darsana-yoga, or the "Yoga of Theophany", the chapter in which Krishna displays His Universal form—His divine Opulence—to Arjuna: “The Lord said: ‘Time [death] I am, the destroyer of the worlds, who has come to annihilate everyone. Even without your taking part all those arrayed in the [two] opposing ranks will be slain!’”

T.S. Eliot wrote The Wasteland in 1922, a long and ambiguous poem that foreshadowed the anguish of the atomic age. These lines from Section V: What the Thunder said, are particularly apposite:

What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation

Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only

What is the city over the mountains

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London

Unreal

It’s interesting that William Carlos Williams, the great US poet, remarked of this poem that it “wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped on it.”

Certainly literature can help us maintain the memory of atrocities and hold the hope that humanity might one day learn to live in peace, but that hope seems precarious in the face of so much naked aggression and hatred as is loose in the world today.

As time goes by and the number of survivors of that terrible day in 1945 gets smaller and smaller, we need something to keep the knowledge alive, to keep us focussed on changing, of bringing the world a little humanity, a little dignity, a little peace.

This we can only do by, to quote Gandhi, by being the change we want to see in the world. This means by treating all life as sacred, each person as an end in himself or herself, as worthy of dignity and respect and understanding.

When I think of the thousands killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on those fateful days in1945, I am reminded of other words by Eliot, this time from one of the Four Quartets, first published in 1944:

We die with the dying:

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead:

See, they return, and bring us with them.

And then a few lines later in Little Gidding Eliot sounds a note of some ambiguous hope, some possibility of redemption:

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

On this anniversary of the dawn of the atomic age, I can only cling to this shred of hope.





Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Yakhal' inKomo - the cry of cattle at the slaughter house



Yakhal’ inKomo – a classic South African jazz album
"I once saw Mankunku Ngozi blowing his saxophone. Yakhal' inkomo. His face was inflated like a balloon, it was wet with sweat, his eyes huge and red. He grew tall, shrank, coiled into himself, uncoiled and the cry came out of his horn.
"That is the meaning of Yakhal' inkomo." - Mongane Wally Serote: from the introduction to his collection of poetry entitled Yakhal' inKomo, published by Renoster Books in 1972.
From the first deep, broad notes of Agrippa Magwaza's bass one knows that this is a special album. The title track, Yakhal' inKomo, starts with Magwaza and pianist Lionel Pillay laying down a funky groove with a two-note bass ostinato until the soulful tenor of Winston Mankunku Ngozi comes in about four and a half bars later to lay down the main theme.
This theme came to be one of the most instantly recognisable in all of South African jazz. Fans at jazz gigs unfailingly greet these bars with shouts and cries of recognition. This composition by the man affectionately, and almost universally, known to jazz fans simply as "Mankunku" was taken into the hearts and consciousness of people from its first release in 1968, to the extent that it sold around 50 000 copies in its first two years. This is an incredible figure in South African jazz recording history, and made it the biggest jazz album ever released here, a position it still holds against some pretty stiff competition.
When this album was recorded apartheid was exactly 20 years old and many of Mankunku's peers had gone into exile and those who stayed had to endure what jazz writer Gwen Ansell, in Soweto Blues, called "symbolic annihilation" which "became part of the hegemonic staging and broadcasting of jazz," because "the white authorities found it unacceptable that black musicians should be acknowledged as capable of playing such 'sophisticated' music."
Ansell goes to relate how "Playing behind a screen at Cape Town City Hall while a white musician mimed his notes, reedman Winston Mankunku Ngozi was billed as Winston Mann."
Poet John Hendrickse, who knew a thing or two about jazz and South Africa, must have had this in mind in his poem “Remember” (in Khoi, 1990):
Where did you steal that culture
Where did you steal that suit
Fear gave him that sinking feeling
He’d been stealing dignity
His fingers minuet the music
Anger rises up inside of him
The warrior walks through the white menace
The music stumbles in staccato phrases
In a 2003 interview with Gwen Ansell, quoted in her book, Mankunku said:
“Yakhal’ inKomo was an odd tune. Things were tough then – but don’t ask me about all of that, I don’t want to discuss it. You had to have a pass; you got thrown out; the police would stop you, you know? I was about 22. I threw my pass away; wouldn’t carry it. We had it tough. I was always being arrested and a lot of my friends and I thought it was so tough for black people and put that into the song. So it was The Bellowing Bull: for the black man’s pain. And a lot of people would come up to me and say quietly: “Don’t worry bra’. We understand what you are playing about.”
An interesting story of the composition of Yakhal’ inKomo comes from Lars Rasmussen’s great book Jazz People of Cape Town (The Booktrader, 2003) in an interview Rasmussen recorded with pianist Roger Koza, who recalled:
“...I started the whole theme, with chords and all that, and Winston came in, he was a professional, and started building it up, and we used to call it another name...”
Koza continued: “So Winston came back from Jo’burg with this tune and I said, Hey, this is our tune! Listen to this tune! It was no more called Khale, it’s called Yakhal’ inKomo. I said, Who called it Yakhal’ inKomo? And he said, No, it was Pat Matshikiza.”
This story of tunes being swapped between musicians is a common theme in South African jazz. It seems to be part of the struggle musicians have to survive and goes along with the recurring themes of unscrupulous promoters and exploitative recording companies. In the twilight zone that jazz had to occupy during the apartheid era this is not surprising. As Mankunku said, things were tough for black musicians in South Africa.
Whatever the truth of the birth of this iconic jazz piece, it struck chords deep in the psyche of black South Africans at a time when the pain of apartheid was searing. As Serote wrote in another place about Mankunku: “He just went deep, right down to the floor of despair, and reached the rim of fear and hatred. He just spread and spread out and out in meditation, with his horn, Mankunku, Ngozi, that guy from the shores of South Africa, and he said: “That was it.” For that is what he was doing with his horn, Yakhal’ inKomo...” (Quoted in Michael Titlestad’s Making the Changes, Unisa Press, 2004).
In his introduction to his collection of poems called Yakhal’ inKomo from which I quoted at the beginning of this piece Serote also quotes artist Dumile Feni as an explanation of the title:
“Dumile, the sculptor, told me that once in the country he saw a cow being killed. In the kraal cattle were looking on. They were crying for their like, dying at the hands of human beings. Yakhal’ inkomo. Dumile held the left side of his chest and said that is where the cry of the cattle hit him...Yakhal’ inkomo. The cattle raged and fought, they became a terror to themselves; the twisted poles of the kraal rattled and shook. The cattle saw blood flow into the ground.”
It is not too difficult to see the historical significance of these words in the midst of apartheid South Africa.
Writing about the representation of jazz in South Africa and the charcoal drawing by Dumile Feni called Musicianaire Titlstad writes: “... the saxophone has the capacity, as an instrument of witness, to give voice to the irruptive sorrow of oppression...”
The rest of the album is taken up with Mankunku’s Dedication (to Daddy Trane and Brother Silver), Silver’s Doodlin’ and Coltrane’s Bessie’s Blues, Dedication at more than 10 minutes the longest track of the four.
As Rob Allingham wrote in the sleeve notes to the 1996 re-issue of Yakhal’ inKomo (issued with the five tracks of another album called Spring, recorded within four months of Yakhal’) Mankunku’s recordings “beautifully melded a distinctly South African style of jazz with what was then the cutting edge of the contemporary jazz scene in the US.”
Allingham told me in an email response to my questions about this album, Yakhal’ inKomo has been “...more or less continuously in print ever since it was first released”, testimony to its enduring popularity and status among aficionados both in South Africa and beyond.
This is an album of beautiful music that still stirs emotional responses by its expression of human pain and endurance, remembrance and invocation – Yakhal inKomo!
Pretoria
22 July 2008
 Mankunku on stage at Greenmarket Square, Cape Town, October 1987. Photo Tony McGregor

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Kwa Tebugo - jazz coming home

"...when Louis slams home a backbeat, everybody jumps."
This article was originally published in the South African jazz journal TwoTone in January 1993.


After more than 30 years, a South African musician who has achieved great acclaim in Britain and Europe is coming back to get the land of his birth jumping with the power of his backbeat.

Louis Tebugo Moholo is coming back with his band Viva La Black, giving South African music lovers the opportunity to hear a sound not heard here since the departure of Chris McGregor's Blue Notes in 1964. More than a generation of South Africans will be able, to catch up with the history music-lovers in Britain and Europe have known for many years - how a small group of highly-talented South Africans shook up jazz in Europe and were important firgures in the early development of what has come to be known as "World Music".

The name of Louis Tebugo Moholo will always be inextricably linked with those of the late Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Mbizo Dyani, Nikele Moyake and Chris McGregor - the Blue Notes.

The Blue Notes landed in Europe after leaving South Africa in 1964 to play at the Antibes Jazz Festival. They immediately set about shaking up the music scene with their unique South African sounds - and Moholo's authoritative backbeat was a distinctive part of those sounds.

The Blue Notes stayed together for a long time: "We'll keep the group for as long as we live," Moholo said in the late '70s. Now he is the last of the Blue Notes - the other five have all died, victims in various ways of the problems associated with being musicians in exile, cut off from their essential roots.

He's coming home with a band that echoes the sound and feeling of the Blue Notes - but re-workede and recast in a highly individual 1990s mould.

Of the eight members of the band, five including Moholo, are South Africans. All five have been in exile for many years and have created formidable reputations for themselves as powerful, innovative musicians. Moholo himself has worked with musicians as diverse as Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor and Tristan Honsiger. In Straight No Chaser magazine, critic Jez Hensinger described him as "one of the world's greatest free drummers, period."

Cape Town-born trumpeter Claude Deppa began his career as a drummer in his father's brass band, moved into Caribbean sounds in the UK and was the artistic director at the inception of ground-breaking British band the Jazz Warriors.

The Caribbean has also influenced the musical development of Durban-born sax and accordian player Sean Bergin, a part of the Dutch free improvisation scene since the mid-seventies and ontime sideman in a Surinamese funk band.

Percussionist Thebe Lipere has worked on every music scene from improv to African dance bands, and buiolt up a collection of percussion instruments from every corner of the African continent and beyond. By contrast, pianist Pule Pheto found his way into free jazz after a formal musical training at Goldsmith's College, London. He still sings with the Goldsmith's Sinfonia.

British-born tenorist Tobias Delius has worked in Germany, Mexico and Amsterdam, while the last of the reedmen, Jason Yarde is one of Britain's new generation of young jazz lions. A graduate of the Jazz Warriors, he has been a student of Steve Wilson and Joe Lovano in the USA, and worked with a range of artists including Mervyn Africa.

Italian bassist Roberto Bellatella almost qualifies as an honourary South Africa. As well as working around the European free scene, he has also collaborated with Dudu Pukwana's Zila and Julian Bahula's Jazz Africa, as well as Viva La Black.

Those who haven't heard the music before will be struck by its freshness, those who remember it will mingle nostalgia with, yes, freshness again, because Moholo's band has taken a whole lot of new things on board too. One reviewer described their most recent album as "exp[losive, confrontational, often beautiful."

Its a sad commentary on our recent history that musicians have to come back to South Africa from abroad before South Africans get the opportunity to hear a vital part of their musical heritage - but the occasion should be one for celebration, not recrimination, that the music has, at last, come home.

Viva La Black will be paying tribute to the Blue Notes by playing many songs closely associated with them. They will base the workshops they plan to run countrywide around the Blue Notes song book.

Songs like Ithi Gqi, Radebe, Magwaza, Eyomzi, B My Dear, We Nduna, Sonia, You Think You Know Me (recently revived by Ezra Ngcukana) - the list could go on and on. Each song provides rich workshop material because of the intense individual vision of its composer, and the paradoxically tight, co-operative improvisational source the band made of it. Although the Blue Notes came together only infrequently in recent years, their spiritual closeness kept them functioning as a unit. In the midst of their wildest free improvisation, they were intuitively connected. "The Blue Notes was the fountain," said Moholo, "the Blue Notes was a school." Free yet together was the spirit of the Blue Notes; free yet together is the spirit Viva La Black will bring us.

In the words of Richard Williams, "What the (Blue Notes) had, individually and collectively, was a complete understanding of the vocabulary of jazz and an utterly uninhibited attitude to the way they expressed it. They sounded as if they'd been speaking the language since birth."

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Chris - the Brother I Loved







"With his imagination and his fingers, Chris McGregor created a rich legacy of music, infused with the rhythms and harmonies of Africa. Tony McGregor remembers his brother, the jazz giant who died in 1990." This article was first published in the South African jazz journal TwoTone in March 1992.


From a young boy running over the rolling hills of the Transkei (now the Eastern part of the Eastern Cape Province), quickly picking up the rhythm and melody happening all around him, to the owner of a peaceful farm in a beautiful valley in the South West of France - this is the story of the brother I loved.

In between lay the years of study, the years of listening and learning, which took him from the lecture halls of the College of Music in Cape Town to the shebeens and beer halls of Langa, Nyanga, Soweto and countless places between. The on to the jazz clubs, cafes and eventually the concert halls of Europe.

And always litening, picking up the rhythm, the melody, the harmony of whatever was happening around him.

One of my favourite memories of Chris is of the time I arrived at the Moulin de Madone (his farm in France) on my first visit to Europe in 1979. I was suffering from deep culture shock, not to mention the effects of a gruelling three-week tour of Germany and Switzerland with a party of journalists from South Africa. I had left the party the day before in Geneva and had flown to Paris, then taken the train first to Bordeau and then Tonneins. There I found a taxi driver who agreed to take me to the Moulin. I had no idea where it was. I was exhausted and felt lost.


After a drive of about 40 minutes through rolling green hill, not unlike those of the Transkei, we arrived at a rambling, rather ramshackly building. "Le Moulin," the driver annoiunced tersely and I got out of the cart just as Chris came to greet me, arms outstretched, long grey hair and beard flwoing, and that deep, loving voice, "Hey, Anthony!"

We spent some time talking and, getting my things sorted out, walking around the farm. Maxine, Chris' wonderful wife, was out driving with her sister who was also visiting, so Chris and I had some hours on our own.

At suppertime Chris asked what I fancied for the evening meal. "How about omelettes aux herbes sauvage?" he asked.

As we walked together Chris picked leaves from a variety of wild plants next to the road or in the fields.

Back in the kitchen - an amazing room with onions and garlic hanging next to windows garlanded with spiders' webs, posters on the walls and a grand piano in the corner - eggs were broken into a large pan and mixed with the leaves he had picked.

We ate the best omelettes I have ever tasted with thick chunks of bread - a far cry from the super-refined, homogenised food I had been eating for three weeks.

For me this episode epitomises some of Chris' most wonderful qualities - his connectedness to the environment around him and his ability to create a tasty meal from what was at hand - be it a meal for the palate or a meal for the ears. He took what he found and then transformed it with his imagination and skilled, strong fingers.

His imagination and fingers created a rich legacy of music which has been an inspiration to many musicians and a source of joy and sometimes wonder to many thousands of music lovers in Africa and Europe.

Chris' roots, through all the years in Europe, remained firmly in Africa. Through all his music the complexc rhythms and harmonies of Africa, both rural and urban, pulsate and shimmer like a heat haze over the veld, weaving patterns of light and shade like the blades of grass blown by the wind - now in unison, now in contrary mjotion, but never still, alweays full of energy and life.

I think it is no accident that he always seemed most at home musically with a rhythm section with similar African roots. During his last, most creative years he was urged on by the dynamism of drummer Gilbert Matthews and bassist Ernest Shololo Mothle. During the early Blue Note years, the time of often desperate struggle, it was Louis Tebogo Moholo on drums and Johnny Mbizo Dyani on bass who provided solid support and a foundation for the sometimes wild flights of creation. Louis and Johnny also formed the core of the first Brotherhood of Breath big band - as Gilbert and Ernest did in the last, great incarnation of the band.

We are fortunate that much of Chris' music still exists on record. From the three exciting tracks on the 1962 Moroka-Jabavu Jazz Festival ablum to the 1989 Brotherhood of Breath concert with Archie Shepp in France, Chris' genius as arranger. leader and pianist can still be heard, and, within the limitations of recording technology, experienced.

After the 1963 Moroka-Jabavu festival Chris put together a big band, his first, for a three-week period, with sponsorship from the Festival sponsors. This band made a recording - Jazz: The African Sound - which was remarkable, not only for the quality of the arrangements, the exciting musicians featured and the great compositions played, but also for the recording quality.

Featured on the album were established greats like Kippie Morolong Moeketsi and then up-and-coming young musos like Barney Rachabane, Bra Duds Pukwana, and the 17-year-old trumpet wizard Mongezi Feza - who blew them all away!

The album showcased Chris' arrangemnts of two songs by Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), two by Kippie and two of his own compositions.

This gem of an album has been unavailable for many years, but is soon to be re-released by Gallo Music Publishers.

In 1964 Chris left for Europe with the Blue Notes, a band made up of people he enjoyed playing with, many of whom had been on the big band album of the previous year.

The group consisted of Dudu Pukwana on alto, Nikele Moyake on tenor, Mongezi Feza on trumpet, Mbizo Dyani on bass, Louis Moholo on drums, and Chris on piano. Ronnie beer, another tenor player, joined the group in 1965.

In 1968 Chris' first album recorded outside South Africa was released on the Polydor label. It was called Very Urgent and featured the same musicians - with the exception of Nikele Moyake who had died tragically.

On this album the Blue Notes showed their mastery of the freer form of jazz then in vogue in Britain and Europe, as well as their deep African roots.

The song Don't Stir the Beehive harks back powerfully to a Transkei evening with herders whistling and calling to each other, snatches of song and the random rhythm of insects in the thorn trees. Listening to this track I can almost smell the cooking fires and see the sun setting behind the hills in a dusty purploe and orange haze. I certainly feel the longing for home that pervades the track.

In all the recordings Chris made - whether with the Blue Notes, the Brotherhood of Breath, or with other musicians such as District Six (Brian Abraham's wonderful group) and Courtney Pine - this rootedness in Afrioca is apparent.

But more than the great musician, I miss the great person, a giant both physically and intellectually. I wish that his many recordings (at the time of writing this was about 14) were more readily available to his brothers and sisters back home. But even more I wish he could have experienced the amazing flowering of music, the music to which he devoted his life - both here, in this country he loved so dearly, and internationally.

It seems so much like a vindication of all he strove for.


Monday, 2 June 2008

Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath - Spiritual Brotherhood

This is the second part of the Brotherhood of Breath story and was published in the South African jazz journal TwoTone in October 1992. The first part was was called Prophets Without Honour, which was published in the same journal in September 1992.


Brotherhood of Breath's 1971 album was followed by a second RCA release the following year, Brotherhood.

In 1974 came a live album recorded at the jazz festival in Willisau, Switzerland. This featured an impressive number by famous Nigerian percussionist Tungi Oyelana called, appropriately enough, Tungi's Song, featuring a breathtaking solo from Mongezi Feza (trumpet).

Chris had met Tungi during a six-week visit to Nigeria in 1969, while he was writing the score for a movie version of Wole Soyinka's play, Kongi's Harvest. Sadly, the movie was never released and the recorded score is still gathering dust in a tape vault somewhere. Any offers for local release from a record company - I'm sure it would be a commercially viable project?

Another live album was recorded at Toulouse in France in 1977. It contained only three tracks - but what great tracks they are: Chris' own Sunrise on the Sun, Mongezi's lovely Sonia and Dudu Pukwana's Kwhalo.

On this date the band featured two South African basses - Mbizo Dyani and Harry Miller. In the liner notes Keith Beal wrote that the South Africans in the band "...will tell you that all music is a religious experience." That was certainly true of the Brotherhood in all its incarnations: the music exhuded a spiritual quality which reflected the vision of all its members.

Another highly-charged album was Yes Please, recorded at the time of the 1981 Angouleme Jazz Festival - not a live album but one which shows a 17-member line-up in great form.

For me, one number which seems to epitomise the spiritual quality Beal refers to is Uqonda from this Angouleme album. Hearing Shololo Mothle lay down the theme with support from Peter Segona on trumpet and Bruce Grant's flute obligato is an emotionally involving excperience.

In 1988 Virgin released possibly the greatest Brotherhood album, Country Cooking, which has been available in South Africa for some time, but only in limited quantities.

In 1989 the band toured Europe with US reedman Archie Shepp. One of the concerts was released on CD in France - the last Brotherhood album with Chris at the piano. On this CD they paly typical Brotherhood numbers like Country Cooking and Sweet as Honey, as well as two Shepp numbers, Steam and Bessie Smith's Blues, the latter featuring some great blues shouting by Shepp himself.

Brotherhood's story is a great chapter in then history of South African music. Sadly, its one little known to most South African music lovers. There is talk of some members of the band visiting the country later in the year. Maybe that will provide the opportunity for jazz fans to read at least a little of this lost chapter.

A short discography of the Brotherhood of Breath

Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath RCA Neon 1971

Brotherhood RCA Victor 1972

Live at Willisau Ogun 1974

Live at Toulouse: Procession Ogun 1978

Yes Please In and Out 1981

Country Cooking Virgin 1988

Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath with Archie Shepp 52 Rue Est 1989

Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath

This article was originally published in the South African jazz journal TwoTone in October 1992. The editor introduced the piece with this superscript header: "In the first of a two-part series, Tony McGregor uses the re-release of a little-known classic as an opportunity to review the recording career of the Blue Notes and Brotherhood of Breath and argue that tragically, they remain in South Africa Prophets Without Honour."

For nearly thirty years, only a few diehard fans knew the album existed.

Now Gallo/Teal has re-released Jazz: The African Sound, a gem of an album by Chris McGregor and the Castle Lager Big Band. It was recorded in 1963, a year before Chris and five fellow-musicians left South Africa, never to record or play together here again.

The re-release is a poignant reminder of how much we South Africans have paid, in cultural terms at least, for apartheid.

Even most serious South African jazz fundis (fundi - a South African word meaning one who knows, an expert) are unaware that a group of six South African musicians turned the European music scene upside down from the mid-Sixties on.

Never mind the British Musicians' Union and Equity bans - apartheid drove these musicians out of South Africa and kept their immeasurable contribution to South African music a secret from most Sou8th Africans.

Perhaps the opening up of South Africa and the slow and painful demise of apartheid will at least bring appreciation for the legacy of those musicians who, long before Paul Simon and the rest, saw the huge potential of our indigenous musical heritage. Dud Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Nikele Moyake, Johnny Mbizo Dyani, Louis Tebogo Moholo and Chris McGregor, calling themselves "The Blue Notes", left South Africa in 1964 after a nation-wide tour, to play at the Antibes-Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival on France's famed Cote d'Azur, where they attracted very favourable critical notice. They went on to busk around Europe for a year before settling in Britain where they promptly began blowing up quite a storm.

In the words of British jazz critic and author Valerie Wilmer, they "literally upturned the London jazz scene, helping create an exciting climate in which other young players could develop their own ideas about musical freedom."

Wilmer described the change brought about by The Blue Notes like this: "There were times when rooms more accustomed to the anodyne four-in-a-bar jocularity of an Acker Bilk took on the gritty character of a Soweto shebeen..."

Some of this character and energy can be heard on the relatively few recordings made by the band - what a shock numbers like Don't Stir the Beehive, We Nduna and others must have been to most British jazz fans.

From the energetic core of The Blue Notes McGregor developed his next big band, called the Brotherhood of Breath, reflecting in the name something of Chris's deeply-felt belief about music transcending and breaking down what he termed "outdated concepts of national identity and the nation state."

The band went through a number of incarnations from its formation until Chris' death at 53 in May 1990. Over the years it became what Dutch jazz writer Frits Lagerwerff called "the best free jazz big band in the world."

It was formed early in 1967 and had its first public outing at the famed Ronnie Scott's "Old Place" in March of that year. Clive Crickmer of Melody Maker was moved to write of its debut: "This must be it. The most urgent, and explosive, and powerfully swinging new big band to have appeared in years."

In the Daily Telegraph (yes, indeed!) Peter Clayton wrote about the "kwela jauntiness...plus a sort of ceremonial abandon which seems to inform some of Dudu Pakewana's (sic) more inspired flights."

In an interview at the time (with Chris Bird of Melody Maker) Chris said: "I'm not interested in that highly organised, compositional aspect of big band music, I go for moods, for feelings and textures and most of my things are very sketchy. That way the guys themselves can contribute more to what's going on."

In another interview at that time he said: "There are so many ways of making music and they all interest me."

Tragically, to my knowledge at least, no recordings of this band exist. At the time journalist Miles Kington wrote that soem of Chris' South African recordings (Jazz: The African Sound, in fact) were available to Decca, "but there seems little hope of their becoming more than merely available."

Kington prophetically continued: "This is a great shame because by the time these bands (he was writing about the Brotherhood as well as Graham Collier's septet and the Mike Westbrook Band) are well-known enough to force companies to record them, whole stages of their development will have vanished forever."

The band did not last long and there was a three-year gap before it was reborn, but what a rebirth it was.

"If anyone tells you that happiness has gone out of jazz, tell them about the Brotherhood of Breath," wrote Valerie Wilmer in Melody Maker. "If anyone says that the New Music is committed to overtones of anger and hatred, tell them about Chris McGregor's Big Band. If anyone asks you where have all the firemen gone, tell them about Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath.

"And say it loud, for if you don't, the band will stow away their charts and fold up their music stands for another three years," she continued. "They keep on trying to tell us that jazz is dead and rock's the thing, but not so, folks. With men like McGregor's around, jazz will never die."

The band, in its second incarnation, got its recording break in 1971 when RCA chose it to launch their new Neon label and over the following years in its various versions, made some outstanding recordings. Limited availability in South Africa has meant that these are all too little-known.

A total of seven Brotherhood albums were released: two on the RCA label, two on Ogun, and one on Virgin. The other two were released on French labels only.

This period also saw many concert, festival and club appearances and many ups and downs for Chris and the other Blue Notes pioneers.

The Brotherhood fluctuated in size from around ten to around 17, and Chris went out of his way to find musicians from many different backgrounds to bring their own particular gifts and insights to the music.

But it was always the South African core of musicians who contributed theior energy and the creative edge to the band. The music, however "far out" it became, however "free", was always grounded in African harmonies and rhythms.

The South Africans in the early Brotherhood included Mongezi Feza (trumpet), Dudu Pukwana and Ronnie Beer (saxes), Harry Miller (bss) and Louis Moholo (drums). By the early Eighties the new generation of South African members were Brian Abrahams and Gilbert Matthews (drums), Ernest Shololo Mothle (bass) and Peter Segona (trumpet).

By the late Eighties the band included, besides the now "older" generation represented by Mothle and Matthews, "younger" musicians like Claude Deppa (trumpet), Frank Williams and Robert Juritz (saxes).

Singers like Peggy Phango, Phinise Saule, Sonti Mndebele and Aura Lewis sang with the Brotherhood from time to time. Cosmo Pieterse recited his poems to their backing.

The longest serving member of the Brotherhood is trumpeter Harry Beckett, the only person besides Chris to have been in all the band's various incarnations.

Two women have played with the band - Annie Whitehead on trombone and Caroline Collins on cello. And if the cello is an unusual instrument in a big band, Brotherhood has also featured a bassoon (Robert Juritz) and has had from time to time two basses and two drummers together in its line-up (coincidentally one each French and South African - namely Didier Levallet and Ernest Mothle on basses and Jean-Claude Montredon and Brian Abrahams on drums).

Beside compositions by Chris and other Blue Notes' members the band has played songs by Makaya Davashe (Lakutshon' iLanga), Mike Osborne (Think of Something), trombone player Radu Malfatti (the exciting Yes Please), Ernest Mothle (Thunder in the Mountain) and George Lee (Big G). And the surviving original members of the Blue Notes were meanwhile all actively pursuing their own individual musical careers.

Mbizo Dyani, Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo were playing with some international jazz greats like Steve Lacy, Don Cherry and John Tchicai as well as then also expatriot fellow-South Africans Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela and others.

Some of these recordings have been seen on local record shop shelves, but they have certainly not been given the exposure they deserved. Ironically, musicians who were sought out by European and US musicians, had less success in their own country than these very same international performers.
It is still easier to get albums by Max Roach than Louis Moholo, David Murray than Dudu Pukwana and John Patitucci than Mbizo Dyani, despite the international acclaim for these South Africans' talent.