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 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.