"...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."