The real Back to Africa movement stars here - Street Life - March 30-April, 2, 1976
The original idea was for Robert Wyatt to write a tribute to Mongezi Feza, the black South African trumpeter who died at the end of last year; in the event, it seemed that the best tribute to Mongezi would be to talk about his friends and compatriots who are still alive and playing in Britain, and who are also subject to the pressures which killed him. An interview with Louis Moholo, a tribute to Mongezi, a celebration of music that "Britain doesn't know it's got ... "
WHILE preparations were being made to have the body of trumpeter Mongezi Feza flown back home to South Africa for burial (there were some difficulties withe S.A. Customs officials!), some of his friends recorded a memorial performance ("We asked Island records if they could just let us have any spare room with a piano for a few hours") soon to be released on the Ogun record label. Dudu Pukwana on alto of course; pianist Chris McGregor on a brief visit from his place in France; bassist Johnny Dyani, also fresh from working on the continent (he stayed long enough to record another tape with Pete Lemer and Laurie Allan before returning to the relatively appreciative audiences of Scandinavia, etc.) and drummer Louis Moholo. Louis was just about to leave for Venice to play with Keith Tippett and Peter Kowald when he talked to me about the years with Mongezi Feza, and the situation is survivors find themselves in.
These, include Julian Bahula, bassists Victor Ntoni and Ernest Mohle, guitarist Lucky Ranky, and Louis himself, of course. He's been playing with Mike Osborne, with alto player Peter Bennink (Han Bennink's brother) and Evan Parker, Various groups in Holland, Germany, Switzerland. There are plans for a group with Gary Windo and a couple of bassists . . .
"I would say that we're practising in England, but working on the continent . . . Britain doesn't know what it's got."
So, what brought these musicians so far from home in the first place? Knowing that Louis has relatives in South Africa whom he hopes to see later on in the year, I had to avoid asking him any questions of a 'provocatively' political nature, for the obvious reason that I don't want to make his life any more difficult than it is already.
"In order for us (Mongezi, Dudu, etc.) to play together with Chris (McGregor) in South Africa Chris would come to a gig wearing a cap and hide his white skin by pulling his cap right down almost al over his face! But this trick was impossible the other way round — you couldn't hide us in places where whites were playing. We managed to dodge around, playing together, but we knew we wouldn't get away with it for long. Early on the S.A. Government were not that much hip to jazz — they never thought anything of it, you know — but later they caught on. If they had have caught on earlier that would have made it harder — it was getting worse when we split. Just like in the States in the old days — some white cats would be using a black musician, but he would be playing behind a curtain!
"Everybody hears 'kwela' (the folk / dance music of the African townships) on the radio, but it's the 'kwela' the white man likes — you see? It's got nothing to do with us, in a way. Hugh Masakela's music is still really kwela deep down — the one that the people know — I like the way he treats his kwela.
"But if you come in the radio studio with the original kwela then the guy in the studio will say, 'No . . . No, . . . Not That . . .!' .
"The first group we played in professionally was (tenor player) Ronnie Beer's. I remember . . . we played with him and I was arrested — my pass was fucked up, you know — and I went to jail. At the same time there was a festival in Johannesburg; by luck, Chris came to Cape town. He heard Ronnie Beer preparing for the festival and asked: 'Where is Louis?' I was in jail, that was it. But Chris started finding out if there was any fine . . . One afternoon my name was called — and I was out! Into a car, off to rehearsals, and on to the Johannesburg festival.
"I stayed in Johannesburg waiting for Mongezi and a bass player friend to finish some work with Chris' band — the three of us were going to play together back in Capetown; but then Chris said he wanted to use me in his new band, which was going to play at the Juan-les-Pins festival, on the French Riviera! So I took the opportunity.
"We had Mongezi, Dudu, Johnny Dyani and a tenor player called Nick Moyaki. We were playing mainly Dud's charts — he was composing about six tunes a day! Also we were very influenced by the voicings and sound of Duke (Ellington).
"After a couple of gigs in France and Zurich, Nick decided to go back to South Africa. A few months later he died from a brain tumour. The rest of us decided to stay in Europe a while.
"When I was in Copenhagen I fell in love with some Danish chick and there was a black American guy who wanted this chick. He'd pass remarks — I should smell his hair, for example . . . He'd smell mine and suggest I use Brylcreem you know, to show the girl that I was from the jungle. That was in the Sixties. But now . . if you fall in love with an American or West Indian woman, she may be going to get your African surname — much better! It's now seen as a link, going back, for the children. This is quite recent — it's a new thing, all the American cats changing their names to 'Kenyatta' and things like that. It's good in a way because 'Williams' or whatever is
a slave name — from slave owners.
"But at first when we — Johnny Dyani, Dudu, Mongs — when we wanted to sit in (with American musicians), have a play, the guys would say 'Where do you come from?' 'South Africa.' 'What?' 'I come from South Africa.' Then the guys just wouldn't be interested, they'd figure, South Africa is the jungle, right? There couldn't possibly be any jazz happening there! We'd be pleading: 'Please, can we just have a sit in?' Then, in the end, five days later they'd say: 'O.K. have a blow.' and then you'd blow their arses off, you know?
"And they'd become very interested, like: 'Oh-oh-What's this —?' They'd be asking you what your name was, trying to be friendly, and you'd say: 'My name is Louis Moholo.' 'Louis Who?' and "where d'you get that name from?' They'd think I was an American into that trip of changing surnames — that maybe my name was really Louis Hamburger, and that I'd changed it to be hip! They'd say: 'You can't play that good — not from South Africa!' It took them a long time.
"But now they recognise people like Dollar (Brand). I think that our musicians now (like drummer Timy Hkwe Bulana, or pianist Tete Mbambisa, or Ezra Ngqukana, Man Kunku, and Duku Makasi, who play tenor, bassist Harry Miller) could sit in with anyone . . . that, at least, has been dealt with.
"The truth is, though, that we really want to play in South Africa for our people.
"It would be nice to go back home and make them laugh a little bit; and cheer them up a little bit . . . you know?"