Johnny Dyani: This police officer asked, ‘So, are these your boys?’ Chris [McGregor] went pale. I mean when this guy asked everybody jumped and Chris’ eyes widened. And it went quiet, man. And Chris was left breathing, huh huhm huh huhm. So the guy asked again, ‘Are these your boys?’ Chris wanted to get out of the car, you know, to answer this outside. So Nick [Moyake] said, ‘Tell him! Tell him Chris!’ and Nick was laughing: ‘Go ahead Chris, tell him! Tell him who we are. Tell him!’ And Chris was pale. ‘Are these your boys?’ We were just looking at Chris and Nick was enjoying it now. Nick said, ‘Come on Chris tell him. Let’s hear gents, what he’s gonna say, come on my brother…’ And this cop is like, what’s going on here? ‘Yeah come on Chris, tell him who we are.’ And Chris nodded silently, without saying any words. So Nick said, ‘Are you saying we are your boys?’ And Nick’s at the back, ’cos this guy is standing at the front door, at the window. So Nick pushes his head out the rear window, ‘It’s not true! I’m not nobody’s boy!’ This guy turns around and says, ‘What you say?’ This police officer. And so as he walks around the kombi to open the door and Chris says, ‘Oh my God Nick, why do you?!’ So Nick is arguing with Chris and we’re all saying to Nick, ‘No man, why you say that for? Why do you say that?’ Then Dudu [Pukwana] asks, ‘What side are you on Chris? Whose side are you on?’ Then Maxine [McGregor] was waking up, she says, ‘You guys, you must realise we going to go to Europe and your passports will be taken and this and this…’ We are saying, ‘Who cares!?’ They have this thing that your passport… like little boys, you know, your candy will be taken off; you won’t go and play again, some shit like this you know? And we knew this as we were going to France, everything was becoming impossible. They were watching us like hell, man. They were watching us, ’cos we were touring at that time. So this officer, what did he say? This guy said ‘Kaffir’. So Nick said, ‘Don’t ever call me that, Sir.’ And we had this thing of… Dennis [Mphale] came up with this thing… again Dennis was the influence, ’cos he called a white guy ‘Sir Baas Mister’ you know? Just by hearing it it’s like clowning, silly, naughty. So Nick says, ‘Sir Baas Mister’. The cop was amazed man, he couldn’t believe it. He says, ‘You go at once before I do anything.’ Nick came out of the kombi and said, ‘So what can you do? I’m famous than you. I’m going to France.’ That guy was wild, he took his hat (screams), you know, he was all like this, on his gun. You know it was so…dramatic! Because Nick was so cool he kept on saying, ‘You cannot do me nothing, I’m famous than you, I’m going to France. Me.’ So Dudu told him, ‘Let’s go man, leave this guy. Don’t waste your time, leave this guy man.’ So Nick gets back in the car and phew! We drive.
Now we knew when we doing a tour, the money from the group and everything, we supposed to be the band. Now the other thing, every time we are travelling with this bus, with this kombi, we’ll give somebody a lift. Now who is this somebody, we were giving all kinds of lifts to the black guys, right, I mean we knew, but Chris didn’t know, Maxine didn’t know. That the guys were into (laughs), well, the guys who were in the underground would say, ‘I want to go to PE, can you arrange a lift?’ So if you travelled with the Blue Notes everybody is safe ’cos the Blue Notes is famous right? So you can get a lift with the Blue Notes. This car was going from East London, Cape Town, we touring! These guys would say, ‘Oh yeah this is a friend of mine, Johnny, he’s playing with the Blue Notes.’ Some guy would say to me, ‘Listen my boy you gonna give someone a lift, meeting so and so a time, going to PE. Talk to Chris.’ No we don’t have to talk to Chris. It’s our band. So we just say, ‘Chris, we have to pick up so and so at so and so place.’ Maxine would say, ‘No the car is full, the car is this…’ kind of. We say, ‘No there’s a lot of space!’ We knew that some of the guys were either into that or that or that… and now we were very aware of being watched. Because when we came to East London it was strange, really strange because there, in Fifth Street, this Donald Card cop…It was about eleven o’clock at night, so everybody lived at my home, there a boarding house right? The musicians stayed there and when we arrived Chris go sleep in town, a hotel some kind of. So at night a police car comes, a detective, black policeman, at my house. Two o’clock at night, we sitting there talking, my brothers and my sisters, other guys are sleeping. So they say, ‘We came to collect your son’, they said to my mother. So my mother’s panicking. So my brother said, ‘Nah Johnny, what is it?’ So this black policeman say, ‘Tula wena!’ you know, so my brother says, ‘Hey guys shuddup man’ to this guy wearing big boots, ‘just shuddup!’ So this private, a white guy, says, ‘No, he’ll be back, we just want to talk to him in Fifth Street.’ So my mother said, ‘I’m going with him.’ ‘No, he’ll be back.’ So my brother said, ‘Then I’m going with him.’ So they said no, my mother will go. So he said no, he’ll go. Two o’clock at night. So I get in the car with my mother and as we go out this policeman says to my brother, ‘You cheeky you!’ Then I thought, ‘Oh shit!’ So anyway, we went to Fifth Street. Donald Card was there, he was in pyjamas you know. So we came in his office, he’s sitting there, ‘Yes?’ So my mother said, ‘What is this?’ Now my mother had a very good thing to humiliate them, she would say, ‘What is it my son?’ The guy just shouts, ‘I’m not your son! Don’t ever say that!’ My mother shook her head and said, ‘You know I’ve never seen such a thing. You grown up now, I know your father than you. Your father was well-behaved, and you are not behaved. If your father knew…’ And this guy just went, you know, he just went, phew! He told the officer, ‘It’s all right.’ These tactics of getting to these guys man, you know. Boers at home. This is why people like Winnie Mandela, all these people, they are not scared of the Boers. ’Cos you have to just …find a way, without pulling a fight, you just… give them these shocks because they are shocked man. If you say, ‘Look man, don’t touch me like this…’ They will accept it, but they will say, ‘Go, go…’
Aryan Kaganof: The question for me, in terms of South African so-called jazz, instrumental music, this awareness, this knowledge, this ability to survive within racism, to be culturally hip, to get the better of the oppressor, it seems to me that that is the spirit that infuses the instrumental music of South Africa?
JD: You see I’ll tell you what, where I’m coming from. The reason I say that before we left we had all this police, we had all this… even Dorkay House was bugged… So this guy in the car said, ‘I hear you’re going to Europe?’ And he tried to smooth me in, he said, ‘Oh yeah I remember you from doing my rounds, you are a good boy, the police haven’t had any trouble from you.’ He’s saying that to my mother. ‘We haven’t any problems with you, so good luck.’ And we’ve only been there half an hour man, so my mother listened to this, what he saying right, so he said, ‘Good luck, I just wanted to see you and say that.’ So my mother said, ‘You mean you calling my son and me to come here at two in the morning to talk that?’ So I’m looking at this guy and he says, ‘Yeah that’s it, that’s all I wanted to say.’ So my mother stood there, you know, she shook her head and she said, ‘You still didn’t hear what I said about your father…’ and then, because these old people, they knew man, they knew these Boers’ mentalities.
AK: They lived with them…
JD: Right! They saw them coming. That’s what I’m saying now when I say that the marabi thing, you see… my mother’s talking in this tradition. So we, or the young officers, or the young black people of this generation they are in the same level of the white man complex: we have to prove to him. There’s nothing to prove to him, you know, fuck him. Fuck the boer. Just tell him. So my mother was talking in terms of this marabi kind of thing. So in other words she was trying to say to him, ‘We know you all the way, we seen you develop, seen you this and we saw you when you were a kid, babysitting, nanny.’ In other words she was putting him, boom! So he said to me, ‘Come down to the office, the police station, tomorrow.’ I think it had to do with my pass or something. I went there. Cos my brother told me, ‘Go there, you don’t want to let these guys spoil everything.’ So I went. You know what man, I got there, they asked me, ‘Are you going to Paris?’ and then an old man… You know I walked, and me too now I’m all freaked out and I walked in and there’s a woman there, so I sit looking at her, she says, ‘Stand up!’ So I say (soft voice) ‘Why do you shout at me?’ (loudly) ‘You think this is Paris?’ (chuckles) I say, ‘No. I’m aware where I am. I’m not gone yet.’ ‘Stand up!’ So I’m like, Oh, it’s like this! Phew! So I say softly, ‘Oh I better leave then.’ So I stood up. She said, ‘Stand there!’ I said what is this, and as I looked at the door an old man came, she said, ‘Take him!’ So I went with this old man, I looked at him, I smiled, they stamped my pass right? And as I come out they call this old man, he said, ‘Wait.’ And he came back within 15 minutes and he’s asking me on the way out, he hugs me and he says, ‘Yeah my boy, you going to France and you going to fuck those white women there, we know.’ So I say, ‘How do you know that? I mean, I’m not going to Europe to fuck white people or what? If there’s a possibility, yeah.’ Because he said to me, in Xhosa, ‘Between me and you, I know you guys gonna fuck white women.’ He’s tuning me, you know? And I thought, ‘Oh shit.’ ’Cos we were warned then, all the other guys, you know, in the cities, where we go, Mongezi [Feza] in Queenstown, we were warned, the musicians, certain people, now be careful who you talking to, be careful of your attitude, be careful of this otherwise the passports will be stopped.
AK: So it was a trap.
JD: All kind of funny things were happening. ‘Tell us what you gonna do?’ some black guy was saying or black sister, whatever. So this old man said, ‘Tell me, what are you gonna do, are you involved you know, in the struggle? What are your plans? Are you coming back?’ That’s what he said, ‘Are you coming back home?’ I said, ‘I don’t know how France is. Maybe I’ll come back, I don’t know. If it’s nice…’ So he looked at me, I said, ‘I have to go now anyway…’ I went with my mother. Now they wanted us to take a taxi, so my mother said, ‘You drove us here, you drive us back!’ This is the night before this office thing, they didn’t want to drive us back man. So she made this man drive us back. As we packing in East London, to leave the town… that’s another thing, we meeting musicians now. Some of the musicians say… then I realize there’s a whole political thing going on because some of the PAC said, ‘You guys are selling out, you play with a white musician, you are this, you are that…’ Then I thought, damn this thing is huge. So we went to Dorkay. Now at Dorkay they have photographs of King Kong, and making a party there. So I see Bra’ Kippie [Moeketsi], yeah, we are in Hillbrow, they made a party there these guys. It got packed, all kinds of people, packed. And we knew, Bra’ Kippie says, ‘Hey, me I’m not going to that party because you guys are gonna be tapped, they did that to us at King Kong.’ So we said no, we went to this party. We heard pum phrum, a gun, at night, Kippie comes in the door, brrhhgh! Oh boy! Everybody’s standing at this party you know, ‘Kippie? Kippie? Kippie what’s happening?’ Kippie runs in the toilet. ’Cos we heard these shots, we don’t know where Kippie was, anyway this party… and Mongezi’s reminding this photographer or somebody, he’s telling this guy, ‘You full of shit man! I’m going to Europe me!’ and Mongezi saying, ‘Yeah I’m going to fuck those women. Revenge!’ And Mongezi saying, ‘I want to see where you people come from.’ All these white guys now: ‘Mongezi! Mongezi!’ Some people were slapped, man. ’Cos I remember now, one of these white girls, Jewish girls were so hip, they had money you know, somebody just went, ‘HAAAHHH! Shaddup!’ Black musicians… And she was crying, she cried loud, so much so that the police came. Chris said, ‘We better go because…’ (laughter). So we said, ‘No, we not going because it was not our affair, we don’t know what it was all about.’ So the police came, ‘Yeah what’s going on here? The neighbours are screaming, say there’s black people here, kaffirs. What’s all this?’ So the owner of the party, Peter Olsson, Peter says, ‘Well officer, there’s no black people here you can see. Officer you can come and look for yourselves, there’s no black people here.’ So Kippie’s screaming in the other room, ‘Let me out! You fucken moer let me out! Fucken hoer’s kont, let me out! I’ll beat that bitch!’ So this officer, when he kicks the door, there’s a bottle of brandy, we sitting there drinking the brandy keeping quiet, Kippie screaming, ‘Let me out!’ And Kippie was not even pushing, he was just sitting there and he was shouting, acting it, ‘Let me out I’ll kick this bitch!’ So when the cop comes in we all sitting in a round circle there with a bottle there and glasses. So they saw this, and we all whispering, ‘Hey Bra’ Kippie you know…’ ‘Let me out! Kick this bitch!’ (laughs) All these white guys, they all live there. So the cop came in there, he said, ‘So what are you doing this time of the night here? And sir do you know that you not allowed to have black people at this time of the night here?’ So somebody said, one of the white guys actually, Bob [Tizzard], Bob said, ‘Oh no officer you know these are famous people they are going to France tomorrow, we are making a party. They are very famous these people, it’s very special this.’ So this officer says, ‘I don’t give a damn sir, this is breaking the law.’ All these guys they have this Dennis Mphale attitude, so Bob said, ‘Ah you don’t say!’ ’Cos also this guy, Bob, he always used this lingo: ‘You don’t say, Sir Baas Sir Mister’ So the police’s getting confused now and he’s getting more red and red and red and red and someone says, ‘cool it man, cool it.’ So Bob said, ‘No you don’t understand these are great musicians they are from America. These are no Zulus! These are no kaffirs!’ Somebody in the room says ‘Cool it man! Cool it man!’ So Kippie started slanging, (puts on an accent), ‘Listen here! Listen here! Listen here!!’ So these officers… So Bob says, ‘I told you these are Americans!’ So this guy is trying to figure out, Americans? Black Americans? I guess he’s thinking about the Navy, whatever, whatever it was, you know… ‘If you touch these people you’ll be in trouble officer, you better not touch this matter because this is too complicated.’ And you know this officer asked his friend to leave and it’s not the first time Bob do that because in Cape Town at Room At The Top one time it was so packed man, with different musicians, all kinds, South African musicians in that place, jamming. So these police came, ‘We hear the neighbours are complaining’ because it was UP! You could hear the noise when the windows were open. So people complained that it was all kinds of multi-racial, whatever, so the police came there, came to stop this. Everybody say, ‘Oh no just leave us alone please’, I remember that night everybody just said, ‘Please leave us alone! Just go! Go Go!’ They left man! They left! I swear because I was there sitting by Tete [Mbambisa], sitting by the piano. They said, ‘Please leave us alone, everywhere we go, everywhere on the street you telling people what, just leave us alone, just go!’
No anyway in this party right… what is amazing…see what I’m saying, telling you all these stories, I mean this scene, this generation, we are aware. Of course as I see the elder musicians there, at that time, they were scared to get involved into rebellion, you know to have a nerve to say…
AK: The Zakes Nkosi generation?
JD: Yeah. I mean not all of them, but some, they kind of gave it up.
AK: But when they were young were they involved? In the thirties for example?
JD: Yeah they were! Because when King Kong was in South Africa, King Kong had more rebellion than the King Kong that went to London. A lot of people were taken out because they were considered too dangerous or whatever. Now although I didn’t see that kind of scene but I could see from my brother.
AK: He was older than you?
JD: Yeah. He played piano and the reason he didn’t perform or go to concerts to play, especially playing in front of white audiences, because I remember he said to me, ‘Yes it’s very nice to see you doing your thing. I won’t do that.’ So I asked why and he said, ‘See I don’t want to entertain white people, I’d rather play here in the neighbourhood.’ Damn! Phew! I looked at this guy and I said, ‘What do you mean? You don’t even want to play in the concert hall here in the location?’ He said, ‘Precisely. From the location concert hall to the town hall I don’t want to be an entertainer, it’s a white thing. I play in the neighbourhood.’ He kept on repeating this, ‘I play in the neighbourhood.’ Which again was this marabi kind of…
I remember when I went in the car to a concert with the Blue Notes, he was in the car, sitting in the back, and Chris was driving. He picked me up at supper and then on to the concert and we was talking, you know, some friends and people going to the concert, ‘Yeah we are proud of you Johnny, we proud of you guys going up.’ So my brother just said, ‘Yeah I’m also proud.’ Then he said to Chris, ‘You have to be careful, don’t mistreat these guys.’ I try to put it as I know him, ’cos he said actually something like, ‘Don’t make-believe as if these guys are heroes.’ That’s what he said, ‘Don’t make believe as if these guys are heroes, you know, it’s all the same, it’s still going on, this is just a make-believe because they are going to Europe and you people are making a fuss that they are doing tours.’ Because Chris said, ‘Isn’t it fantastic that musicians of today can make tours, travel with a bus, they have their own bus, the advertising,’ and I remember my brother said, ‘they advertising Pepsi Cola. So to me it’s a make-believe, I’d rather stay home. But it’s nice anyway because at least these young guys will be breathing some other air.’ But he looked at Chris, he said, ‘I suppose you Mr McGregor, you are a piano player but it’s strange that you never look at my eyes in my house.’ That’s what he said man. ‘Every time you came to my house you never looked at my eyes Mr McGregor.’
JD: So I looked at him you know and he had everybody’s neck stiff man. So he just said to Nick, ‘Nick I trust that you are in this group, why don’t you correct things? Correct things man, don’t let everything just jump.’ And Nick laughed, you know? Now we came to the concert…
AK: Just one question, is your brother still alive?
JD: Nah he died.
AK: What was his name?
JD: His name is Nuse.
AK: How would I spell that?
JD: N. U. S. E.
AK: He sounds incredible.
JD: Yeah he was, because at home we tried to…they tried to put him to play concerts and he refused, he’d say, ‘I’m tired of this you know. I want to work. I’m tired of this.’ So everybody was coming there at home rehearsing, he just showed me things on the piano, and I remember because there was this record of the Jazz Epistles…
AK: With Dollar [Brand] and Kippie?
JD: Right. [Jonas] Gwangwa and Makhaya [Ntshoko], Johnny Gertze, Hugh Masekela. So it was playing on the radio, I think it was playing on the Voice of America. And he said, ‘Ah this Dollar Brand!’ He said, ‘Hey you guys are famous man, they play you in America as well!’ So I thought I misunderstood and I said, ‘No that’s not us, that’s not the Blue Notes, it’s Jazz Epistles.’ He said, ‘I know, it’s that Dollar Brand, it’s a pity every time he came to East London I missed him, because I worry.’ So my sister said, ‘What do you mean you worry?’ He said, ‘I worry because he puts too much to it.’ You know there’s guys like Gideon [Nxumalo], those guys they have a word for piano at home. They say ‘the ribs of the devil’ when you translate it in English. These guys like Gideon, they play the ribs of the devil.
IK: What’s the Xhosa word?
JD: Imbambizo amaculi. And these people had these kinds of ways of saying things, that’s what was strange hanging out with those guys because you could never understand them! Now people like Chris and all these white musicians, we got them because they were hanging out with us only to hear but they never understand these phrases. Even from the simple one of Dennis’ sayings…’cos he used to say to Chris and them, ‘Hey Baas Sir Mister Sir, give me ten rand, Sir Baas.’ So Dennis when he watches the guy getting reddish or kind of upset, he would say, ‘What shall I say then, which one shall I choose?’ The guy would never… (clicks his fingers) These guys were dangerously hip. Now when my brother says these things, you know, and I looked at these things, is why I say I’m fortunate because I grew up… because he used to tell me at home. He’d play me a chord and if I just ask, ‘What chord is this?’ He’d say, ‘It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter (pops his lips)… You don’t need to know the chord of this. Because if you did know what this chord is, in our point of view, you’d be crazy, but in the white man’s view you’d be a, you know, celebrated.’ So I thought damn man, what’s this guy all about. So in that way, it’s like they say at home, if you want to seek knowledge you go to those guys, they sit in the kraal or whatever and then they be talking and then you ask all these questions, they look at you and say, ‘Are you prepared for this knowledge?’ And you be saying, ‘Ah yes, yeah!’ They say, ‘Are you really prepared, because if you ask you might go crazy, it might not all fit here (points to head) and you go phissh!’ And it’s true because with all that knowledge you gotta be prepared. Your mind, the strength of your mind, your sight, your hearing, your heartbeat, your energy. You have to be prepared to carry all that. If you’re not it doesn’t matter if you know the meaning, just grasp it and listen and when you grow up or when you ready then you can sort it out.
I say this because this guy Mra [‘Christopher Columbus’Ngcukana], now that’s another old man that was, you know, had funny sayings man. He beat me up one time. He beat me. I was at his house in Cape Town, you know, finished eating and then there was a bass against the wall, I just started playing, bum drum bum drum, and then he said, ‘Stop that! Pum pah pum pum pam!’ Damn! And he was beating me up man! He said, ‘Do you know what you are doing?’ Damn he scared the shit out of me man. He said, ‘Do you know what you playing? Do you know what you doing? Do you know? Do you know?’ So I said, ‘What did I do?!’ He said, ‘You see! You don’t even fucken know what you doing!’ Damn! Those guys they look at a thing, you know, they put it there. And that’s an African way of looking at things see, if somebody says something, they tell you a story, they say… because at home they talk in terms of ‘Over There!’ That’s why when they say, ‘Let’s take a walk’ in the village, for example, like I used to go with my father, he was stationed outside East London right? He would take me to meet the guys in the village, to just fix my head up, my city intellectual whatever hip mind. And this guy would say, ‘Ok, let’s take a walk, let’s go buy something in the village.’ I walk along and say, ‘Where are we going, where is it?’ So everything is in advance, it’s ‘There! Over there!’ So when you looked they never say, ‘Here’, you always have to put it ‘There’. Because as they talked they looked at you. Because Mra beat me, so this trombone player, Willie Neti, that’s another guy from Cape Town who used to play with him, his mother said, ‘Ah Mra, you don’t need to do that to a child. He’s still a child.’ Then when she said that, somehow I was relieved. It finally got clear. Some kind of message. Mrs Neti said, he’s just a child. And yet me, playing with the Blue Notes, I’m supposed to be the bass player!
AK: Johnny you’ve been in Europe 21 years now, how have you managed to control the tendency to become proud? How have you managed not to become perverted by this experience of exile?
JD: My turn came in Europe, because I told myself, after learning from those places where we used to jam all these standards, all these Charlie Parker whatever things, we were sixteen, seventeen, so I said, ‘Damn!’ The reason I said that because when I was finally playing with Dick [Khoza] now, touring, I remember there was all these kinds of hassles, I am tired, I want to go home, to East London, fuck this shit. So Dick said, ‘You are grown-up now.’ Because one time in PE we were playing for schoolkids, backing this Indian singer and for some reason this guy had problems to communicate with us in Zulu or Xhosa right? Dick said, ‘No, understand it in your own way then. Now you try your best whether he’s talking broken Xhosa or Zulu, do your best.’ And I thought wow, man. So this guy was singing ‘Moon River.’ So Dick, after the concert, Dick said, ‘You grown up now.’ I just look at Bra’ Dick, Numzana, ’cos they used to call Dick ‘Numzana,’ Sir in English. So he said, ‘You grown up now, you should play it your own way. Break the rule. You’re grown up now. Break the rule. That’s white man’s stuff now, so leave it now, you know the white man’s stuff. This ‘Moon River’, you know the chords right? You know D-flat, now play it your own way, you’re grown up, you’re over eighteen now ain’t you?’ I thought Wow! And then I said, ‘No Bra’ Dick I’m seventeen,’ and he said, ‘Well, do you have to wait for eighteen? You are grown up now, play it your own way!’ Now when I came to Europe, then I found out, when we were still with the Blue Notes in Europe, I found out everybody… ’Cos Wes Montgomery, when we played at Ronnie Scott’s, Wes Montgomery said to me, ‘I like the way you play’, he put it like this, ‘Naturally. You got a natural approach. How did you learn?’ So I told him, and he said, ‘Yeah that’s good, keep it that way, whenever you going to play with anybody, play what you think is right because in jazz everybody plays what already somebody else is playing.’ So in other words you could be playing and yet the guy is not contributing at all, he’s just playing (taps a plodding beat on the table) he’s not contributing for your knowledge of putting new things. So he said, ‘You know there are very few originals.’ He mentioned Monk and other people, other guitarists or whatever. He said, ‘Yeah! Besides you are African, these British people must be very inspired to have you guys here. Why don’t you guys come to America and inspire us?’ So from that standpoint, you know, I had this pride of I don’t want to be a star. I’ve learned the danger of being a star.
AK: Already from your brother you had that?
JD: Right. So I wanted to be a contributor. For my people. For South Africa. And yet I am proud. I can turn around, if somebody tries to pull that one out, of stars, I say fuck you man, you know, and then this person whoever he is will say, ‘How can he dare say that.’ But I know that I have.
AK: Did you have that consciousness even then in the sixties?
JD: Yes. Because we were taught that kind of consciousness because we were dealing like I said, Dennis and Mongezi and Louis all these cats, we had this one of starship within oneself, even reading Downbeat or Newsweek, whatever it is, but now it was just among us, the youth. But now when you meet in a room, like for example I was in Dorkay one time and Mackay Davashe was in there rehearsing, practising. So I’d never met this man, you know. I was young and I came for our rehearsal and somebody, I think Nick said, ‘Hey Mackay, Mackay, Mackay.’ So I thought hey I want to see this guy, so I just popped in and then I opened the door. He had his horn and then he sitting at the piano and he turned around. So I just kept quiet, I stood there watching and he went on playing dum dum and then as he put his hand like this on the piano and he said, ‘Yes, say what you want! Say what you want!’ And he did like this and he turned around and he looked at me, he said, ‘Well if you don’t have anything to say get out!’ I thought Wow! Really! I was Phew! I mean to see this man, an elder, and then he said that? He gave me a chance to say, he said, ‘Say what you want,’ right? And I had to choose my words, and everything just went phew… gone! So I didn’t have anything to say, so he said, ‘Get out I’m working man!’ I told Nick, I was kind of…damn! I told Nick, ‘Hey this guy!’ Nick said, ‘Did you see Mackay?’ I told him this guy was phew…he put one on me man. So Nick said, ‘No I’ll take you to him.’ And funny enough, Nick is another generation to Mackay.
AK: Younger still but older than you?
JD: Right. So Nick says, ‘I’ll take you to Bra’ Mackay’ so Nick came in and Mackay stopped working and said, ‘Is it you again?’ So Nick, he has a way of calling him right, ‘Ah Bra’ Mackay, Numzana,’ you know. So he says, ‘I see you Moyake.’ They call each other. So he says, ‘Who is this young guy who has the nerve to come and stand here and stare at me and then he has nothing to say?’ So while he’s talking to Nick he’s winking to me and I wonder what’s going on here. He’s winking, he says, ‘Come here, you are Johnny right? You are this one who just came from East London. You guys don’t have no discipline you guys. You just walk in and yet you don’t have anything to say. You don’t have discipline you guys. Nick discipline this young man.’ So they introduced me to him. Then he talked about my brother.
AK: He knew your brother?
JD: Yeah. Because my brother actually is like Nick’s age, you know, but since my mother had this boarding house everybody, the King Kongers, African Jazz, they used to tour, they stayed at my house. So he asked how is your mother, how is the old lady, how is your brother? So he turned around and said, ‘I’m afraid you’re getting too ahead of yourself. Your brother is not like you.’ And he turned around and he laughed and he looked on the floor and he looked on me again and he said, ‘Anyway you could never be like your brother but I hope you learn.’ Then he said, ‘Ok Nick I have to work.’ So I left man and as we come out Kippie comes in. So Kippie looks at me. Kippie is older, Mackay’s generation. So Kippie looks at me again and he says to Nick, ‘Nick is welcomed, he’s passed his exams.’ In other words you have to pass your exams with these guys here, right? From drinking point of view, from sitting in the same room, you know, everything. You can wear your tie and suit, they don’t give a fuck. So Kippie’s hugging Nick and he looks at me. All the time he’s hugging Nick he’s looking at me and he just passes. Nothing, no word, cold! So I thought Fuck what’s this man? And then as he holds the door he turns around, he says, ‘You! I want to have a word with you.’ ‘Yeah Bra’ Kippie, yeah.’ As I go to him, as I go to the door he says, ‘Not now. I didn’t mean now. I mean I want to have a word with you, I don’t know where, I don’t know when. Maybe next week, maybe next month, maybe next year, maybe when you come back from Europe. I don’t know.’ I thought What the fuck is this man? And then they had a jam session at Dorkay for us, you know, everybody was jamming just before we were going to Europe. And I was playing and Kippie hadn’t heard me yet, right? So I’m playing and then we finished playing. And Kippie comes to me and says…and this is the best compliment I’ve ever had; he just looked at me, I’m standing there I want to hear, and he looks at me and he ignores me and goes. Then he comes back again and stands and he looks at me and says ‘I love you.’ Phewww! It’s funny because immediately I felt that from now on, because Kippie is the last one from those days, I said to myself, ‘From now on I’ve got my diploma.’ This is what I’m trying to say: all those guys, Kippie, Nick, you know, Bra’ Mackay… I’ve got my diploma I don’t need to prove anything.
Because when I was in Europe Ben Webster was nasty with me. Ben Webster came out drunk, ‘Yeargh bass player is playing wrong, D-major, this this this,’ and I look at this song and I said fuck, what the fuck is this? I was saying to myself now who the fuck is he trying to impress? Because I know man, I knew I did my homework, I knew I had my diploma and I knew I had my everything together before I left South Africa. Because we knew, the Blue Notes, when we left South Africa, we are here to do. Fuck everybody else. And I met Ben Webster later in Copenhagen and I was playing again a month later and he said, ‘Oh I remember you’ and he was sober now, ‘I want you to come to my house.’ And he liked Mongezi. He adopted Mongezi as his son actually. He loved Mongezi.
If Mongezi walked in he’d say sit here (slaps his leg), Mongezi would always sit on his lap. Where’s your horn? He’d shout at Mongezi if Mongezi didn’t bring his horn. ‘Don’t come to my session if you don’t have your horn!’ But with me he was kind of… so anyway I saw him right.
I met him in the Montmartre in Copenhagen, right? I was playing and he was sober. He came in, right in the middle of the club and looked at me. And when I was finished playing he came to me and said, ‘I’m sorry about what I said to you in London’, and that was about a month before, right? He said, ‘I misunderstood you, come to my house, where’s the little…’ he used to call Mongezi Little Bead, ‘where’s Little Bead motherfucker? Where’s my man Little Bead?’ So we went to his house, and we sat with Ben Webster, and he told us exactly almost the same things that these guys like Mackay had told us, but in another, American syndrome, so that’s when I said to myself, again this thing of SKANGA music, the international black family. Because we sat there, he said, ‘You know why I’m inviting you here? I want to talk to both of you, don’t make mistakes like we did.’ I looked at Mongezi and said what is he saying? ‘Don’t make mistakes like we did when I was with Duke Ellington. What the white folks did to us in America, what the music direction shouldn’t take, let nobody bullshit with you when you know you have what you have.’ All these things, but what’s he saying it for? So I said, ’cos Mongezi’s a quiet guy, so I said, ‘Why you telling us this?’ He said, ‘I’m concerned, you guys got it together, and you guys come from Africa and we’re very proud of you.’ Then he said, ‘I will say it for every American, black American…’ and you know what, this guy said, ‘I’m coming back.’ So he went to his bedroom, came back with a bible. And he looked in the bible, he says to me and Mongezi, ‘This is a chapter I read now and then,’ and he turned to this chapter and read it and read it and read it, I thought, this is strange man, this is weird, and then finished that chapter, he said ‘Thanks for listening, let’s drink.’ Then he changed, because those guys are very sentimental, you know, and they all of a sudden get pheww! So we went all of us outside, you know, so we go to the Montmartre, he said, ‘I’ll see you later. I’m goin’ away’ and you know that after two weeks Ben Webster died man. He told us. He said, ‘I’m goin’ away.’
So I knew, I knew in myself, after all these experiences, that every experience that I had with these kind of people, I would look at it and then, the meaning of it, and then I said to myself, yeah that’s another point. So in Europe, what broke the Blue Notes is that ignorance again, because Chris… the Jewish South Africans in London, they divided the Blue Notes. Again coming with this South African thing that ‘Oh you guys are from home, you know, play-play, living the dream again, play that song from then, or that atmosphere rather,’ so I’m saying this thing is finished man.
AK: You must progress…
JD: Right. Everything goes, you know, and they wanted to have us … and this time, you know, we are looser, not that we are freer, but we are looser to really now get into ourselves and can express ourselves, without being… we take it now from the European side and see now what the European musicians say about us and what they… because we influenced London in and out, the very day we came in there it was packed at Ronnie Scott’s for one month every day full house. They didn’t know what these Africans… some people said, ‘Where you people come from, how you people do this? You lying, you from Chicago…’ Now we say what is wrong with these people. And when Ornette [Coleman] came with his trio, and we were playing, Ornette came in the club, to see us…
IK: The same trio as is on the Live At The Golden Circle album?
JD: Yeah, the same trio, but anyway, when he came in to Ronnie Scott’s to check us out, we knew all these things, these guys are checking us out, in and out. In and out and out and in. And at that time Hugh Masekela came to London, same week, and he came in as the African whatever…so we looked at Hugh, and we were doing something else way revolutionary this side because now we were really taking from Mra’s point of view, the fowl run, because we all said let’s do the fowl run on them…
AK: What they called ‘free jazz’.
JD: Free jazz! And we were doing the fowl run, now within that so-called, to them, free jazz. They would say, ‘What is fowl run?’ We said, ‘You’ll find out later.’ So Hugh Masekela was in the club, he said, ‘You guys mustn’t do this man,’ he told us about Coltrane into this… So what Coltrane into this? I mean we knew Coltrane was also and everybody was into different revolutionary time in the sixties right? So Hugh said, ‘You guys will fit in the States, this thing is in the scene,’ and we were not interested to go to the States, we didn’t give a fuck about the States, none of us in the band really gave a fuck about the States. In other words we were prepared, we wanted to start it here because we believed everybody came from here, the whole thing came here, from here in Europe, so if we start here… and again Hugh Masekela came imposing this thing of kwela, mbaqanga on us, ‘You guys you can make money’ and he had a company, so you know, ‘you guys… this mbaqanga thing, jussus!’ We didn’t take notice of that, and anyway, Ornette was in the room. Dudu said, at intermission, ‘There’s Ornette!’ Shouting. And you know Ornette is a shy guy, everybody turned around, the whole room, ‘There’s Ornette! Where’s your horn man? C’mon? Where’s your horn? You are Ornette Coleman aren’t you?’ Damn, Dudu’s running the Cape Town thing… and Ornette was kind of panicking, Dudu: ‘Hey you are Ornette! C’mon, bring your horn, you are Ornette, ain’t you?!’ So we said, ‘Hey Dudu leave this guy, you are embarrassing this guy.’ ‘He’s Ornette!’ And Dudu’s saying it to us in Xhosa,’I’m gonna blow his head off. I’ve been waiting for this guy.’ That’s what he said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you!’
Now Dudu he’s into another level because Dudu now was also from the other generation from Nick, like he was prepared. Now of course Ornette was checking us out, but he was putting us as Africans, it’s-nice-to-see-you-guys kinda, they were doing that. It’s strange because the Europeans would take us for real but the American black musicians would take us, ‘Oh yeah you Africans, how do you play this?’ So Ornette had this attitude. So Dudu got mad, you know, I got mad also and Mongezi got mad. You know, this attitude, but anyway the one that was very hip to us was Roland Kirk. Roland Kirk wanted it all. He said, ‘You guys, invite me to play with this band man.’ And we loved Roland Kirk because Roland Kirk was WOW! Roland Kirk wanted it as raw as it is. Because him and Dudu, every time he meets Dudu they will go wild man, like phoohh! Roland Kirk would tell Dudu, ‘Do what you have to do in behaviour, and don’t let nobody live your life.’ So that time Archie Shepp came in, now this our generation now, right? The avant-garde guys, but now Archie, politics and all, and we were in London and when they came in London with Jimmy Garrison and all these guys, now they had this white trombone player Roswell Rudd and we all said, almost at the same time, that’s Bob Tizzard there! Because we could recognize everything, everything, it was not new, everything we would just say, oh there’s Bob Tizzard, there’s this, there’s this, there’s Kippie, there’s this, there’s that, ’cos Nick… I remember Nick in Zurich at Dollar’s party. Dollar invited the Miles Davis group rhythm section: Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter. Nick told Wayne Shorter right in front of us when we were at that party, just pheww! That guy even today when he sees me, when he sees the Blue Notes, I wonder ’cos that guy might hate us or some shit because he cannot stand what Nick told him. Dollar said, ‘This is Nick Moyake.’ Nick holds this guy’s hand man. He holds it, grips it, and says, ‘You ain’t shit. What you play I played it before.’ And he holds his hand; the guy is pulling his hand! We were there in this party in Zurich. Dollar said, ‘How can you do this at my party, why you so rude to my guests?’ So Nick said, ‘He ain’t shit I played this before. He’s coming with an attitude.’ But WE!We were full of shit of man!
AK: It sounds like it.
JD: We were full of shit! (laughs)
AK: When you talk about so-called ‘free jazz’, and you call it ‘the fowl run’, yet you’re still playing it, and playing it with all your heart, and feeling, but at the same time are you bullshitting?
JD: NO! NO! We were full of shit after playing, like we go to a guy like Sonny Stitt, he was saying every African playing bongos or some shit, so we tell this guy, ‘Fuck you man!’ At one time we were listening to a concert in Zurich, and Sonny Stitt is smoking a cigarette and Nick was smoking a cigarette and it was going down so Sonny Stitt say, ‘Hey man you don’t need to smoke a cigarette right to the end, don’t embarrass us in front of white people.’ That’s what Sonny Stitt said man, in Zurich, 1964. So Nick said, ‘I’m gonna get this one.’ So Nick turned around and said in Xhosa, ‘Listen to this one now. They think they’ve got bongo-bongos, they think we are those ones.’ And we knew what Nick meant so we were waiting. So Roland Kirk was there too, because they were in a Norman Grant tour, whatever, Newport, so Roland Kirk was in this group that was there, so actually we came to check these guys you know, Miles was playing also. Yeah we were listening to Miles that night, right? And everybody else was there at the backstage, Sonny Stitt, Roland Kirk, everybody, so Dudu and Nick was going to Miles, ‘Let us in man! Let us in! Are you Miles Davis?!’ Miles’s like: ‘What’s this?’ So somebody said, ‘Yes these guys are from Africa, these are Africans.’ So Miles, so all these Americans, Sonny Stitt, Howard Mcghee, were very nasty to us man, even before they even knew what we were doing, when they heard ‘Africans’, these guys were so nasty. And this guy Howard Mcghee didn’t like Miles, for some kind of jealousy or something. Anyway, so Miles said to Dudu, ’cos Miles had whisky in his dressing room, so he calls these guys, you know, Dudu… You see Nick and Dudu going in and out, when Miles finishes a song they follow Miles, they go in the room they be drinking with Miles, talking, so Miles told these guys, Louis and Dudu, ‘Beat him up! This guy is calling you bongo-bongo, beat him up!’ He’s saying about Howard Mcghee, ‘Beat him up. He’s jealous of me anyway, he’s nothing but a nigger!’ We didn’t understand it…so anyway Roland Kirk was on the other side, ‘Man, where are these guys from, South Africa?’ So we came into Roland Kirk’s room also, we were drinking, at that time also, we did… pheww! Backstage there were bottles, pheww! You know? So backstage we were talking this… So Sonny Stitt says this to Nick. Nick just looked at him and said, ‘After all it’s you.’ And he said, ‘What do you mean man? It’s me. I’m Sonny Stitt. It’s me.’ So Nick said, ‘I’d rather talk to Charlie Parker than you.’ (laughter)
In all this, we were so curious to see these Americans, because I remember Oscar Peterson was playing a concert, Dudu went to the concert and I didn’t go to the concert for some reason. He went there with his wife Barbara. And Dudu came back to me, he woke me up, I say, ‘What is it now man?’ He says, ‘Guess what, Johnny?’ ‘What?’ He says, ‘Ray Brown ain’t shit. I just heard him today, I mean that! This Ray Brown we hear at home, we know he’s got a big sound like this, I had to come close to the first row to hear him.’ So Dudu said, ‘You got it made!’
AK: But who were the musicians at that stage that you found really hip?
JD: The musicians in the sixties were Roland Kirk, and the blues, the Mississippi, I mean those guys, you know, Coltrane, Booker Ervin who played with Mingus, and Mingus himself, the heavies. Another thing, we would go in people’s houses in Europe and ask people, ‘Do you have this record?’ and people didn’t have that record, they didn’t even know about those records. Say, do you have a Horace Silver record like this and this and this, they said, ‘No.’ They would play a record, immediately Dudu or Mongezi or Louis [Moholo] would say, ‘Oh that’s a white musician playing’ or ‘That’s so and so playing there.’ We knew all this, we were ready, in other words we knew them but they didn’t know us.
AK: So in a sense you had an advantage?
JD: Exactly! Because we knew them, it’s almost like a guerrilla, you know, he sees them but they don’t know where he is. It’s the same thing that’s happening with the boers, Umkhonto sees them, but they don’t see Umkhonto. They’re looking for them outside but it’s all happening at home (laughs), it’s not a matter of it’s a hidden thing, it’s all over the place man. They think that terrorists are coming from Russia, you know what I mean? So we knew this, and now where we would fuck them up, because we would play all these tunes you know, they were praising us, they’d say, ‘You guys got a feel, a jazz feel’ but then we would change and play a marabi feel in the music and then they would get really confused. Now even the Americans, they started … I remember Roland Kirk was saying, ‘How you guys do this?’ and then Don Cherry came in the picture.
AK: When was this, late sixties?
JD: Right. When he first met Mongezi… and we liked challenges, I don’t know, Dudu or Louis was teasing Mongezi, saying, ‘Don is here, you in shit now!’ (laughter) You know all these games, all this provocative! See how far you can go. ‘You in shit now Don is here.’ ‘Don is here Mongz, we don’t play trumpet, you the one in trouble…!’ So Mongezi said ‘Find him for me.’ And really, Mongezi made Don put the trumpet down and say, ‘Teach me. You don’t play trumpet, you talk through the trumpet.’ ’Cos when I met Don he said, ‘This guy,’ ’cos he used to play flugelhorn also, ‘this guy don’t play trumpet, he talks! I would like to learn this. I’ve been trying to learn this since I’ve been playing with Ornette and them.’ We see these guys and we were challenging ourselves too, not aggressively like Don, like Mongezi would say, ‘Yeah, Don Cherry fuck him up,’ NO, NO, it was provoking him to get there.
And then I saw Jimmy Garrison, again, those guys, you know, they were pure, sincere. Jimmy Garrison, Roland Kirk, Coltrane, those guys, they got it together, they were aware of their African… ’Cos Jimmy Garrison, when I played after that he said, ‘Ah man I wish I played bass like you.’ Mongezi was standing next to me when Jimmy Garrison was saying this, so Mongezi said when Jimmy left, we were talking nicely, so Mongezi says to me, ‘You know Johnny I always thought you are heavy.’ So I didn’t know how to compliment Mongezi so I said, ’cos I also looked up to him, I said, ‘He talks shit man.’ We talk like that, we don’t give compliments. This group, never. We would never. I don’t care if Dudu played his ass off, we would never individually say, ‘Hey you know…’ but before we go to the concert, we would say to ourselves, ‘Let’s go and get them.’ That’s the only thing that we had in unity, ‘Let’s go and get them.’ And then we would walk in and really the Blue Notes, we gave you know, we gave a lesson. I was happy that The Wire spoke about the Blue Notes in respect because we knew that we gave a lot in England.
AK: It wasn’t just the jazz fraternity that picked up on the Blue Notes. Chris Cutler of Henry Cow told me how he used to watch you guys, all your concerts.
JD: Right. All these guys, the Fairport Convention, we influenced these guys. They asked Mongezi and Dudu to do overdubs for rock situations, all these guys, we influenced these guys from rock to jazz. Then from England we jumped to Scandinavia, to Denmark. They loved us there, they couldn’t believe that, wow! For the first time, you know? Then they look at Chris, they say… they didn’t want to talk with Chris in Scandinavia , they refused. We had to protect Chris because the waiters refused to serve Chris. They say what are you doing you white guy and they told us, ‘You selling out! Are you selling out or what? What you doing with this white guy?’ So we told Chris, ‘Talk for yourself man, talk for yourself.’ Like we did at home, like we did here, we said, ‘Chris, talk for yourself.’ Because Nick, when we arrived in Paris, I remember this guy from the Nice festival, he came to pick us up, and he went directly to Chris, he saw me carrying the bass waiting there, he said, ‘Is this Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes?’ So we kept quiet. So he went to Chris. So Nick said ‘Listen, Chris, tell this guy this is not Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes. It’s the Blue Notes.’ From that day Chris was, you know… because every time we played concerts, sometimes in Zulu, Chris would play behind Nick and Nick would just go (makes funny sound) ‘Hey stop that bullshit man.’ So Nick was very aware of things, man.
AK: Did Nick play both tenor and alto?
JD: Yeah. He started with tenor but he played both. And he was so aware of things. Because I remember Dollar wanted Nick and Dollar didn’t know Nick. Nick was very sceptical, but this guy was heavy.
AK: When did he go back?
JD: He went back six months later and he died there. And it’s strange because also Nick told me, and I must be blessed for some kind, I’m not talking myself, and I’m talking about my experience, at home I was accepted. I don’t know for what reason or why but I guess I don’t know, my attitude or my ways, because Nick before he went to South Africa, he told me, ‘You, you going to carry this. You the one. You got the right message.’ And he was crying, you know, because he’s leaving, going back home. And he told me, he said, ‘You’re the one. You’re the one who has this music from home.’ Phew! You know? I had to think about this things man. I spent some time in Europe thinking, what was the meaning of this? Because Mongezi was scared of me, he was scared in a way that is scary, ’cos sometimes Mongezi would look at me and say, ‘Hey sba, you don’t know you something else,’ you know? So one time in London I nearly wet my hair when he said, ‘Man, are you a South African or what?’
AK: Johnny, could you give me a background to your life in South Africa and how you got involved with music?
JD: I was born in East London, you know. My brothers played music. I started on the piano because my brother was playing piano, so from there I was singing also, at an early age, singing with Tete Mbambisa and I took up bass twelve, thirteen, played with Dick Khoza’s group, Mongezi, Dudu Pukwana, Pinise Saul… She was singing with us, Aubrey Semane, he was playing also. Now before Mongezi came to East London, Aubrey Semane was playing trumpet. Aubrey switched to alto when Mongezi came in, to give space, ‘cos Mongezi joined Dick Khoza’s group called the Jazz Giants, no, it was the Jazz… Jazz Wizards. Jazz Wizards it was Dick’s group. Then I played bass and then I played with the rhythm section of Pat Matshikiza, Dick Khoza for Back In Your Own Back Yard. We did that meeting other musicians, we did that by travelling of course, and then at the early age, I mean I’ve been exposed to many different… If I would start, I guess from the Jazz Wizards. I played around with Tete Mbambisa, Dick Khoza’s group, then I moved out of East London, PE, Grahamstown, and ended up in Cape Town and that’s where I met Tete again in Cape Town cos Tete was around there.
AK: Round about what year was this?
JD: This was the end of ’62. And I met the other guys, Dennis Mphale, he was in Tete’s group at this time. How I got involved with Blue Notes actually is the bass player, what’s his name? Indian bass player… Basil Moses gave me this gig ’cos he didn’t want to go to Europe for some reason. He gave me his gig and a bass. The scene was so tight, with all this mix, we had this you’d call it a UDF kind of feeling among the musicians at that time although politically it was not in that way though. Basil gave me this gig, he told me, ‘You can go to Europe.’
AK: Now, who were the Blue Notes?
JD: Before I joined and before Mongezi joined the Blue Notes were… actually Dudu was the man who started the Blue Notes with Chris. But Dudu was behind all that and Chris was, you know, there, but Dudu was the composer and Chris was kind of the arranger of Dudu’s songs but Dudu was the one. And Dudu was the one who taught Chris to play mbaqanga on the piano and showed him what it’s all about. Nick Moyake…Dennis Mphale was the trumpet player, before Mongezi, and Sammy Maritz was the bass player before Moses. Dudu was always there, Nick Moyake, and Elijah Nkwanyana on trumpet before Dennis, but anyway by the time Mongezi called me, Louis was always on drums… no, somebody else was playing drums before Louis. I met Louis before that, in Cape Town, and the Blue Notes started, with Sammy Maritz, was very interested into vegetarian, he worked at the market selling vegetables, so he said, ‘I’m not going to Europe either.’ So he stayed so I joined in, so we were touring, until we ended up going.
AK: Most of the written accounts I’ve read say that the Castle Lager Jazz Festival was the turning point, the ’64 jazz festival.
JD: In a way it was, of course, publicity-wise. It was helpful in that kind of sense…
AK: And the Dorkay House scene?
JD: No, even before that, from just touring and all this, and then me and Barney and Mongezi at that time we were the younger generation from those guys Nick and Sammy Maritz, and all that, we were teenagers, sixteen, but what we were playing! What Wynton Marsalis is all about, I mean Mongezi was playing! I mean it was like that, then. But so we were doing this thing, I mean we were playing before all that New Castle or whatever, so Mongezi was invited to go there by another great musician, from East London, Eric Nomvete, a tenor player, he’s on one of the records. He composed that famous song at the Festival, the group won a prize, ‘Pondo Blues’. Everybody was playing so-called jazz and this old man was hip enough that he had original stuff, so when he came in everyone was playing dauh dauh, so this old man just came in with Pondo blues, and that was it. And then everybody started being aware of their own thing, tradition, culture, whatever you call it,
AK: Up until then were black South Africans only influenced by American jazz?
JD: From records, yes. But this man, what was fantastic, he did traditional Pondo blues, within. He didn’t have to be changing, arranging, to be playing it and say well this is jazz. He was himself. And within a song there would come up all this…How shall I call it, SKANKA, which is a world, the Family of Black Music. It was there, that’s why I try to avoid to say jazz, because it’s a family of black, black family in the world. So he was doing that already, him and Mra Ngcukana. Him, this old man, and Christopher. Mra was the Albert Ayler before we even knew or heard Albert Ayler, because he was so-called avant-garde or free jazz. Mra used to call it… I remember when we were playing, that’s one thing I forgot, when we playing Back In Your Own Backyard, which is kind of Broadway, whatever, but when we do this they would let us play, they would let the band play, you know, in a sense what you call world music, so Mra now would say, ‘Let’s do the fowl run’. He’d call free jazz ‘fowl run,’ where everybody starts screaming, so that’s what he called so-called free jazz or avant-garde. In other words there were these two men who were very aware, and Nick of course. Nick Moyake. They were very aware of the world, the black family in the world of music. Of course they were very influential on Philip Thabane, and the other guy is Gideon Nxumalo, who, Gideon has a lot to do with Dollar, Abdullah [Ibrahim], because Gideon Nxumalo was also another piano player who was very advanced, also was into the world family, the black family, he was very aware, that’s why I was laughing on this record called The Rat Race. He titled this record because of Johannesburg, all this rat race, so he was so aware of things. So while the other guys were into Duke Ellington or Monk, these other guys they didn’t see no reason to say I am influenced by Ellington or Monk, they just saw it as one family, but they saw themselves as the originators. They accepted the other black family by accepting themselves, you know?
AK: There is a lot of confusion in writing about the music, in the forms of the music. Where does one start with in describing a word like marabi?
JD: Marabi comes from traditional form, you know, folk song, marabi is just a… suddenly occurred not to divide the people because when they moved to towns, this modern society, which it started to destroy us, so the speakeasy, shebeens, where now everyone will go and sit and there will be a piano there, or there will be a guitar, whatever instrument, so guys would be singing, and they just put two guilders to support that entertainer, whatever it is, they would be betting, like at an auction. So this guy would say, ‘So with my sixpence, play that song again!’ The other guy would say, ‘No play another one, my favourite for twenty guilders,’ whatever. So the musicians had a lot of money, ’cos all that money was going to him, so he just had to wait for whoever has hundreds, whatever. So these guys they were keeping the conversation, that’s why you had all the political things, you sit there and talk about, drinking African beer. It was like at a jazz club, but much more advanced, because the musician now, he has to do what he has to do, the other guy who sitting in a corner, there’s painters there, there’s these guys talking about their wives, and then the politics here and there, the son-in-law, all that was kept in that shebeen…
AK: So marabi is a cultural word, it’s not just a musical description?
JD: Because of the city’s dangers to divide, so they had to have these shebeens. In the modern world they had to make these shebeens as a place to go and drink alcohol and go dumb down your brains but it was not meant to be like that. If you are a young man or young girl, you hear all these stories man, and you see professors in whatever category, you see it all there. There’s this guy or musician there, now as he’s there playing his guitar or playing his piano whatever, he’s learning the political language, to use from that conversation…
AK: So the marabi musician is like a griot, storing information?
JD: Exactly, this is what I’m saying marabi was all about. And I grew up under that because, where I lived in the neighbourhood, you got all types, you could see a Pondo guy, wearing a Pondo blanket, you know, and then you see a Zulu, whatever, so the whole meeting it’s like a cultural house of some kind, even in traditional ways, like we, born in the city, and we see this guy wearing, you know, say damn! Everything was just educational, Now what was good about this marabi thing was that you had to be quiet to be able to observe that, ’cos if you are very city kind of, because everybody in the city thought they were educated just because they are in the city, so they took this thing for granted, so they took these guys who are wearing Pondo blanket or Sotho blanket, whatever…it was not like before in Johannesburg, where you can go in the mines and see that, but there in the Cape it was not that. They just came there to work in the factories or the mines, they were coming to see relatives in the weekend, so Friday night they started going to the disco, but this is a cultural house, so after school Friday, Saturday night, I’d be phew! I hear poets, I hear lyrics, I hear all kind of things, and I see guys wearing ties, schoolteachers, lawyers, drinking. For me being young I said to my brother, if you take me there, because of the awareness of my family they would say, wherever you are going to be you mustn’t go to concert halls like all that crap, I must go there to the shebeens, ’cos all the guys who passed that, who went to the concert halls instead, they came back very intellectual, thinking they know, so it was almost like someone goes to Europe, or going to university, college, and then comes back to Africa and he’s already telling his folks, ‘Now you must use sheets or a knife and fork,’ he’s already telling now his educators, ‘Wash your hands…this this, use a tissue, this this,’ and they look and say, ‘What’s wrong with him? He just went to college and he came back,’ like I go to Berkeley School and come back with all these notations, you know?
AK: Was the marabi culture phased out because of the relocations policy?
JD: The kwela thing came up, they send the youngsters, us, to the street corners, playing flutes, this is very hip now, guitar, watching the police, ’cos the policeman getting to know there’s something happening, in these places, there’s all kinds of dealings, and for me it was not a shebeen really, it’s only a term used in Johannesburg, you know, you say ‘shebeen’. No it was cultural houses where, you know, they serve African beer and you could relax. But now the police started destroying these things, scattering all those people from the villages coming in. Now whenever there’s police, they pick up everybody, that’s where the term came from, kwela kwela, the very van, we’d say, ‘There’s a kwela kwela.’ So automatically everybody knows what a kwela kwela is, but the police didn’t know. Kwela kwela just became, there it is, a bus whatever, it was all worked out. And then after kwela there came mbaqanga, now mbaqanga is the hippest term, because mbaqanga, those who come and jam in these places without knowing, now these are the so-called intellectual, educated fools in other words, who just be in the city thinking they are hip and then they go to these marabi places, they just walk in and order their, you know, beers, so they were just jamming in without knowing, now they started looking at these people from the villages as just these are what you call it, illiterate, they know it all from the cities, so now this word mbaqanga, the sell-outs, because some of them working for the government, you know, so we call them Jim-Come-To-Joburg kind of guys, so that’s when mbaqanga came in, so from kwela they made this click, they made this commercial, so as it went on immediately, so mbaqanga came in and really destroyed this kwela culture, because I remember in England, when we came there, we would hear these British rock musicians play mbaqanga, in the very function of it, I said damn, this is nothing but mbaqanga this thing, you know, it’s rock. That’s when Dudu again stopped playing in the form of let’s say, jazz. So he’s exploring what is happening within the pop. And he came up with this, he said it’s nothing but mbaqanga. Now there was these guys who went out the States, Hugh Masekela and them, now that was very fascinating because, these guys going to the States, they were so hooked up to think they were hip, though Miriam, she caught it balanced, she did heavy good work, then the other guy Gwangwa also did heavy, ’cos Gwangwa was writing for Miriam at that time, Gwangwa was writing strings, for these string quartets to play mbaqanga! Now as he tells me he rehearsed with these guys, and these guys would play and he say, ‘No, stop playing tee tah tah tee, start playing chichichichi’ and these guys couldn’t do that, so he changed, because Gwangwa’s aware also of this like Dudu, and then there was Hugh Masekela, because Miriam was an influence to Hugh, but there was this temptation of getting to mbaqanga as a commercial. So it did sell you know to the ears of the American black public, whatever, I guess them thinking that it’s a going-home kind of sound, but it was not really, but themselves the American musicians, rock or blues or jazz funk, whatever it was, they also got confused, because John Lee Hooker and them… As this thing in South Africa was changing, the John Lee Hookers also were taken out by Motown, into funk, you know it’s strange the Americans and South Africans in the cultural sense, you know, music, because we also, developed with a political thing, John Lee Hooker also talking about the thing, blues in the proper way, not blues ‘my baby left me,’ or blues ‘my baby go and get my Cadillac’. I remember at this party of Dudu in London, this guy was a friend of ours, well he was a rock musician, so he was playing the blues, a guy even older than John Lee Hooker, Dudu said, wait a minute man, this stuff is just like us, at home.
JD: Papa Ernest Ranglin! That’s the real blues, not this blues that they all talk about. We could play this twelve bar blues, sixteen bar blues, thirty-two bar, you know? We didn’t have a problem with those things, but there was this, be yourself in the blues, I hear the African blues. So this guys from the South, Mississippi, wherever, he heard this thing he say, ‘Wow’, and then when I was looking at the States, Hugh Masekela, he came out with ‘Grazing in the Grass’, we were kind of disappointed in a way because it became… the people in America, because that’s where this South African thing started, they thought that this is the thing. That’s what happening at home, and they took it halfway, now to take it halfway because they had it, in New York or California from Hugh Masekela and Miriam, and as we looked we wondered where Gwangwa was in between all this. Dudu went to play with Gwangwa in the States, African Explosion, and it was interesting because Dudu came back and said hey you know, because Gwangwa was really out of, let’s call it ‘the army’, the soldiers, or the supporters of this to bring it in, as it is… because OK, there’s Hugh doing it there, but it was Gwangwa feeling no man, no… So the more Gwangwa said, NO, these guys said ‘Gwangwa we don’t want to. Stop politics! We want money to pay our rent!’ So there was this new thing of talks now, you pay your rent man, support your family, but now that thing became more spreading, like, if you want to pay your rent, you better change ‘Mbube’ to ‘In The Jungle’… ‘Wimoweh’ and all that bullshit. Because when the Manhattan Brothers did that, they came to London and all of a sudden this thing was… Dambuza would say what’s going on, they just change this thing into du duh? So Gwangwa had to call Dudu, because he got to have somebody there who is also strong to play. So when Dudu arrived, Gwangwa started proving to these people, this is what I mean, it’s as simple as that, this is what I mean.
AK: Is that when he recorded Ngubani?
JD: So in a way he didn’t succeed because already these records were coming out, there was all of a sudden a hit, ‘Grazing in the Grass’, so Gwangwa was outplayed, in the sense of this commercial whatever, so it was painful in a way. I remember meeting some musicians, blues singers, they were in Europe, and they were asking me, because they heard Gwangwa in the States, they said we know this guy, we like that guy, he’s more sincere, they said, and I understood what they meant, and yet at the same time I met other Americans from Motown, who talked to Hugh and Caiphus, they said man you got to make it funky man, and it became tempting to others now. And then it tempted Dudu also now, because keeping on, of course it’s hard to keep on, especially when you’ve got the majority against you, in the so-called commercial, pop world. You try one, and then you try another… so you’re looking for the hit all the time, hit songs, hit songs. And now I can say I will try one because I know the same things, like I said, when we went to England I heard them in the rock groups that this is mbaqanga, and the rock groups funnily enough they were approaching me to play bass, and guitar, to do the mbaqanga thing within rock, and I was almost tempted, I said I’ll think about it. I told this guy from the Fairport Convention, ’cos this guy Joe Boyd, he was a manager, and I said, ‘I’ll think about it’ but I said no, it’s dangerous, because I knew I could also do it in another level, for example in the level of, let’s say Fela Kuti. This is what I was into, in the Fela kind of simple, crazy thing. Like Linton Kwesi he does reggae, he’s not doing it in that other kind of, his reggae is, you know, and to me I was not good in lyrics, I’m not good in lyrics, but I knew I was good to the heartbeat, you know, the only thing I was short of was to get somebody who’s good in lyrics and combine it. So Dudu said to me, ‘Come on man, play the bass,’ and he was doing it now with the Manhattan Brothers, trying this, so he was tempted to keep on, you know, because he keeps on listening to these other records coming now from the States, Hugh Masekela… By the time we heard that Hugh and them wanted us to meet so we said yes. But, again, Mongezi, was playing trumpet, right? Mongezi was aware from an early age, let’s say me and Mongezi were aware from an earliest age of these things, it was kind of a natural thing really to be in the Black Family Music, without compromise, without saying I’m playing with rock now, no, I’m doing what I’m doing with, so when this Union of South Africa came, Caiphus, Hugh…Mongezi said, ‘Ugh but I don’t want to change the style,’ ’cos this thing had to change you, the style, you know? That’s what made me really, I said NO NO, ’cos if I have to change the style, I’m not only going to play rock, I could play rock, but now I have to change the style, I cannot do that, if I could play the way I want, like I always did, without having… ’cos these guys now they were talking about, Joe Boyd was talking about ‘you guys have to have a haircut’, or something like that, ‘you guys have to dress like this’, you know, you know what I mean? At that time they were making images of people, so they want to turn us into images. Because the artists, they tailor-made their clothes, haircuts, hairdressers were getting good money for doing the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, so it was not us who was getting money any more, because this thing is more than this. Fortunately my intuition was right, you know? Ok before that I met Wes Montgomery, now I step ahead of this conversation… Wes Montgomery wanted me to play, actually in France, in Nice. Horace Silver wanted me and Mongezi. At that time my view, my vision was already now, enlarged, I had a kind of a telescope, my vision, my eyes telescoped themselves. So I was not pushing it because I knew I was into another thing, whatever it was. And Wes Montgomery I met also in London wanted me to play with him, and everybody keep on saying, ‘Man this is great, he’s the most famous guitarist in the world,’ and you know I respected these people, not that I wouldn’t do anything with them, whatever, whatever, NO. I was just into another level, because I know for a fact, Barney Rachabane and all these guys in South Africa, we used to jam all night. We’d play ‘Stardust’ 24 hours, just ‘Stardust’. We’d get all these chords, the meaning of this and that, because we were doing this experiment to see is there any kwela, mbaqanga, anything in these songs. So that’s what we were doing.
AK: And were you finding those links?
JD: Of course!
AK: So that’s why you call it ‘Black Family Music?’
JD: Right! That’s when I got to even the so-called Gershwin songs, ‘Summertime’. ‘Summertime’ is made of this and that and that and patches of that and that… and then when I had Nick, ’cos Nick Moyake when he came in he knew all this stuff , ’cos Nick said, ‘Johnny man it’s nothing but…’ ’cos I remember one time I was having a tough time playing these standards you know …
AK: Which standard was that?
JD: I’ll think about it… I keep on getting lost when I come to this part, I get lost every time I come to this bridge, so how come every time I come in then it sounds like some other song, so I tried to search in the chords, but it’s not the chords or anything, it’s something connected somewhere. So Nick turned around as he finished and he said, ‘Man, look it’s nothing but this,’ and he played mbaqanga song, da da dee da da dee duh duh and then diddle ah diddle ah, and I couldn’t believe this! So we were tracing, Tete, Barney, Mongezi, we were tracing all these songs, so we started playing all these standards, even from Charlie Parker, all these things, every standard, there was something to do with us as South Africans.
When we were playing some Charlie Parker songs, for example, and Clifford Brown, because we were really into Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker, Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown were the favourites in South Africa because of the high level they put the blues from John Lee Hooker into a challenge. Charlie Parker didn’t put that music into a classical way of challenging the white folks or whatever, Europeans or whatever, in the sense, they were playing and saying this is coming directly from the blues but we live in this time so we take it to this place. So now we were playing this Charlie Parker song and I remember Dick Khoza, we were playing a three-four, a song from a 3/4 waltz, and Dick couldn’t get this, and at that time musicians in Cape Town, we all met in Cape Town, painters, somebody who was doing something with art, poets, poetry in the corner, discussing this and this, a jam session going on, it was, a guy come from Durban, Pretoria this, all over the place, white, whatever, the whole now UDF thing, and yeah Dick is going uh uh, so Tete is looking at Dick, and Tete was very stubborn, very cheeky, he hated a musician who won’t hear it. When you finally say I find this, this standard is nothing but this, duhn duhn and then so if a bass player or a trumpet player or a saxophone player or a drummer didn’t hear it, Tete would say, ‘You sell out! You stupid or something?’ So it was hard to get in that group of musicians now, it became more hard because all those who are aware became like the pillars, so the other ones who came in they had to know their shit now. It’s not only knowing the music or standards, they know ‘Summertime’ in and out but what did they know inside ‘Summertime’? So those black and white, whatever, Indian, whatever, mulatto, they had to know, because when Dick said chang chang, Dick said, ‘Hey, I cannot play this three four man!’ So somebody, I think Dennis Mphale, ’cos Dennis likes to laugh you know, loud (very loud screech), Dennis plays a great trumpet you know, and Mongezi standing there with his trumpet you know, so Dennis just stopped and laughed (loud cackling laugh), he say to Dick, ‘I thought you were a Zulu?’ Just joking, Dennis was like that, ‘I thought you were a Zulu, you should know this shit.’ You know your shit, bring it in, it’s nothing but a 3/4 Bra’ Dick, ain’t nothing but a waltz! And then somebody said, this is it you know (banging on the table). It’s Zululand!
Whatever! And Bra’ Dick was, fortunately Dick was so much of a humble musician, because now we shouting at him and we shouting at him because also he’s older, it was like an Art Blakey vs Max Roach kind of thing to us, but now we youngsters just laughing at him, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ so he looked around and Louis was standing in the corner with Sammy Maritz… this was strange man because musicians, the bass players and the drummers, from that group, whatever, group it was, the trumpet player from that group, Mankunku was there, they would be standing in the room watching these guys jam, and whenever there was something wrong, some guy would just… and if you don’t know how to do this, just say ‘Sonny!’ so Bra’ Dick says, outsmarting everybody, so Bra’ Dick says, ‘Hey Moholo can you play this 3/4 for me? I like to hear it.’ Now again, because Louis was fantastic on these things also, Louis is just a little bit few years younger than Dudu, maybe three years, but now Louis being foolish, being hip, because we were hip also, you know, because Louis wants to show off now as how hip, and Dick didn’t mean that he should, Dick was aware that, you know, progress in generations to come and all this, now if a bass player trying to prove to me he’s hip, another bass player coming from another direction he kick his ass, now Louis goofed because he, so Dick said, ‘I see that’s how it goes, but I don’t need all that technical thing, just play me a 3/4, just go chunk chunk mah, whatever, then give me the sticks then I will,’ so Louis was putting extras and all. So everybody started looking at Louis now, because Louis was overplaying it, over-impressing, whatever it was, in this situation.
So they started laughing, the laugh now was to Louis, ’cos Tete again was coming brilliant, sharp, although there was other piano players, ’cos Schilder and them they was just growing at that time, Schilder and his brothers, I remember meeting them in Cape Town, whole generations were there and this cheek, this nerve, so it was nice because it was not like here, when I met a musician here OK you just fall in if you know the theory or whatever, or that book, it was not the book there, it was, ‘Ok so what if you have been in university! But do you know ‘Summertime’ has got this sauce here, this salt here?’ So they were on Louis’ case, and Tete said, ‘Thebz!’ ’cos he called Louis Thebz, ‘Thebz! Why do you disappoint me now, why do you all get excited, don’t get excited man!’ Putting another level, you know, without being insulting, so everyone say, ‘Louis you getting excited!’ ‘Louis is getting excited!’ So I could see out the corner Sammy Maritz was wearing a big hat you know, he was wearing a coat of silver, but greyish I think, and a big hat, and this guy…if you had cheek, if you had nerve you could explain yourself and do whatever. If you walk in that room, I’ve seen musicians, painters, poets, even police shut up in there. Because first it was in, where was it? Selbourne? Mowbray? Yeah Selbourne, there was a big place there, that’s where it started, then they moved to Ronnie Beer’s place upstairs, that’s where now everything just became…the police were told to fuck off, all kinds of things, you know, you won’t believe this. Everybody thinks that this UDF kind of thing between artists and poets didn’t just start now, but then this thing of commercialism then made everybody just sell out. But anyway, then Basil was playing bass, then he finished and then Schilder’s brother failed, I guess he was still new at bass, whatever, ‘C’mon man,’ they always called these new guys, ‘C’mon pellie,’ Sammy was calling everyone ‘Ou pellie’, ‘C’mon pellie, c’mon pellie’. And it was nice because it was not a matter of he’s a coloured or this or that. If you played and if you had something to say… ‘C’mon pellie! C’mon pellie! C’mon broer!’ you know? All these guys, Chris and them, it was all, but you had to have the nerve to take that, I mean you had to really be very loose, and if you comfortable with yourself, someone would say, ‘C’mon ou pellie, c’mon man’ ’cos I was laughing, with Tete, another piano player was playing, so they called Chris Schilder and his brother, Basil say ‘C’mon ou pellie.’ So Sammy Maritz, took the bass, Sammy was a hell of a guy too now, a hell of a bass player. ’Cos he used to tell these guys, Louis and them, ‘Fuck you!’ I mean if anybody would fuck up, fortunately with me I was light though, I don’t know, my attitude or whatever, I was very light, ’cos I’ve seen people trying to manipulate in the scene itself, people manipulate each other, so Sammy liked me, another bass player, really accepted me. So Sammy was playing, ’cos he used to turn around, we knew Sammy’s sound, if you stood outside you knew Sammy’s playing, and Martin Gijima, that’s another bass player, I don’t know if you know him? They call him Lily, man he was phew! We would call him a horse, he was a horse, that guy kicked on bass. So anyway he was there, and he’s always shy, the guy was always neat, a jacket and tie, very neat. So Sammy didn’t like this guy because of this, I mean this is a personal thing of you just look at somebody and say ‘Ay man!’ So Sammy was playing and the minute he look at the corner, ’cos everyone who plays would look, while he playing he looks at you there, funny eyes (laughs), even if you wanted to sit in you say, ‘No no fuck it I won’t do this.’ So Sammy looked, and he looked at me and he was winking, so Lily came in, and Sammy changed, man! Also he was overplaying himself now, you could hear from the hit of the strings, and I know that this guy Lily was good on up tempo (knocks on the table with his knuckles). ’Cos him and Louis now this when they take these tempos up there… So Sammy, kind of guy who’s laid back, was, you know, bouncing. So when Lily came in, and Lily knew that everybody would be playing, and Sammy looked at him, grinning, so he finished… ‘Anybody else want to sit in?’ There’s always somebody sitting at the piano, so Lily came in, so he said, OK let’s sit in, Louis, Lily, Tete, and these three were very good together, they had some kind of intellectual unity going on with these three, as a trio, but in a level of both using it as, because Lily came with this intellectual thing, somehow when his presence was there, these guys started coming up, and they started this tempo, on this Milestones (clicks his fingers very fast), sjoe! So we were standing there, so Sammy looks at Basil and Basil looks at me and I look at Schilder, so Sammy says, ‘Damn, he’s doing it again, I don’t know where he gets this shit from, where does he get this shit?!’ Now Mongezi! Mongezi is wiping out Dennis’ bottom! He’s kicking his ass man! So these guys now they had a thing of, they will come in, they play a set where you cannot fit in, making you ridiculous, if you sit with them they play games with you, with chords and notes in a song, like Mackay used to do, he play a song, a riff, a rhythm and then finish half a bar before you finish and you think it’s all over and the whole thing is paralysed, it’s a rhythm you know, like a crab, everybody complaining, ‘No, Mackay, don’t play like this, I don’t want to play with Mackay.’ And he did it purposely. So there were all these games of teaching you how to handle things, which is education.
I did this interview with Johnny in the offices of the Dutch Anti-Apartheid Movement (AABN) on the Lauriergracht 116 in Amsterdam in December 1985. Mbizo was in Amsterdam as part of a tour I had organised called the Radio Freedom Christmas Tour. The object of the concerts was to raise money for Radio Freedom (the ANC broadcaster in Tanzania and Ethiopia) and also raise awareness among the broader Dutch public about apartheid. The tour included dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah, a reggae band from Holland called Revelation Time and a Ghanian hi-life band called Kumbi Saleh. Johnny performed as part of a duo with the Harlem percussionist Emmanuel Abdul-Ibrahim.
Melkweg, Amsterdam, Wednesday, 25 December 1985. Banner painted by Simon Dunkley.
We had been talking a lot on the bus, about marabi, about the origins of the music called “jazz” in South Africa, the American influence, and so it seemed logical at some point to try to formalise these talks into an “interview”. Obviously I had very little to say, only very occasionally prodding Johnny on, but he was a great talker, he could effortlessly talk for hours and so the tapes got filled. We started working on putting his dream band together, which would include Tete Mbambisa and Barney Rachabane from home. We called them both, from the Anti-Apartheid Movement offices which in retrospect was possibly silly, those phones were probably tapped, but anyway, they were both very keen to join the band that would include Gilbert Matthews on drums and John Tchicai on tenor. But all of this was not to be. Johnny passed, tragically onstage in 1986, ten months after we did the interview.