This mix explores Johnny Dyani’s expression of Islam through sound, via his own compositions and through collaborations with pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and drummer Okay Temiz. It also explores the spiritual side of his music, rooted deeply in Xhosa tradition, by paying particular attention to his voice and genius as a vocalist, in addition to being a bassist.
The Voice of Akhir
A striking image describes how deeply bassist and composer Johnny Dyani was affected by Islam. “I remember the first day that I saw Johnny. He was very much ahead of his time. Because he had converted to Islam…he had the half moon and the star sign carved out in his head, and that was all the hair that he had. The rest was shaved off”. He wore brown hipster sunglasses. His stepson, Thomas Akuru Dyani, describes this bewildering moment in Copenhagen, sometime during the 70s, meeting the man he would come to regard as his father. As a child, he thought “he looked like something out of a space movie”.
A sadness followed Dyani throughout his life. He did not know his real birthdate or who his real mother was for many years. He later found out she died giving birth to him, along with what would have been two other siblings. This would haunt Dyani over years. He had left South Africa when he was still a teenager, carrying with him the heaviness of apartheid – into a cold European existence. It is perhaps this darkness that drew him to the light and peace that Islam offered.
Dyani began singing in church and his first bass was a single-string made from a teabox and a stick. He sang in a few vocal groups and at the age of 11, joined Tete Mbambisa’s group The Junior Four Yanks as a lead vocalist. The senior version of this group would eventually lead him to Cape Town. In 1964, he left South Africa with The Blue Notes, and lived the rest of his years in exile.
The best and only way to learn about Johnny Dyani is through his music. His records are a joy to spend time with, due to his incredibly diverse range as a player, composer and singer. Little exists through books or interviews about him and the documentation that does exist, is extremely hard to find. Hence, the only way to know Johnny is through his music.
His connection with Islam is best experienced through sound, through the albums he recorded, with pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and drummer Okay Temiz.
Ibrahim met Dyani when The Blue Notes arrived in Zurich in 1964. “They were sleeping on the beach, the whole band. We were in Zurich and arranged for them to come there,” he says.
Many years later, Ibrahim persuaded Dyani to convert to Islam.“When I took the Shahadah, we started talking about it, and I said to him, ‘This Muslim thing works for me!’ – and then he took the Shahada. That is the first basic affirmation, to accept that there is no other God but Allah, and that Muhammed is his messenger… Johnny became a Muslim and it was of immense importance to him.” Shahadah refers to a testimony or Islamic oath, which affirms the pillars of Islam. A single and honest recitation of the Shahadah in arabic is all that is required for someone to become Muslim.
“Wherever he went, he kept with him a well-worn copy of the Penguin Book’s edition of N.J.Dawood’s English translation of the Quran,” – Lars Rasmussen notes in his book, Mbizo – A Book about Johnny Dyani. “He also owned Idara Ishaat-E-Diniyat’s Teachings of Islam, and subscribed to Muslim News Scandinavia.” Johnny’s vast tape collection also included a home-made tape labelled “Music in the world of Islam.”
He took the name Akhir (meaning the last or ultimate) and while he rarely used it – he is credited as Johnny Akhir Dyani on The Journey album by Ibrahim. The duo would record several important albums together. “The constellation of Johnny, deeply rooted in a Xhosa background, and Abdullah, who grew up in the middle of the musical syncretism of Cape Town, both now being united in the Muslim faith, produced music of remarkable, perhaps unsurpassed, beauty,” Rasmussen notes.
Ibrahim’s recordings with Dyani combined Xhosa influences with Islamic spirituality in vocals and in sound. From Good News From Africa (1973) Adhan and Allah-O-Akbar feature the duo singing the daily Islamic call to prayer. Their beautiful rendition of Ntsikana’s Bell includes several praise calls and Quranic phrases. On Echoes From Africa (1979) Zikr includes a type of gadat or recitation in remembrance of Allah, calling out in praise some of the devotional names of the creator.
“Johnny’s sound on that bass, it was tremendous. He was remarkable – that sound, that beautiful, beautiful sound. And he really understood the interconnectedness, we saw it as total timing, a timeline with no break. That is the African experience. He understood it.” – Ibrahim says.
Ibrahim says their work together opened things because they could delve into traditional sounds. For him, Ntsikana’s Bell, “was not only playing the music, but reaffirming history. We were actually consolidating our background experience, our history. And we found out that it was valid.”
On exploring the Xhosa tradition, Ibrahim said, “So, with Johnny I touched the Xhosa tradition, and it’s massive what you can do with it! We experienced it and expanded on it and it opened a freedom for us. It allows you space.
When you play bebop, you fill out a space. When you play our music, we don’t play notes, you just play space! Play the silence!”
The brilliant singer, Sathima Bea Benjamin met Dyani at the same time that Ibrahim did and took care of the young Blue Notes in those early days in Zurich. The pair would develop a deep connection. “I took to Johnny right away; he was so very young, had the most infectious laugh, and he laughed often. His bright eyes would shine with an unusual intensity.” He was about 17 at the time.
Benjamin said that she had received a letter from Johnny years later, writing “to thank me for always giving him an ear and being there to listen, and said that from that moment on he would call me “Sathima”, a name from his people which means “someone with a kind heart”. I told Abdullah about this name, which sounded like music to me, and decided to add it to Bea Benjamin, So, thanks to Johnny Dyani, I now have this name. I love it.”
Dyani also recorded an album with drummer Okay Temiz in Turkey in 1976 of which one composition affirms his spiritual affiliation. The very funk-driven Ben Muslummanim / I Am a Muslim Man has gone under the radar by scholars of music. Another composition appears as Elhamdulillah Marimba, which later performed as Mama Marimba on the Black Paladins album which features Joseph Jarman and Don Moye.
Percussionist Mohamed Al-Jabry, who performed with Dyani extensively in his band Witchdoctor’s Son says, “He was a very deep believer and he baptized me himself, as a Muslim. And this is one other thing, a love of Arabic music and the Quran. He felt that he got a comfort and good feeling from it.”
Al-Jabry continues, “He would have a lot of music on a cassette, and he always had some beautiful Arabic music, or the Quran or music from West Africa. At that time there were no earphones, you just plugged it in so everyone could hear. After we had been playing a concert, coming from Gothenburg or Stockholm on the train, he blasted the tape recorder, just as loud as possible, so that everybody, the whole train could hear the music! I could see people on the train saying ‘Oh My God’…and Johnny gave no fucks about it! People either stayed where they sat or they moved away from us! That was one part of the beautiful person Johnny was.”
Johnny Akhir ‘Mbizo’ Dyani died after a performance in Berlin on 26 October 1986. His final chants to his audience were the words,
“Think, think, think! It is good for you.”
It is believed that he was 39 years old. There was little money to bring him back home. Various contributions were made by fans, other exiles and musicians, and in three days, $9000 was raised to send his body back to be buried on home soil. He had returned home after 22 years and is buried in the Eastern Cape. Strangely enough, he was given a Christian burial despite the fact that he was Muslim.
“He would play his bass, and everybody would be quiet, man! There’s only four strings on a bass, but he would use maybe only one of them! Or none of them! He would just use any other part of the bass and he would tell a story. Like using a little gap between the string and the neck, and brace up there. He’d spend 5 minutes just in that area of the bass! No other musician had been daring that. They wouldn’t dare! He just didn’t care! And he was all from the heart. He was all from the heart. That to me was his magic. Incredible spirit. That to me, that’s Johnny,” his son Thomas recalls.
* All quotes and references are taken from Mbizo – A Book About Johnny Dyani by Lars Rasmussen (The Booktrader, Copenhagen, 2003).