Sometime in late 1978 I bought a new album by Abdullah Ibrahim, whom I had previously known as Dollar Brand. The album was The Journey, and it was my introduction to Johnny Dyani’s bass playing. I remember being fascinated, and elated, by the sounds captured in those grooves, and in particular the bass playing. Simply put, I was stunned, especially by the arco playing on the longest tune, The Journey.
Soon after that I met Johnny in Stockholm, and he invited me to become part of his band, which proved to be a constantly shifting group of musicians and ensembles, much like his compositions, which often changed form from one rehearsal or concert to the next, depending on how Johnny felt the vibe at the moment.
I played with Johnny off and on from 1979 to 1986. It was through him that I met and played with so many great South African musicians, first and foremost Dudu Pukwana, Bheki Mseleku and Gilbert Matthews. The first quartet was myself and Dudu on saxophones, Johnny, and Churchill Jolobe on drums. The great Turkish drummer Okay Temiz was originally in the band but he and Johnny fell out, seriously, at the start of a UK tour and Okay left suddenly. Brian Abrahams filled in briefly before Churchill came in to finish the tour, as well as a number of other concerts in Europe.
That was in the beginning of my time with Johnny, 1979-1980. There was another quartet that existed briefly in 1981, with Bheki on tenor and Gilbert Matthews or Leroy Lowe on drums.
It’s hard for me to put these things into words.
To play with Johnny was to suddenly find oneself in an intense, constantly evolving atmosphere of sound where anything could happen.
If Johnny brought a new tune to a rehearsal, I would write it down, and make a sketch of the form. Often, that sketch would be obsolete by the next run-through of the tune. And Dudu, especially, had his own interpretation of many of those tunes, having played them for years, and it often didn’t match Johnny’s new idea of the form, which I would try to follow. But after a while all that just became another aspect of freedom, it really didn’t matter, just…LISTEN.
Johnny was often traveling, playing and recording with a number of American, European and African musicians, such as the Brotherhood of Breath, Pierre Dørge’s New Jungle Orchestra, Don Cherry and Abdullah Ibrahim, among many others. He was known around the world, and he helped spread the great wealth and beauty of South African music and culture, as well as the raw facts of the horrors that were taking place in his homeland, to which he could not return.
In spite of his fame and his formidable discography, he found it extremely difficult to find work in Scandinavia, especially in Sweden. I believe these two factors – being forced to live in exile, and having to struggle to find work in his adapted new home, contributed somehow to his early demise. He was a warm, generous soul with a wondrous sense of humor, but there was a darkness and a sadness too. It all came out in his music, his playing and his compositions.
Playing with Johnny was as close I ever came to the fire, the spirit, the place where we feel at one with the totality of it all, the past, present and future, all and nothing at all. Spiritual.
The things I would feel when listening to Ascension or A Love Supreme or The Journey for that matter, those things I felt playing with Johnny. It took us beyond…it was here and now, but it could take you way beyond…