Lars Rasmussen: During the last years of his life, Johnny Dyani called his music sk’enke. How did Johnny explain the term sk’enke?
Lefifi Tladi: Sk’enke is tsotsitaal.
Gilbert Matthews: It’s sharing, communally. I don’t know how Afrikaans it is, but I think it comes from Afrikaans.The Afrikaans word skenk means to give. The spelling sk’enke was conceived by Johnny Dyani. Johnny had lost a lot of the meanings, because of time. He left South Africa so young, so he was mixing a lot of things, which didn’t have the same volume or meaning as to what it actually means. You know, Johnny would say things … I remember we were sitting at Fasching with Lefifi, and I was saying, It makes me so sick to see these musicians with white shirts and kitty-bows – that was our word in Afrikaans for bow ties, and Johnny was saying, Gilbert, Gilbert, you are bringing back memories! He lost the meaning of a lot of things in Xhosa, he would say something and then he would divert, and I would say, What are you really trying to say? I mean, you can see with the titles, because he was trying to find his roots, I mean, Pukwana, then Ithi-Gqi, same tune, and the next, he says, No, man it should be Appear. Pukwana, Ithi-gqi and Appear are three titles used by Johnny Dyani for the same tune. So he was mixing a lot of things up.
LT: You see, from what I remember, this sk’enke, it’s actually meaning for musicians to share creatively, like you pour a certain dynamic into you and then you can take it back, just like Gilbert, he is ‘skanking’ now. So we can ‘skanka’ musicially. That was within a kind of poetic context that we can understand that concept of sk’enke.
GM: Well, Johnny couldn’t really explain, I mean, he was so creative, and he never made time for himself to find out, you know. I remember, Lefifi used to be performing together with us, a couple of times, reciting poetry, and I would say, What do you mean, Johnny, with this? And he would say, No, don’t go into detail now, we just play the music, I mean, Sk’enke is marabi. I know, as Lefifi said, we share communally, like I just said now.
LT: But using that within the context of music. I remember, we used to have some very intellectual discussions. I brought two drawings. This one, you remember, it was part of that series, because I made a lot of drawings which I gave to those creative musicians. This was for Johnny. And then later, I did this one.
That’s chemistry. In the context of taking this thing … Chris McGregor, Gilbert, I made a big series of these drawings, on how African music should be written, and that’s the nearest way I could come up with Johnny’s form of playing. And then this was another drawing … We had a good meeting in South Africa, a commemoration concert for Johnny, because we thought most of the people were beginning to forget Johnny. And this is the part I really would like to talk more about, Johnny as a musician and a creative person, how we perceived the whole thing. And the thing was that, you see, when you look at the history of South African music in exile, there are two branches, there is the South African music with musicians in exile in Europe, and the South African music in exile with musicians in America. And when you take these two, it’s two different musics. And the music of South African musicians in America hasn’t developed in the concept of creativity.
Then you start with The Blue Notes per se. The whole contribution of The Blue Notes until The Blue Notes kind of collapses, then Chris McGregor came with another dimension. And what is happening at the same time, we got Makaya Ntshoko, and then we got Gilbert Matthews. Now, when you look at the dimension of Brus Trio per se, and what Makaya is doing, and the other dimension of Louis [Moholo] playing on his own, especially in this very fantastic recording called Unlawful NoiseThe album Unlawful Noise recorded by Kees Hazevoet in 1976.. It was recorded in Holland. And all this development. And then Julian [Bahula]’s music wasn’t in any way creative on the level of improvisation, if you follow what I mean. And now, the important thing is that if you look at Johnny as an individual, he has played with the most fantastic American musicians, Hamiet Bluiett, Roscoe Mitchell, Carlos Ward, David Murray, and especially the collaboration with David Murray from Let the Music Take You, Interboogieology, and Last of the Hipmen, way out!
And then if you take these Norwegian musicians, this Backwards / ForwardsThe album Backwards and Forwards, recorded by Detail in 1982.. And once you look at the level of creativity on that level which gives South African music another dimension and gives it an incredible scope, and then you look at what was happening when The Blue Notes came to London, they revolutionised the whole Caribbean musicians and gave them another dimension, especially after the concert they did with Ornette. Because that is a very beautiful story, when Chris McGregor is relating it, do you remember at the club in Gamla Stang, the first one to play was Ornette, and they played. And then the next session was The Blue Notes. So Johnny was asking, what is the first song? And Chris told him, Do you remember at home, how we used to tune? He says, Yes! – That’s the first song! [laughs] And then they gathered momentum. And even Courtney Pine says it, that it was the South Africans that really made us play like fantastic, and especially Dave Holland, and this was a little embarrassing, because I wanted to listen to this gig at Fasching, and then Johnny was there, and Dave said, I wanna give you thousand kroner, so you can go and drink, I don’t feel comfortable when you are seated there! And we went out and got blasted! [laughs] So all of this kind of things, I think, for me, really indicative to this dimension where the indigenous music, especially when you look at this tribute to MongeziThe album Blue Notes for Mongezi, recorded by The Blue Notes in 1975..
LT: And, for me, I have always looked at the relationship in terms of any developing society, how the music of The Blue Notes was so much in line with the development of the visual arts! You get it? Because you could find a lot of relationships with Jackson Pollack, and you know … and transposing tradition within a visual context, and that is the thing I think it makes a hell of a difference. When you take the music that was played by Hughie [Masekela] and transpose it into a painting, it’s just an ordinary social realistic kind of painting. You get it? It’s not challenging, you see?
And the working relationship, the contact Johnny always had with artists, with Harvey Cropper, Dumile Feni, Clifford Jackson, and things like that, which gives you another level, it’s a weakness, actually, that musicians in general in South Africa have always only contact with musicians. And if you sit down and talk to them about poetry, they don’t know a shit. You talk to them about photography, they don’t know nothing! You talk to them about dance, they don’t know anything! Let alone painting. You get it? And you can see, even when Johnny used Harvey Cropper’s paintings for his album Born Under The Heat, with this Lesotho hat, it comes on another level of consciousness.
LT: And that is the thing I am trying to pinpoint, that all these things, we should try to look at Johnny’s music in terms of levels of consciousness. And I was trying to pinpoint out, on this tribute to Mongezi, there is a certain part where he does these chants, and calls Mongezi’s name, and that is the most touching part, because it’s so ethnic [sings]. And this is for me where you get goose pimples, reaching the essence of the musician. And on the same level, you can see how tributes have always been done, for Mongezi in a very good thing, and then, for Dudu, and now, in Denmark I think they did something for Johnny, this Witchdoctor’s Son, I’m not very certain, and now it’s Louis who’s left. And this is the thing I always liked about Johnny’s level of consciousness. But then, at the same time, I have other very critical views where Johnny started changing. And this I remember very very distinctively, that when we came from an arrangement in Amsterdam, and Johnny was given the post of the cultural ambassador or cultural representative for the ANC here, and working within this political context changed his total way of perception. And you can see, especially for me, from my own critical perspective, how this music that was here, goes down into this kind of social realistic thing, tributes, and things like that, which for me those political statements have been much more covered in the early period, than when it comes to this kind of party dimension.
LT: And we talked a little bit, but Johnny, as Gilbert pointed it out earlier, could be very evasive at some times. Just dismissed it, because he didn’t want to deal with the situation. And even Gilbert with Gwangwa on some of his things brings this mediocre American dimension into the musical feeling. And that period doesn’t give me any Johnny Dyani, the creative genius.
And you can see, for example, the best, I think, record I’ve ever heard, is Fruits with Phillip Wilson, and you can hear Johnny’s running away with these boys, I mean, totally, they’re just catching the wind! I mean, it’s basically a solo bass recording and the accompaniment is just there and they never really come to grips with what Johnny’s doing. And that’s the real, when I talk about a creative genius, and that’s the whole thing, with the concept of this freeing African music, that it is two-dimensional, that the first tone of freeing African music, it’s the African music that gives you freedom, freeing African music. And then freeing African music on another tone, means giving African music freedom, you get it? And this was the dimension in which we were discussing.
I wrote a long poem for Johnny which I read on the commemoration at Kungsgatan, shortly after his death, which was just based on the titles of Johnny’s music, I just took all the titles and then weaved them together. And then the last line was, As Johnny would say, we shouldn’t moan, because death ain’t negative.
LT: And it’s so funny because in Zambia, during this thing, Lindy Mabuza was reading poetry, and there was this singing Gambian, Hey, we want music! More music! And Johnny just put his bass down, and then Whack! Whack! [shows how Johnny hit the man] and then went back and took his bass and just continued. And that Zambian was silent all night, like a good schoolboy! [laughs]
LR: Tell me about the Botswana event.
LT: Yeah, that was a very funny event in Botswana, this Arts and Resistance, the first disappointing thing … but the story behind it, because when Johnny came to Botswana, the bass got fucked up in Italy … Then Johnny has no bass, and Botswana is, I mean Gaborone is a small town. By some fluke, Wally [Serote]- finds out that there’s a guy who has a bass, so we all go to this cat’s place, and who’s bass is that? Johnny Gertze’s! I mean, it was such a hell of a coincidence, so that, okay, the gig is tomorrow, Friday. Then he says, No, this is too much of a coincidence! We have to make slaughters! So we organized to buy a sheep and had this fantastic … I mean, that was the first time I saw Johnny really positively happy. And then to have all this fuzzy-wuzzy, because none of us really knew what was … but we all improvised around this whole ceremony, and then we were eating and drinking, and it was all very, very beautiful. And then everybody thought that Dollar [Brand] was going to do a few things with Johnny, just for the historic perspective, you know. And then Dollar just refused! Not playing with drunkards! And then we heard, there were a lot of conferences, you know, about boycotts and things like that and how does the music scene work in terms of the boycott. And then Johnny had this thing that, Okay, it’s good, we can boycott these things. But the ANC itself, again in Amsterdam, why don’t you organize your own goddamn recording studio? So when we boycott these people, then we know we can begin to produce our own stuff. And we had a guy like Caiphus [Semenya] who has nearly all the recording equipment. But these were some of the questions which could not be dealt with. The whole issue of so-called American music imperialism. And these were things that couldn’t be resolved, because the politicians who are not culturally aware couldn’t provide any damn answers to all these big questions.
GM: I remember when Johnny and Lefifi came back from Botswana, Johnny was very sad, because I couldn’t go with, but when he told me the problems, I thought, Thanks God, I wasn’t there! I said, Man, can you see, I got that sixth sense, I can smell … [laughs]
LT: I met him the first time in Nigeria, and didn’t he give me these beautiful white Levi’s and shoes and nice t-shirts, and actually, we were even making a joke that when he came to Nigeria, he had actually thirty kilos of clothes, and when he left, he didn’t even have ten kilos. He was giving everybody. I was writing to him a lot, I don’t know what happened to the letters, and he sent us a few cards with ‘Love and peace, Brother’. And Geoff has about four of these, and he says, When I pack, these are the most valuable things.
LR: Who is Geoff?
LT: Geoff Mphakati. He’s a music fanatic and historian.
LT: A guy like Johnny, just his contributions, I mean by now, we should have a little goddamn Johnny Dyani museum, especially when we talk about this heritage day, where people can go, just Johnny’s photographs, his bass …
LR: Tell me about the Festac’77 in Lagos. Was this where you first met Johnny?
LT: Yes. He was playing with Dudu, Louis, and this other conga player from Senegal, I can’t remember his name. And it was a fantastic situation, I mean meeting all these people, and I was even telling him, We made this commemoration for you in South Africa. I like Johnny more within this intellectual music context, get it? And this just hanging out with artists and poets, we performed a lot together, music and poetry, at Fasching at things like that. And one important event at Fasching, that was Johnny and Gilbert and Bheki Mseleku, just a trioThe only performance of Johnny Dyani and Bheki Mseleku at Fasching I have been able to identify took place in October 1980, and was actually a quartet performance with Gilbert Matthews on drums and Ed Epstein on alto sax. The band was announced as Watusis., and they played and I remember it was so terrible, because I started crying like ten devils chasing one Christian, and Gilbert was there, and Johnny was trying to cool it, and I wished this could be happening in Africa, because it was elating – whew! I never cried that much in my entire life.
LR: When was this?
LT: ’84, I think.
GM: This piano player Bheki Mseleku, he’s like Johnny, he’s a genius! They say a cat has seven lives, but this guy has ten lives. He’s like a generator, he never stops. He never stops, I mean, we used to practise, practise, practise with him. But he’s also a very instable, impossible motherfucker. I mean, Johnny said to him, Bheki, this is a world trio, just stay together and make this beautiful music. No, I’m not sure I want to play with you guys, I’m moving to England!
LT: And then Bheki got into this Scientology bullshit. And then one day, I cooked such nice food, and he said, No, I’m a vegetarian! And I said, a Zulu vegetarian, what madness is this? Zulus are meat eaters, and now you are getting vegetarian, are you crazy man?
LR: You must tell me about your performances with Johnny.
LT: They were good. Because the thing was, what made it unique, was that I was beginning to this consciousness where I was now writing in my language and moving away from writing in English. And for Johnny, that was the kicking part.
LR: Your language is Xhosa?
LT: No, Sepedi. My mother is Xhosa, but I write in Sepedi and seTswana.
LR: Johnny didn’t know these languages?
LT: No, he knew a little seTswana, you know, this ‘Hey, how are you’ thing. But his Xhosa wasn’t that horrible. I mean, our languages are spoken languages, you have to speak it. I was so surprised that Catharine, the mother to my children, can read German, but not speak it. It’s impossible, there’s no way you can read a language and then you can’t speak it. But that was then I started realising the differences between spoken and written languages.
LR: How did a performance go with you and Johnny?
LT: I remember one in Copenhagen with John Tchicai, and the funny part about it, it really was very, very good. But then the payment was something very wishy-washy. They paid Johnny, because he was the one that organized the gig. Then John Tchicai said, What the fuck is this? And he took the money from Johnny and said,
My mother is motherfucking Danish, I’m going to speak to them as a white man! And came with five times what they had paid Johnny. And John paid us 2,000 kroner each, and Johnny had been given about 500 or something.
LR: How would you describe Johnny?
LT: I think he was a very intense musician who should have lived at least another fucking hundred years!
This interview was first published in Lars Rasmussen’s MBIZO – A Book about Johnny Dyani (The Booktrader, Copenhagen, 2003). Re-published in herri with kind permission of Lefifi Tladi and Lars Rasmussen.
|The Afrikaans word skenk means to give. The spelling sk’enke was conceived by Johnny Dyani.
|Pukwana, Ithi-gqi and Appear are three titles used by Johnny Dyani for the same tune.
|The album Unlawful Noise recorded by Kees Hazevoet in 1976.
|The album Backwards and Forwards, recorded by Detail in 1982.
|The album Blue Notes for Mongezi, recorded by The Blue Notes in 1975.
|The only performance of Johnny Dyani and Bheki Mseleku at Fasching I have been able to identify took place in October 1980, and was actually a quartet performance with Gilbert Matthews on drums and Ed Epstein on alto sax. The band was announced as Watusis.