Johnny. Bass player of the Blue Notes. A smile. Concentration. Freedom. Creation. Witchdoctor’s Son. Copenhagen. Sweden. A father for Thomas Dyani, conga player in the Brotherhood of Breath.
Growing up in Monclar d’Agenais, in the South of France in the ’70s, I was too small to physically recall the man. My childhood is rife with memories of acquaintances, mostly adults, atmospheres with music wafting through the house, people talking, cooking, smoking, playing… I seem to remember Dudu Pukwana’s big voice but perhaps I’ve just made that up from the black and white photos in my mother, Maxine McGregor’s albums…
The Blue Notes. As people, they sometimes seem remote to me, but as characters their momentous, life-shaping decisions and experiences are part of me, their individual and collective song travels as I travel, in the air, warming it and sweetening it. Then I discovered Witchdoctor’s SonWitchdoctor’s Son, Steeplechase, 1978, Johnny Dyani with Dudu Pukwana and John Tchicai on one of my father, Chris McGregor’s many cassette tapes lying around the house. That’s all there was written on it. At the time I didn’t know who the Son was. Perhaps I still don’t. But I carry that sound around with me.
That sheer cry for life, that beautiful flow, and for me that’s Johnny. We were in the countryside in France, a rich, life-giving natural environment, the birds, hawks, butterflies, snakes, foxes, roedeer, bees, ants and beetles will always be part of my life. But the rich, life-giving chant of music came from far overseas, a place some of the adults around me called HOME, a place where, my father used to say, the sunset was special, because it was an African sunset, and the spikes on the trees were bigger, and the snakes were deadlier, black mambas he called them.
Exile. As a budding young musician I longed for folk music to dig my roots into, I wondered where the folk music of this countryside had gone. I wondered where my country was. The kids at school made it clear to me that I wasn’t French and didn’t belong. My mother tongue is English but when I travelled to England as a teenager I realised there was a lot I didn’t know about England and the English. I wasn’t South-African either, though…
I can only guess what it might have been like to live in exile, to leave everything you know and go off to a strange continent and have a go at life out there, in places where some people will forever consider you a stranger, but Johnny and the Blue Notes have created a musical home for me, a direction, like a star lighting up the night. Johnny always reminds me of the driving force, and I still discover a lot when rapturously reading Lars Rasmussen’s beautiful book, simply entitled Mbizo – A book About Johnny DyaniLars Rasmussen, Mbizo: A Book about Johnny Dyani (Copenhagen: The Booktrader) . This gives a lasting impression of the man’s creativity: beautiful, inspiring drawings, uplifting poems and interviews that give food for thought.
“MUSIC IS OUR RELIGION,”
Johnny and Mongezi chantedRecited by Johnny Dyani and Mongezi Feza during a concert in Belgium, November 7, 1969, as recounted in Lars Rasmussen, Mbizo: A Book about Johnny Dyani (Copenhagen: The Booktrader) , and yes, I can definitely relate to such spirituality. Mongezi is my South-African given name, and when I listen to the song Magwaza on Witchdoctor’s Son – or is it “Witchdoctor’s Song”?- I always fancy Johnny is singing our family name, an africanised version of the “McGregor” of Scottish origin.
Well, origins are also our creation, and Johnny Mbizo Dyani is certainly a forefather for me, a trailblazer, a unique torchbearer lighting my way in this passage of life.
“Having a friend like you
Is to have confidence.From “A Dedication”, on the backliner of the album Music for Xaba, Sonet SNTF-642, as recounted in Lars Rasmussen, Mbizo: A Book about Johnny Dyani (Copenhagen: The Booktrader) ”
Johnny, these are your words, and your being and your creations give me confidence, in music, in human beings, in the song of life, in poems, in dreams, in our ancestors.
“We will, re-member, Mbizo!”, that’s one of my favourite chants on the beautiful album by District Six – To Be FreeDistrict Six – To Be Free, Editions EG – EGED 53, 1987.
Thank you, Mbizo.
Bordeaux, France, Monday May 23rd, 2022.
The portrait of Chris McGregor on this page is a painting by David Barkham, oil on canvas, 80x60cm. Reproduction in herri by kind permission of the artist.
|1.||Witchdoctor’s Son, Steeplechase, 1978, Johnny Dyani with Dudu Pukwana and John Tchicai|
|2.||Lars Rasmussen, Mbizo: A Book about Johnny Dyani (Copenhagen: The Booktrader)|
|3.||Recited by Johnny Dyani and Mongezi Feza during a concert in Belgium, November 7, 1969, as recounted in Lars Rasmussen, Mbizo: A Book about Johnny Dyani (Copenhagen: The Booktrader)|
|4.||From “A Dedication”, on the backliner of the album Music for Xaba, Sonet SNTF-642, as recounted in Lars Rasmussen, Mbizo: A Book about Johnny Dyani (Copenhagen: The Booktrader)|
|5.||District Six – To Be Free, Editions EG – EGED 53, 1987|