This interview with Johnny Mbizo Dyani is an extraordinary document and deserves to be studied closely as a valuable addition to the burgeoning studies of one of South Africa’s greatest bassists. There are numerous insights into Dyani’s music and into the music of South Africa in general. A member of a transitional period in history and the anchor of perhaps the single most important band to go into exile, Dyani’s revision of the history and importance of the Blue Notes comports much better with Bra Louis Moholo’s depiction than it does with Maxine McGregor’s, placing Dudu Pukwana as the spiritual and creative leader of the band rather than Chris McGregor. In the words of Mbizo, if Chris was the arranger, Dudu was the composer. And it was Pukwana who taught Chris to play mbaqanga, thereby transforming his entire oeuvre.
Chris McGregor certainly paid his dues and history shall never lose sight of his importance. This interview, however, is between two people who knew and trusted one another and thus it has a candor and free-wheeling energy that can easily be absent from a formal exercise like an interview. The dynamics between brother McGregor and his comrades was far less hierarchical than is widely known. In the politicized space of the subaltern these black jazz musicians were quite defiant, even cheeky. In fact, humor is a primary force apparently that eased the absurdities of the apartheid era regime with its oppressive policies and interactions. Even with the police the Blue Notes did not cower before authority. They were fully aware of their importance, their excellence and cultural relevance, and absurdity did not diminish that.
Especially poignant are the portraits of Dudu Pukwana and Nick Moyake who could both be described as militant. And it was Dudu (echoing the sentiments of Nick) who charged Chris with the missive “don’t sell out!”. Everyone was aware of what that meant in this context. Not to fall into the trap of accepting racial hierarchy when it was convenient (like when the police were harassing you), or watering down the social practices of marabi when the commercial form of mbaqanga took over after the state’s near destruction of marabi culture. Even the term commercial is complicated in this narrative. For instance, Johnny considered playing bass guitar mbaqanga style with rock bands. There is a distinction made between Hugh Masekela’s forays into the elysian fields of America versus the artistry of Miriam Makeba, and Jonas Gwangwa. Dyani’s descriptions of his peers and his elders back home are also worth the price of admission. He provides an insider’s view to South African jazz culture in East London, Cape Town and elsewhere, paying attention to generational differences, stylistic struggles and the like. He is very eloquent in his defense of the spiritual integrity of the music and the ever thorny question of the role of American jazz for South African musos. Again, this is not only an entertaining look at the music it is downright insightful.