The Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath - Marching to a Different Drum

The Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath - Marching to a Different Drum
Duncan Heining By

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Early one August morning in 1964, seven people crossed the border by train passing from South Africa into Mozambique. It was an unusual group of people—five black men, one white man and one white woman. Any "mixing of the races" was, of course, immediately suspicious in apartheid South Africa. The six men—Louis Moholo-Moholo, Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani and Nikele Moyake—made up The Blue Notes. South Africa's only multi-racial jazz group was ostensibly travelling via Mozambique to Paris and then to the South of France to play at the jazz festival in Juan Les Pins. The woman was Maxine McGregor, partner of the group's pianist and the group's manager, publicist and often main source of financial support. It was true that they were heading for France but there was no question that they were coming back.

On the train in Mozambique, though the country was still subject to the often brutal colonial rule of the Portuguese, there was an air of freedom amongst the party, in particular the black men. For the first time, they could stand next to a white man in the bar on the train without fear of arrest. Playing gigs and touring in their native land had become harder and harder. Concerts were segregated. They might play for whites in the evening and for a black audience in the afternoon. Even though they might not have been doing anything illegal, by their very association they were always at risk.

When the Blue Notes formed in 1962, there was a great deal of interest in jazz in South Africa. Venues might have been few but the country did have a couple of festivals, sponsored by one South Africa's breweries. That fact is astonishing enough, in the context of a country that had become increasingly repressive following the Sharpeville uprising and massacre in March 1960. Nelson Mandela had been arrested in August 1962, tried and sentenced to five years imprisonment after the CIA had tipped off the South African authorities as to his whereabouts. Of even greater significance was the Rivonia Trial of 1963/4. In June 1964, eleven leaders of the banned ANC, including Mr. Mandela, were convicted of sabotage and treason, each one receiving a life sentence.

Maxine McGregor, Chris McGregor's widow, still lives in Lot-et-Garonne in France in the converted mill the family moved to in 1974. She was back in South Africa visiting family when we spoke and I asked her how a multi-racial jazz group could survive in the context of apartheid.

"The police couldn't be everywhere and the group was mostly popular amongst black people and the police didn't really know about it because they were living in a different world, as it were. Also, in the early sixties, when we were doing it, apartheid hadn't really hardened. It wasn't as strict as it was in the late sixties. It was difficult for them to survive. They moved fast and never went to the same place twice. So, the police didn't really cotton on."

Louis Moholo-Moholo is now back living in South Africa, though he still works almost entirely in Europe. He remembers vividly how McGregor would come into his township disguised as a black man, giving a whole new and radical meaning to concept of the 'black-face minstrel.'

"It was very, very tough. By chance we got by. They were heavy but they were not looking for this kind of thing. So, we would do these things under their nose. So, Chris would come to my location, from which he was banned, and he would put some black polish on his face and wear his cap to hide his hair."

McGregor's father was a pastor in one of the townships and he grew up with a love of church music, jazz and the traditional musics of South Africa. As a student, he even succeeded in persuading his liberal tutors that he might undertake a project involving the formation of a multi-racial big band. In McGregor, anti-racism was instinctive, learned through his parents' example and acquired through his own experience of African culture. The Blue Notes had come together in 1962, though as Maxine pointed out, not in their 'final' form. As with all seminal groups, it was a process of coming together and shedding personnel to produce the finished article.

"The thing is it existed in 1962 but not in the same form. It had Dudu Pukwana, Nick Moyake and Chris in it and then, after the '63 festival, they got the others -Mongezi Feza and Louis. There was another bassist and they got Johnny Dyani right at the end."

It was while McGregor was making the big band record, Jazz: The African Sound for Gallo records, that Moholo came into the picture. It's a story that has a kind of serendipitous inevitability to it. They had recorded the album but were following this up with a couple of concerts, as Maxine explained,.

"On Jazz: The African Sound another drummer called Early Mabuza was playing drums in that band. At the second night of the concerts, some people were jealous of Early and had got him drunk and he didn't turn up. Louis had been to all the performances and had seen what the drummer was doing and he just played that night and that was how he joined Chris."

It was in 1964, that The Blue Notes proper actually came together, forming in effect out of three different groups that had played at 1962 National Jazz Festival in Johannesburg. There was Chris McGregor's own septet that included Ronnie Beer, a white tenor player who would work with McGregor again in Europe. Then there was the Jazz Giants that included Dudu Pukwana and Nick Moyake and the Jazz Ambassadors with drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo. Though trumpeter Mongezi Feza was at the festival, he didn't play but met and was befriended by Dudu. The group chose their name for a very simple reason—it was anonymous and would not draw attention to the fact that it was a multi-racial group. In fact, Chris McGregor's name often didn't appear on posters and in publicity material for the same reason.

The sound of the early Blue Notes in South Africa is well captured on Proper Records' Township Bop, which features tracks from their first to their final incarnations. It's the sound of a hard-bop group inspired by Art Blakey, Max Roach with Clifford Brown and Horace Silver with perhaps a hint of Charles Mingus and, in Nick Moyake's tenor, a touch of 'Trane. Through the record's 14 tracks, it's possible to see the group emerge and grow, as first Louis and then Johnny Dyani join the group. But it's the bringing together of bop elements with the wilder music of the different tribes or 'nationalities' of their homeland, which begins to suggest something more unique and distinctive. Legacy—Live In South Africa 1964 from Ogun's Blue Notes' box set is even better, a remarkably good recording given both the time and the place.

Travelling together was clearly risky in South Africa but they had devised a number of routines to deal with the inevitable police roadblocks. As Maxine points out, "The police were always quite happy if there was a white person directing black people. Chris always used to make out that he was their teacher and they were just some people he was teaching. That's how they used to get past it. If there had been two whites, it might have been difficult. So, he would say they were his students or even they were his servants. They were his gardeners or whatever. You weren't allowed to drive with mixed people unless you were transporting your workers or students somewhere or something like that."

In the face of the ongoing state of emergency, life became ever more difficult. Forty-four years on, Louis Moholo can laugh about it but at the time it was very frightening. "Then when the state of emergency came—this was after Sharpeville and after Nelson was arrested—then it was tough. A lot of bands got disbanded. You couldn't be together—not three people, four people could not be together at the same time. So, a trio was out of the question. A quartet, maybe a hanging! (laughs)"

Oppressive regimes are by nature arbitrary, this being enough to hold a people subject and in fear. Even when they weren't breaking the law, The Blue Notes felt like fugitives in their own land. When the chance came to leave, they left with all the sense of loss, displacement and sadness that a life in exile would mean. There was no one event that led to their decision, as Maxine tells me, it was more a growing realisation. It still wasn't an easy decision for some of the group. After all, Johnny Dyani and Mongs were just 18 years old.

"They knew they wanted to go abroad, at least Chris did, because we were cut off from the European and American jazz scene," Maxine McGregor explained. "They didn't know we existed. When Louis first went to Paris and told people he played jazz, people wouldn't believe him because they thought it was a backward place. It was obvious that they would go overseas, if they could. It was partly my encouragement that we did. I got through to a mining house and asked them for money. They felt vaguely guilty about the way they were exploiting people, so they would give money for things like that and Chris wrote a very good thesis about why he wanted to go overseas and what it meant to him and it was they who gave us the money in the end."

Even with some money behind them, getting passports for the black members of the group was a huge undertaking. It involved returning with each of them to the place of their birth and obtaining affidavits as to their character from priests and teachers, who had known them. White people could get a passport for thirty shillings but an African had to put down a deposit of £100, an almost unthinkable sum.

They arrived in Paris, stayed for two weeks and headed for Juan-Les-Pins. Though, their festival performance was a success, they had no work to follow it. So, they busked on the streets of Nice with Chris on guitar, Johnny on bass and the three horn players, while Louis hustled the crowd. It was fellow South African Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand) who came to their aid.

"After the festival, we stayed on in the South of France because we didn't really know where to go," Maxine told me. "We made money to live on from busking. They were saved by Dollar Brand, Abdullah Ibrahim, who asked them to take over his residency at the Afrikana club in Zurich for a month. However, it was a very badly paying job because the six of them got the same fee that Abdullah got for just himself."
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