Louis Moholo-Moholo Interview (2005)

words & photography ©Laurence©Svirchev.com

Moholo-Moholo Power Salute

In 2005, Louis Moholo-Moholo played the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, principally in the Dedication Orchestra. The Dedication Orchestra is a large ensemble, primarily composed of British musicians, dedicated to to the repertoire of The Brotherhood of Breath and the Blue Notes. Moholo-Moholo was the drummer in those bands, the only surviving South African. I was fortunate to meet Moholo-Moholo through Mark Miller, the Globe & Mail’s jazz writer, who was interviewing Moholo-Moholo. The Globe’s photographer didn’t make the rendezvous and Miller, cognizant of the need for a photo, asked me to sub.

Mr. Moholo-Moholo gave me a nice pose, but having heard him play as if he were a Titan whose purpose was to found the bed-rock of a universe of music, I found the pose unrepresentative of the man’s inner fire. I asked him to reflect for a moment on where he came from, and he slid  immediately into the “Power Salute” of the anti-apartheid movement. Although Miller’s wonderful article explored how the young men of the Blue Notes had to flee the apartheid regime into self-exile in order to keep playing music, the Globe chose not to run the photo of the Power Salute. The editors opted for a less-provocative image containing a lovely smile. The contrast in the photos plus Miller’s interview helped me realize Moholo-Moholo had a deep story to tell.

Imagine this: Black and White musicians couldn’t play on the same stage together, and if they did the Black musician could not be seen. Moholo-Moholo tells of playing behind curtains (no wonder he developed such a big sound) and White musicians who wanted to play in Black communities put on black make-up to hide the color of their skin. More absurdity: more than three Black musicians could not play together, so no quartets or larger ensembles. Who could imagine such perverse desecrations of the universal language? What ideologues could invent such nonsense?

We met shortly before he was due at the airport for a flight back to South Africa. He was clearly elated that he was going home, a place he had only settled into recently after the long self-exile. Louis Moholo-Moholo doesn’t speak in exclamation points even when he is exclaiming. He was an “ask a question, get an answer” kind of guy, straight and matter of fact. His tone was often challenging, not because he was displaying an arrogance born out of survival of one of the toughest environments of oppression, but because he spoke from intimate knowledge.

Moholo-Moholo is an original, both in music and in words. He is the only survivor of the Blue Notes, the rest having died from debilitating diseases and homesickness. Moholo-Moholo came out of the fire and death of the dignity-defiling apartheid regime, a system of oppression as bad as or worse than the American slave South, regimes that used different terms, “apartheid” and “separate but equal”, to justify their absurd raison d’être. Moholo-Moholo might not call himself a hero, but I will. Here is what the hero told me:

Svirchev: Can you talk about why you started to play music?

Moholo-Moholo: This is something is embedded in me, I couldn’t say why or tell you how, but my ears are too big. There was a British contingency in the Simonstown army base. There was  a radio station for the army guys.  My father used to play this British radio station. You could hear Ted Heath, Big Sid Catlett, Charlie Parker. I liked what I heard and later I found out that it was jazz. I loved it and still love it today. Unfortunately, I didn’t go to school for music. I’m self-taught. I tried to go to music school but was chased away from the University of Capetown during the apartheid years. I tried to apply there and the guy wouldn’t even let me get into the premises. But I taught myself and have no regrets at all.

Being born in South Africa, I had all the equipment, all that I needed to be put in a straight line. I’m happy now that I never took that knowledge university baseline, because I took the broadest line I could get.

Svirchev: You couldn’t get into school because of apartheid?

Moholo-Moholo: Music was not encouraged by the whites. They called it “a lazy man’s music”. They said we were just lazy, messing around with drums, that we should get a proper job, which meant working in the mines or in the potato fields. That was what they called ‘work.’ Music was not considered work, and if you did play music, you were just a lazy, no-good whatever.

Svirchev: There were no schools for Black people in the country?

Moholo-Moholo: There were schools, but there were no music schools as such.

Svirchev: How do you define your nationality?

Moholo-Moholo: I’m Suthu myself. My forefathers came from Basuthu land; they travelled to the Orange Free State to work in the diamond fields. My father trickled down to Capetown where he met my mother. She was born in Capetown. I was born in Capetown as well, in St. Monica’s Hospital. I tried to get my birth certificate from St Monica’s; they destroyed it. I know that because my wife studied midwifery in St. Monica’s. Years later I got a house overlooking the hospital where I was born.

 Svirchev: Did you participate in any other forms of music other than jazz?

Moholo-Moholo: Yes, I did participate in our traditional music at some point. I went into orchestral music, not classified as jazz as such as well. I was in some kwela and bakanda, and other South African music maybe to have a stepping stone, to do things for beginners. I did go to schools like that, not actually schools but where people were playing these things, to learn from experience, not having a  tutor as such.

Svirchev: A lot of people in Canada and the United States, especially the younger generations, don’t know how nefarious those times were. Can you talk about playing music in those years?

Moholo-Moholo: For a start, I used to play with Black and White people when we were not supposed to play at all together. That was bad enough. But when it came to the State of Emergency, bands like quartets, no four people could gather together. But we had a White cat playing with us, that was Chris McGregor. That was out of order as far as they were concerned. Chris McGregor used to paint himself Black with black polish and pull a cap down so only his eyes were showing when he came to the Townships.

I used to play with White cats, but I would play behind a curtain! I did that a lot of times. I stopped that when I was arrested coming to one of these concerts whereby my mother wouldn’t be allowed to come to the concert. That is how bad it was.

They were shooting to kill. A lot of bands disbanded because of the fact that a trio or quartet could not gather together. Only two people could work. But if you were three people, then you would be arrested. In the State of Emergency the police would come and break into our homes because they knew we were musicians. The police knew we were playing and fund-raising for the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress which would hire us sometimes for fund-raising. The police knew about this and would come and break our instruments. My own instrument was broken by the police during the State of Emergency.

They were killing our musical development. We couldn’t play with Chris McGregor. There was a war on and we couldn’t let them win. So we [The Blue Notes] decided that they weren’t going to do that; we decided to go on self-exile.  We went to London eventually.

I had a South African passport then. The South African ambassador caught onto the scene that we were playing and raising funds for these [anti-apartheid] organizations in Europe. They took our passports and we were thrown out of South Africa for good. I then had no country and the going was tough. I got a refugee’s passport and continued with this for a long time. Then I got a British passport and everything was OK.

In South Africa then they were shooting to kill too., They would shoot young brothers 8 years old you. No manners at all, they were so rude. They were true oppressors. When we complained, they denied that they were mistreating us. I knew that we were going to overtake them, to win the war. That’s why I wrote a song, “The Boat Is Sinking, Apartheid Is Sinking.”

We are the bosses now in South Africa and there is no way the White people are going to take South Africa again, not in my lifetime, not even over my dead body.

Svirchev: How did you come up with the name “Blue Notes”?

Moholo-Moholo: Because we are blue. It’s true, we were sad, something was treating us very badly, so much so that me and Dudu Pukwana were being arrested constantly for no particular crime. Just for walking in the streets we were picked up, locked up. We are blue and we play all the notes. So we called ourselves “The Blue Notes.”

 Svirchev: Are there any extant recordings?

Moholo-Moholo: There is a series of “Blue Notes for Mongezi”, “Blue Notes for Chris McGregor”, “Blue Notes for Johnny Dyani”.

 Svirchev: You were blue, but the music sounds so alive, spiritual and deep.

Moholo-Moholo: And Black, very Black. Great Black music. Truly avant-garde, pure, music that was created for the lords. Not lords in terms of money, but if you are rich in soul you can handle it. But if you don’t have any qualities of sound, and if you haven’t payed your dues, then you can’t walk in this land of great Black music. It’s what Albert Ayler was talking about, it’s what Eric Dolphy was talking about, it’s what Duke Ellington was talking about. Very sophisticated music, very intellectual music. I’m happy to understand it, to be able to participate in it, and be counted as well as one of the pioneers.

Svirchev: Before you went into self-exile, did you have the opportunity to hear people like Ellington, Ayler, Dolphy, Louis Armstrong?

Moholo-Moholo: Yes, thanks to the the British contingents that were in South Africa. You see South Africa was the soft spot for the whites, so they all went to South Africa, and brought their technology. They liked to listen to George Formby, Ted Heath, Duke Ellington. We couldn’t help but hear it because we were all ears, all eyes. That’s how we won our independence, because we were very vigilant. They thought we were monkeys, or something like that. But they were the most most monkey you could ever see in the world because they were White motherfuckers. Look, I am not against white people, but I know who I’m talking about, the Boers. They did oppress me, the Boers.

 Svirchev: Devils?

Moholo-Moholo: Devils. We don’t hate them, we can stay together, we can live together in South Africa. South Africa is big enough for anyone to stay comfortable. There is no issue of revenge, so keep them, enjoy ourselves. I like what I see in South Africa. Maybe South Africa will be the envy of the world in years to come, the way we are dealing with the situation. We want to live happily ever after, the White people in South Africa are my brothers. People like Chris McGregor and Joe Slovo [a Jewish White, member of the Communist Party and well-remembered for his principled public stand against apartheid].

 Svirchev: We often see the name “Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath.” Is that the name of the actual creation or was it a collective?

Moholo: This was Chris’s number, it came from him. He was a brother. It is not by chance that he called it Brotherhood.” The cream on the cake was when he faced the name with “of Breath.” Chris was a clever, wise & intelligent person. You can see this in his writing. If he had lived until today, he would have done wonders. He was a very good composer, a very good arranger. He was something else. We worked together to build this temple with Chris. All for one and one for all to make it possible for it to work. And it did work.

Even the English guys gave a hand in setting the band [the Dedication Orchestra] up. Serious musicians in their own right, like Evan Parker, Mike Osborne, Lol Coxhill, Nick Evans, Mark Cherick. It came out like magic. That was an extension of the Blue Notes, because there were so many notes missing. They were there at the right time, like Mongezi Feza, Nick Moyake, although Nick died before we could go to England and get exposed. There remained the five of us, me, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani, Chris McGregor, Mongezi Feza.

We stayed on until the end, and now I find myself the only one left. I find this very stressful from time to time. I always think this was unfair for them to go so young. They never went to South Africa to experience what it is like today.

Svirchev: This festival I spent a lot of time looking at your face through the camera lens while you were playing. There are times when you re playing, particularly on the ballad, spiritual tempos, compositions, that it almost looks as if the memories are flashing back in your head and you want to cry. There are other times when the music is so full of drive and you are full of restless and fearless energy.

Moholo-Moholo: This comes from my mother and father, from being oppressed in South Africa. I have the stubborn tendencies of the mountains and volcanoes.

 Svirchev: It’s clear to from your stage presence that the music flows through you.

 Moholo-Moholo: It’s total devotion and total engagement with the music.

Svirchev: What was it like to go home?

Moholo-Moholo: High, man, super high! A few days before I go home, I have this incredible feeling. It’s incredible feeling to be among your people. I tell you if I were born again, I would never go into exile. I missed my people for all those years.  Most likely I would never indulge myself in music because somehow its made me suffer, gave me some pain. But there is nothing better that I know now than music, it’s all that I know.

Svirchev: What projects are you doing at home?

Moholo-Moholo Remembers

I moved back about 5 months ago, fixing up my new nest. I have a festival project at the University of Transvaal. Electronic music, the first of its kind in Africa. With George Lewis. I’m still finding my feelers. If you ask the question in 5 five years, I can you where I’ve been.

Svirchev: You played with Steve Lacy on a legendary trip to Argentina in 1966. Can you talk about that trip?

Moholo-Moholo: Argentina was a nice place and we came at a fashionable time because everything was turning avant-garde, Andy Warhol and things like that. Avant-garde had been some kind of taboo. In the 60s, Argentina was another country with a dictatorship. Tough country to be in. Steve Lacy was a very quick musician. We had some very good teaching from him. He was older than us and much more experienced. He had been in the field longer than us. He was like a high priest.  The way he talked was very intellectual, he was very concentrated, very very free, and very sweet. I hope he is in heaven, there is no better place for him. I thank God that I happened to brush my hands with him. Of course the great bass player Johnny Dyani was involved in this project as was the trumpeter Enrico Rava. So there was no question of going anyplace else other than where the music goes.

Svirchev: In your earlier years before you came to Europe was there free improvisation in South Africa?

Moholo-Moholo: You see, in South Africa you don’t count the music. In our traditional way of playing we don’t count 1-2-3-4-5 and then play. You just pick up your horn or whatever and then you blow. And everyone else just chips in. You find that the maracas is doing something else, the djembe is doing something else, it’s all in one and nobody tells you what to play. They might tell you the flavor, “OK, we’re playing ‘pineapple’ now.’” So you think “pineapple,” mix it with this ‘n’ that to make your salad edible using contributions. In the west, its like the bandleader or conductor is doing it all. In Africa, everybody is doing it all. It’s embedded in us, we didn’t find it very strange. We didn’t count, we just played it from the heart. Not from the brain, from the heart. It’s abundant soul, a fountain of rhythm. It just pours in Africa. It’s in the veins or we couldn’t survive. Africa is born from rhythm.

Selected discography

“Blues Notes”. The Ogun Collection 1964-1987

“Sibanye (We Are One)” Louis Moholo – Moholo Duets With Marilyn Crispell. Intakt CD145 http://www.intaktrec.ch/145-a.htm

“Ixesha (Time)” (Ogun OGCD 102/103) and “Spirits Rejoice” Ogun: OGCD 101 CD.

Bill Shoemaker’s Point of Departure has an interview and “listening discussion” with Moho-Moholo (http://www.pointofdeparture.org/archives/PoD-1/PoD-1_spirits_rejoice.html).

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