Louis Tebogo Moholo (1940) is the only surviving member of South Africa’s legendary jazz sextet The Blue Notes, which consisted of Moholo on drums, Chris McGregor on piano, Mongezi Feza on trumpet, Johnny Dyani on bass, Dudu Pukwano on alto saxophone and Nikele Moyake on tenor saxophone. As a multi-racial band in apartheid South Africa.
INTERVIEW: FRED DE FRIES
PHOTOGRAPHY: MAARIT KYTÖHARJU
The blue notes found it increasingly hard to get gigs. In 1964 they went into exile to europe. After the band disbanded, moholo played with the crème de la crème of the international jazz scene, including archie shepp, cecil taylor and peter brötzman. In 2007 president thabo mbeki awarded the blue notes the national order of ikhamanga in silver for ‘excellent achievement’. This interview took place in moholo’s house in langa.
What was it like to be a jazz musician during apartheid?
The boer man, they thought africans were lazy people, so they would arrest us. They arrested us and took us to dig potatoes. Because we were musicians! They would come into this house, man, and break in that motherfucking door – for playing music. We were so thick-skinned. It was like: yeah there they come, fuck you guys, arrest us. Of course they would do it. So after some time we thought we should go away from south africa. Chris (mcgregor) had such a tough time – he would have to paint his face black and pull up his cap to come here to this house. We thought we should go away and preserve the music, because they were trying to kill our development.
Why did the authorities see jazz as problematic?
Because they are stupid. They’re stupid guys, man. And because they’re very mean people, they got no soul. And we got soul, that’s why we allowed them into our country, we are so kind. And then they fucked us up. They banned people like max roach. He did a record we insist! (1960). It was banned. But then, these records would slip in. There were some americans that would come, like navy and doctors in the docks and they knew the situation in south africa and would give us the lps.
Also, there was an english contingent in simon’s town. And they were playing people from england and america on the radio to entertain the troops, and i just fell in love with ted heath, duke ellington and charlie parker. We hooked up to that station. It was a hip thing to do, if you were civilized. We were not as stupid as the boer made us look.
How did the drumming start?
When we were young the boy scouts were passing here, and we would follow them, boom boom. We were: wow! And my mother would be there watching us, and then we reached that corner there and our mothers would collect us and we would come back crying. So we come in here (points at the backyard) and go in the back. And i’d collect a tin and another friend another tin. Kids organize themselves. Here’s a paper, so we roll up the paper and that’s your horn. So off we go, toot toot, boom boom. So we knock each other out as kids would. And then mother: why you making noise man?! Stop it!
So one thing leads to another. This guy wants to start up a band, and i got chosen to play drums. For some reason i freaked out and played too much. I got crazy, as kids would. I was fired. I felt very bad. Then when i was 17 we were lazing about, and it was: let’s start up a band. And i said i wanted to play drums. We had to go and buy a drum set, in town at bosman’s, hire purchase, 25 pounds in instalments. But then the 60s happened, sharpeville and all that, and we got arrested because i was active. You couldn’t just stand and watch. So we started throwing stones. We were thrown in jail. So the boer comes here and says: you’re playing music. So they took my drums and broke them. So when i come out of jail my drums were not there anymore. There you go. That’s sick.
What makes a good drummer?
Hard work. And luck. There’s a lot of luck involved, pure luck. Right place, right time. You’re lucky to be there. You’re in there, in all that good music because you’re lucky. You could also not be recognized and just die by the roadside. I am lucky. Not everybody experienced my shit. Also, being born in south africa, the sympathy you receive. The americans hugged us, even max roach went: oh my man! Kenny clarke loved us. Wes montgomery came to the airport to welcome us as the blue notes. And now? I’m this age, 75, i don’t bother anymore. I don’t play the drums anymore, haha, i just look at them and they play by themselves. That’s fantastic shit man. It’s easier now than before. I don’t have to play so many notes. It’s like miles (davis), only one note in a bar. Haaarrrrrr. One note can freak you out.
How did your father like you becoming a jazz musician?
He was a football player for western province and would say to me that i was a young delinquent and he was shouting at me: you are nothing, i was in umtata, playing football! So i was: i wish i were you daddy. He said: you do fuck all, you should listen! So next thing i’m in paris. But he died before i could boast. I would have invited him to england. In the end he was very proud.
You went to europe in 1964?
We started in paris, where we met mister dizzy gillespie. He was so nice to us. James baldwin was there, he loved us so much. We came from this troubled country. Sharpeville had happened and mandela had been arrested and the boer was under heavy manners.
You were in england during the swinging sixties. Were you part of that scene?
The pop guys were our friends. The blue notes had a concert in cambridge when yoko (ono) was working there with john stevens. So we were with yoko and all of sudden there’s this big noise outside and we don’t know what the fuck is happening. The kids shouting! About a hundred of them, following this car. And who comes out? This guy with the specs. Oh my god, someone said, it’s john lennon. He comes to check out his chick, yoko ono. So there he is and he comes into the anteroom, and we, avant-garde, are jolly people, very nice. So we go: hey john, right on. And he’s like: can i…. Of course john, of course my man. So john lennon is there strumming along with us. And then he is interested in me. He wants to make a record and i was invited, but my wife didn’t want me to go to new york and i didn’t want to either, i wanted to play with dudu.
It was in denmark in the mid-sixties that you discovered free jazz
Well, we were playing heavy bebop with the blue notes, which overflowed into wow, yeah, let’s be free man. And freedom makes sense to us. We were told we should play like charlie parker, and we were: we don’t want to play like charlie parker, we want to play like us. We had the material to do it. South africa has a different outlook on music as a whole. Here we don’t count. Somebody starts: yehaoliyeha, and then we join in. People just join in, that’s the magic of it. It became the thing. It was avant-garde; throw that book away man.
So you didn’t play jazz standards?
Of course we knew them from left to right. That’s the easiest thing to do. But we didn’t like it very much. We were so much bigger than this. So when free music started happening, we took it with both hands. It made sense: my hands are free, my feet are free, my mind is free, free music.
Exile must have been very hard?
Exile is the motherfucker; i don’t wish it on anybody. Really hard. It doesn’t make you happier that you are in europe, because you don’t qualify here, you don’t qualify there. How many times have i been turned back at the borders? Every five years you needed a new stamp from the south african embassy. I go back and they say: why you play for anc and the pac? I say: i’m like a hired gunman, i play for my money. No sir, you know we don’t like anc and the pac, so why are you playing for them? They go to the office, tear my passport and write “cancel, cancel, cancel” on every page. So that it’s really fucked up. Go fuck off, vat jou goed man, voetsek. Then i went to the english and they gave me a pink passport, for refugees.
You’re the only blue notes survivor. What’s the secret?
I don’t know. Inside i’m fucked up (he had a heart attack and has a pacemaker). And i’m still fucked up that these guys aren’t there. Sometimes i go to the sea and sit at the shore, and then there’s the conversation we have with the sea. And then feza, dudu, johnny, chris and nikele suddenly speak back. And i’m so sad that i cry. Here i am in south africa, enjoying the freedom and they never did come back, but worked so hard, up and down the motorway, fighting apartheid. And i’m the only one. Tears start falling. None of them experienced a free south africa.
You have played with an endless number of musicians. Is there anyone missing on that list?
Ornette coleman. I did play with (archie) shepp, but i would’ve wanted to play with ornette. I was ready for him, but he had so much ties with different kinds of situations that he wasn’t allowed. Yes, he’s still alive, but somehow that train is gone. I’m not really desperate anymore. I was desperate at some point.
You did play with everyone else?
As i said: lucky.
They were lucky?
Yes, but it’s not for me to say this, it’s for you to say this.
ESSENTIAL LOUIS MOHOLO ALBUMS
‘BLUE NOTS FOR JOHNNY’
‘Never Mind the Bollocks’
‘Moholo ,Stabbins, Tippett’
THE BLUE NOTES
‘Legacy / Live’