On a quest to find out more about Woodstock’s jazz history, I stumbled upon a South African legend: drummer Louis Moholo, the only remaining member of jazz sextet, the Blue Notes. In the 1960s — when many parts of the world were slowly opening up to the hippie movement’s free-spirited ideals — South Africa’s brutal apartheid laws were becoming more and more suffocating; making music was a testing challenge. To escape the shackles and save the music, the Blue Notes went into exile, playing to audiences across the world. When I visited Louis in Langa, we didn’t talk about jazz in Woodstock because, although he did play there, he says he can’t remember much about the two clubs I was interested in, the Ambassadors and the Naaz. But what we did talk about is just how difficult it was to be a musician in 1960s South Africa.
All members — Chris McGregor (piano), Mongezi Feza (trumpet), Dudu Pukwana (alto saxophone), Nikele Moyake (tenor saxophone), Johnny Dyani (bass), and Louis Moholo (drums) — went into exile in 1964 and took up residencies in Switzerland, and later on in the UK, but in the very early sixties, as far as it was possible for a mixed race band, they tried their luck on the Cape Town jazz circuit.
Louis, now 75, tells me that he was 16 or 17 back then, so his memory is not as on point as it could be. But he remembers the fear of being “roughed up by the boer” and how performing in town could get you arrested. After playing a gig behind a curtain (so the audience couldn’t see he was black) in Seapoint, he was on his way back to Langa, without taxi money or a pass book, and subsequently got picked up a by a police van.
“I said I was a musician, but this guy didn’t believe me. Fortunately, I had some sticks with me. So I began to play on the table for him and I impressed him actually and he even suggested that I teach his son. So he said he saw that I was a very nice man, and where was the concert and all that, and he let me loose and he dropped me here in this house.”
He got away that time, but generally, police officers were under the impression that playing music was lazy or that jazz was for white people. There was a constant fear of being beaten up or arrested, Louis tells me. To avoid this, the black band members sometimes pretended to be garden boys hired by Chris McGregor, who was the only white member of the band. And when Chris came to Langa, he painted his face black and wore a cap to avoid trouble.
Not that the grass was greener on the other side. Although Louis insists that exile was necessary to preserve the band’s music and their style developed substantially overseas, they were barely 18, and longed for their friends and families, in the place they knew so well.
“It’s very painful. I’m talking about being in exile now. I wouldn’t recommend exile to nobody. Some people could take it, some other people couldn’t take it. Mongezi Feza freaked out and Nikele Moyake, he went home.”
Tragically, Nikele Moyake died from a brain tumour back in South Africa in 1966. Mongezi Feza died in 1975, Johnny Dyani in 1986, Chris McGregor in 1990, and Dudu Pukwana only a month later.
So since Louis is the only member to have fully witnessed South Africa’s transition after 1994, I asked: is music free today?
“It’s been arrested again. Well, it was freer when… I don’t know. I really don’t know… whether it was freer when you didn’t have the key. Now that we have the key maybe it’s not free anymore.”
He also said that in the 60s about 50 musicians were living in his street and, influenced by New York street culture, people would frequently dress up and bring their records to a neighbour’s house for a jam. But today, apparently, people distance themselves from each other. Why?
“I don’t know. It’s like stolen waters are sweeter. Now there’s freedom…”
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