Louis Moholo-Moholo: interview in the Cape with a rebel
by Olivier Ledure
This interview was conducted in the gardens of Guesthouse, Cape Town, South Africa on 6 January 2010 by Olivier Ledure. It was originally published in Improjazz magazine in French in May 2010 and is reproduced with their permission. No part of the article must be reproduced without the permission of Improjazz
Improjazz (I): First of all, thanks very much for this interview with you. I will ask you some questions about your youth in Cape Town. Secondly, some questions about your years in exile: you spoke a lot about them with Lars Rasmussen when he wrote his book ŅMbizo. A book about Johnny Dyani.Ó And finally, I will mainly concentrate my questions on your return to Cape Town since 2005.
You are Sotho and Cape Town is not the homeland of Sotho people. When did you leave for Cape Town?
Louis Moholo-Moholo (LMM): it was my father who came from Lesotho. Lesotho is a protectorate. It is in the middle of South Africa. My father comes from there, but my mother comes from Cape Town.
I: Did they meet in Cape Town?
LMM: Yes, they met in Cape Town. My father came to work.
I: So, you were born in Cape Town?
LMM: Yes, I was born in Cape Town.
I: What about your family? Do you have your brothers and sisters?
LMM: IÕve got two brothers and one sister who died actually. IÕm alone now in my family. ItÕs like the band I played with, the Blue Notes: I am the only one leftÉ
I: Yes, IÕve got some questions about the Blue NotesÉ
LMM: IÕve got no brother, no sister, and no mother now. They are all in Heaven. I
I: LetÕs hope! How old were you when you began to play drums?
LMM: I was about five years old. I was enrolled and then, no band. I was fired from the band because IÕm a rebel by nature. And then, I joined the band later when I was older
I: Did you have teachers for drums?
LMM: No, IÕm self-taught: I just looked at how people play. Then, I imitate them.
I: You are obviously mainly known as the drummer of Chris McGregorÕs groups: the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath. Could you tell me an anecdote about each member of the Blue Notes? But first, I will tell you a story about Johnny Dyani. It is Jean-Jacques Avenel who told it to me.
LMM: I know Jean-Jacques. Jean-Jacques is my friend.
I: He also was a friend of Johnny Dyani. He told me that Johnny had a dream: he wanted to hear the sound of a double bass underwater. And he realized his dream, but was quite disappointed as he could not hear anything. (Laughs).
So can tell me you a similar story about each member of the Blue Notes?
Nick Moyake, for example?
LMM: Yes, OK. Nick Moyake was a saxophone player. He was older than us. And he acted old as well, he acted like our father and we did accept this from him. ItÕs a pity that the world never heard this guy. He was famous here in South Africa. When we went overseas, he got disillusioned: he was far away from home, and we all suffered, he was in exile, but self-exiled. Self-exile is really a motherfucker!!! If I have to born again, I will never go in exile. Nick Moyake was a star in South Africa. When he came to Europe, he was not a star anymore. So he could not take it. When he came back to South Africa, he died from brain tumourÉ He missed us so much that this poor guy died from a brain tumour. That was Nick Moyake. He was a beautiful tenor saxophone player.
Now Johnny Dyani. We found him after a bass player of ours left the Blue Notes,
I: Sammy Maritz?
LMM: Yes, Sammy Maritz left the Blue Notes. So we were looking for a bass player. Dudu said that Ņthere is a young man called Johnny DyaniÓ. I knew him but I did not know him as a musician but as a singer. He joined the band and he knocked us out: he was such a big bass player. His heart was so big: it was bigger than his body. And it doesnÕt surprise me that he thought that he could maybe play on the water (Laugh) He would play on the water overseas. You see: the sea is water. He did play overseas, he didnÕt play in the water, but he played overseas (Laugh) And his dreams came true. As you know, Johnny Dyani was a great composer: he had this band, a successful band with Don Cherry, Dudu Pukwana and Makaya Ntshoko. He also had other bands like WitchdoctorÕs Son. Johnny Dyani was God given. God gave us Johnny and God took Johnny from us. That was a very sad story.
Now, Mongezi Feza. He was our baby. Mongezi was our pride. Mongezi was a likeable person. I hope he is in Heaven too.
The Congolese manager of the Guesthouse had opened a bottle of sparkling water as if it was a bottle of still water. Obviously, there was an explosion. Louis commented this event by a simple word: OVERSEAS and we laughed all together.
Mongezi was such a likeable person, such a beautiful strong trumpet player. He was very small like Sammy Davis, but made a lot of noise. There are people bigger than Mongezi Feza, they would have loved to have his energy. He was so gifted in music.
Now, Dudu Pukwana He was such a great composer and a very good solo player. This man was a fountain of joy and pleasure. He was a great teacher as well. He showed lots of patience and tons of talent. It is a pity that the world did not hear more of him.
Now Chris McGregor. Ah, sweet heart! He died for South Africa. He was one of the white guys who really died for it. Such a darling, such a friend! He was not our band leader, but the western people made him such because they could identify with him. There were a lot of reporters that would come to us, as if they were reporters, but they really were Special Branch. There were people sent to come and interrogate us. TheyÕd come to us to see how we spoke about South Africa: those white guys gave us liquor and make us talk about South Africa. In the end, they came to see and interrogate our mothers. We were so afraid to talk to these people. So, of course, weÕd use Chris McGregor to get gigs: he could relate to white people. You see! It is like getting a woman to do things, they will always get it! (laugh) That kind of scene, you know. IÕm sure, IÕm sure. Even the world is like this!
Chris McGregor could identify with these people, so we could get gigs through Chris. He was such a big composer as well, I rate him to be like Duke Ellington, to be Count Basie.
I canÕt talk for myself because myself is myselfÉ I am still alive. Maybe somebody else can talk about me when I am dead and I am not prepared to die yet (laughs)
I: You certainly know this book (I showed him ŅCape Town Jazz. The Photographs of Hardy StockmannÓ. The Booktrader. 2003). There are several photographs of you when you were the drummer of Ņthe Ronnie Beer QuintetÓ. But there is one where you play the double bass (page 99). Could you speak about this picture?
LMM: I do know this book. I know this picture anyway.
I: Did you really play the bass that evening?
LMM: No, no, I was messing around with the bass. WeÕre having a jam. I didnÕt care whether I play the right notes or the wrong notes. When I looked at this picture and I said ŅOh! I know that guyÓ. Do you know what definitely made me sure? I recognized that hand and I said ŅYeah, this is meÓ. I donÕt know anything about bass. I donÕt know anything with the cello either. Not MbizoÕs one, but I have inherited Harry MillerÕs cello. You certainly know Harry Miller. He was one musicians of the Brotherhood of Breath. I have inherited his cello. But I was messing around. It is a cello, but I can have fun with it.
I: What about your way of singing?
LMM: I try to sing. You know me: I am cheeky. I think I can sing more than Frank Sinatra (laughs). More seriously, I used to sing in church. I am Christian. So, I think I can sing. Then, I try.
I: About another group led by Ronnie Beer, the Swinging Six, was it your first encounter with Mongezi Feza?
LMM: Yes, it was. Although I knew Mongezi Feza before I joined the Blue Notes. I was playing with a group called The Chordettes. We went touring South Africa and we came to East London. I saw Mongezi and we just loved each other. I know that we going to be married, musically speaking. It was such fun to be married to him, Mongs.
I: There is another jazz player who became famous in those Cape Town years: Dollar Brand. But, there is no recording where you play with him. Did you ever play with him?
LMM: Yes, I did play with Dollar once in Cape Town in a place called The Naaz (a Capetonian jazz club). It was fantastic as well.
I: Was it a trio? A big band?
LMM: Oh. I donÕt remember: I was so young. He came to Langa location where he heard of me and he came to look for me and I played with him. I donÕt even remember what we did. But it was fantastic. Nice experience! When I went to Europe, I stayed in his house. We did play together from time to time.
I: In Switzerland?
LMM: In Switzerland and in England with Johnny Dyani. ItÕs a pity that we never recorded it! There are a lot of people who would love to play with him. I donÕt know if it is possible. I donÕt know!
I: There is no problem of racism? (There is always such a problem between Blacks –Louis- and Coloured -Dollar)
LMM: No, I like Dollar actually. I like him. The last time I saw him, he was in Switzerland, in Willisau. ThereÕs no animosity between us. If he gives me a chance, that would be cool. (you know:) he is my fellow countryman.
I: You played with a lot of pianists as a duo. I could quote Cecil Taylor, Keith Tippett, Stan Tracey, Pule Pheto, Irene Schweitzer, Mervyn AfricaÉ I certainly forget some of them. What interests you in those duos?
LMM: I think that maybe the piano is a kind of percussion instrument. I play better with a piano player than any other instruments. I feel better because maybe it is percussion. So I can interplay and I can foresee whatÕs going to happen. The instrument itself makes sense to me more than any instrument. Sometimes, I wish the drums could sing like the piano. The drum is the heart, the piano the voices. I can anticipate the piano. I can anticipate the intervals: I know when to stop when the piano is going to stop. I can anticipate.
But thereÕre other piano players that you canÕt do it with, like Cecil Taylor for example. He can make you play things that you never played before. Cecil is long. He is tall in the piano. He does up, up, up and away: he is gone.
I: You made a fantastic recording with him
LMM: I hear this: itÕs a pity that I donÕt appreciate my things too much. I wish I did appreciate butÉ Miles Davis said Ņif you make a record and you like it, you must be very luckyÓ. I can see what he means. ItÕs like the first time I heard my voice. I was so ashamed. People like Peter Brtzmann, they donÕt want to listen to their CDs. It takes me a long, long time for myself to listen to my CDs, to my work. IÕve got so much work that I am supposed to listen toÉ I prefer to listen to other people than to listen to myself.
I: Another guy who wrote an article on you in Improjazz, Gary May, said Ņa lot of pop bands such as Zappa or jazz groups, Cecil Taylor for example, wanted you to join themÓ. Why did you refuse these propositions?
LMM: It has something to do with my wife. My wife sometimes refused me to go to the States when we were younger.
I: Did she stay with you in London?
LMM: Yes. I was obliged to refuse Weather Report as well. She said: ŅNo. You donÕt go there, you stay here in London.Ó She sacrificed too. When she came to England, she was such a beautiful woman. People like Alvin Ailey (she was a dancer) wanted to take her away and she refused because she was afraid of being a big star. ItÕs one of those things. Frank Zappa, John Lennon wanted me to play with them, Captain Beefheart too
I: King Crimson also?
LMM: No, not King Crimson. It is Keith Tippett story, it is not my story. My wife never approvedÉ Maybe I could be killed in the States. I like Europe. I like Europe, so much: I can meet Makaya Ntshoko too.
But, you know, where you are young, you can make so many mistakes, as I did. To leave South Africa and to go to Europe, that was my mistake. I did suffer. I even had a heart attack. And people like Mongezi Feza died from depression. Johnny Dyani also died from a kind of depression. We were not happy overseas, but we were free. We were free. I thank Europe for a lot of things, but for other things, we really missed in Europe: it was very, very hard! I had to leave Europe, because, when I look around, I found all my buddies have died. They went in a better place which is Heaven
I: OK. Tell me a little bit more about Harry Miller!
LMM: Oh! HarryÉ Underrated bass player! Very good bass player! He was one of the bass players that had bands. You know there are very few bass players in this world that own bands. Johnny Dyani did own a band. Oscar Pettiford owned a band as well. Charlie Mingus and Ray Brown owned a band. And thatÕs all!
I: (searching the name of the band of Harry Miller) Isipingo.
LMM: Yes, Harry Miller owned Isipingo. Very few bass players own bands, like very few drummers do own bands like me! Max Roach. Very few, not many! Otherwise drummers are simply sidemen.
Underrated Harry Miller! Unfortunately, he died from the crash andÉ
I: I got the impression that you played with him in England. But, when he decided to move to Holland, you didnÕt follow him.
LMM: I do not agree with you: we played together a lot in Holland. Lots and lots and lots! We played with Elton Dean. I stayed in HarryÕs house. There is no other house I stayed in. I stayed with Harry Miller all the time, all the time! ItÕs just that he made a record with Han Bennink and Wierhos. Very good record! ItÕs called ŅDown SouthÓ.
I: and Sean Bergin!
LMM: Yeah, I think so, Harry, very good composer as well! Proud to be South African! He was so short, but he was tall, actually! Such a beautiful bass player! Very strong! Underrated as well! Towards his deathÉ he was so beautiful, amazing.
I: I would like you to listen to a track of the Brotherhood of Breath.
I: IÕm sure you will recognize it.
LMM: (listening) thatÕs Dudu! ŅNick TeteÓ. He played this tune. He plays this song very well. ThatÕs DuduÕs song, composition: very good composer.
I: The last time I saw Gary May, he asked me ŅWhat about Churchill Jolobe?Ó I answered him ŅI do not know. The last recordings I have are from the beginning of 80sÓ. Do you have any information about him?
LMM: Yes, I know him. He played with Johnny (Dyani). He played some gigs with Jonas Gwangwa. I donÕt know much about his drumming actually.
I: Is he still alive?
LMM: No, no, he died. He suffered from a tooth infection. It affected his eye. So the doctors made an operation but operated from the wrong one.
I: That is very sad. In what year, did it happen?
LMM: Oh, I donÕt remember now. I was not familiar with his music. But, he was there! I was doing some other things. I was not interested in his music and he was not interested by my music.
I: OK! IÕm a friend of Stphane Berland, the guy who replaced Jan Strm for running the Ayler Records label. HeÕs in contact with Dennis Gonzales, the trumpet player. He said to me that Dennis was about to record an album with Mbizo and you in the summer 86. But the death of Mbizo cancelled this project. What you can say to me about this?
LMM: I will play with him in Dallas and in Austin on the 3rd of next month. You know Frode, Frode Gjerstadt? I will be playing with his big band in the States too. With Hamid DrakeÉ
I: With Sabir MateenÉ
LMM: with Paal Nilsen-Love, with Kevin Norton and Bobby Bradford on trumpet. I will say ŅHelloÓ to him for you.
I: Since your return to Cape Town, a so-called retirement, you play a lot: in South Africa, but, mostly outside South Africa. I would like to know why?
LMM: It is because of money. Sometimes in South Africa, they canÕt afford me! And more especially with the music I am doing: I donÕt want to compromise. They would love if they see me to come down on the music, to come down with the money. But if you do this, if you start coming down with the money, you are finished. I know other drummers that canÕt say ŅNoÓ. IÕm lucky enough to say ŅNoÓ to money. I donÕt work too much in South Africa. I only practise in South Africa. I work overseas: France, Holland, England, Japan, everywhere else. I donÕt work as much I would love in South Africa.
I: I know you played with Zim Ngqawana (Louis laughs at my accent: there is a ŅclickÓ at the beginning of his name). How could you describe his playing?
LMM: He is very good! He is very good! He goes out. I can relate to him. He goes out. HeÕs got the things.
I: But why have you played with him just once or two times?
LMM: I played with him just once or two times because the gigs are scarce to find! He lives in Johannesburg. To get him, I must fly over. ItÕs expensive. To stay in the hotels, you know things like that. I canÕt afford it sometimes. Anyway, I love to play with him. I did play with him in Chicago as well. Zim is a very good player.
I: And what about Winston ŅMankunkuÓ Ngozi?
LMM: I played with him in the beginning of the 70s and then we stopped playing together. Some said I stopped, but I had moved on. He moved on. You know, I donÕt like to play sweet music.
I: You are still going to play with old pals such asÉ
LMM:É Evan Parker
I: Pino Minafra, Keith Tippett, Irene Schweitzer. Do you miss them in South Africa?
LMM: I do. I do. IÕm so lucky when I go there (in England). ItÕs like spiritual regeneration. They kick my ass and I do like this. Nobody kicks my ass in South Africa. I donÕt get the chance of being kicked (Laugh). But I go to Europe, I get the chance. They kick so nice: I love it.
I: You recently played with new partners such as Kali Fasteau. IÕve seen this on a website run by a guy whose name is Mike Fowler? (LMM apparently doesnÕt know this guy nor Kali Fasteau)
I: and you played recently with Habara BandÉ
LMM: Oh! You know these people.
I: Henry GrimesÉ
LMM: Oh! Yeah! This guy! Oh, Yeah. I played with Henry in Japan with Tristan (Honsinger) and with Toby (Delius). Habara, yeah! These are Japanese guys. It is the Japanese connection. There are fantastic and very good. I was supposed to be there but you know the recession. Japan is really going down.
I: And more surprising for me, Saader Trkz.
LMM: Ah. Yeah! I was supposed to play with her, but the gig was cancelled: her brother died. She was here in Cape Town.
I: What can you say about your fantastic last CD (An Open Letter to My Wife Mpumi)?
LMM: Again, I just went to the studio and I did it. I have listened to it. ItÕs nice. IÕm proud to have done this.
I: You can be proud!
LMM: I mean these guys like Jason Yarde are very good composers. There is another guy called Ntshuks (Bonga). Ntshuks is much free. Ntshuks can still play all the themes like nobody plays them anymore, but Ntshuks can play that old stuff. He was the best young musician of the year, around five years ago. He is so sweet and both of them congratulate each other. Fantastic guys! And then John Edwards! John Edwards is big.
I: The new Harry Miller!
LMM: And Orphy Robinson! And then Pule of course, a very cool young man.
I: They all live in London.
LMM: Yes, but Pule is back in South Africa. I think he is in Johannesburg, just for a short time.
I: ThereÕs a new CD you released with Frode Gjerstad ŅQuiddityÓ. I received it just before my trip to South Africa.
LMM: A thick one? (Louis thought I spoke about another group of Frode Gjerstadt: the one called ŅOpen PortÓ. It is because I pronounced ŅQuibbityÓ) Very difficult that CD! Oh I didnÕt have the chance: I listened to it once and said Ņoh!Ó with electronics! It is very interesting like Phil Glass music. It is maybe the kind of music that people prefer attending than listening to. It goes far out, man, far out.
I: Will you continue to play with the London Improvisers Orchestra?
LMM: Of course! ItÕs my life! I like this band. ItÕs my colleagues. ItÕs magic. And again IÕm fortunate that IÕm working with that big band. There is another one in Cologne. I can just sit in that band and I will be welcome. And it is like in London, if you are a musician, you certainly know Mister Evan Parker. And you are in the band. ThereÕs no money, itÕs just love! I think we are going to do it in April or May: Freedom of the City. They offered me a gig actually.
I: In order to finish this interview: what about UBUNTU? Is it a notion familiar to you?
LMM: Well! Yes. It is being human which is not happening anymore! Ubuntu, we donÕt have it anymore: Afghanistan, Iraq, for example. People donÕt have Ubuntu anymore!
I: I understand you, but in South Africa?
LMM: As I say: it is crazy. Musicians are fighting each other. ItÕs not like in Europe. In Europe, we are together, like brothers. Ubuntu, to be human! ThereÕs no human rights anymore. I wish there were. It is just a word now.
I: OK, IÕve finished.
LMM: Thank you very much.
I: Was it good?
LMM: I hope so.
I: Thanks very much!