Louis Moholo-Moholo: when free jazz means freedom

by Gary May

This article was published in French in the May 2005 issue of ImproJazz (no. 115), the French magazine specialising in improvised music. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of Philippe Renaud and the article's writer, Gary May, who provided the translation. No part of the article must be reproduced without the permission of Improjazz

On March 3rd 2005 Louis Moholo-Moholo celebrated his 65 birthday. The great survivor, who David Murray presented as a 'Master Drummer' during a World Saxophone Quartet M'bizo Project concert in Paris, has reached retirement age in his adopted home of Great Britain. It is this moment that he chosen to realise a long-held dream of returning to live in his birthplace, South Africa. This seems a suitable occasion to look back over the career of a drummer whose life and music are intertwined with the painful history of his homeland.

Moholo-Moholo's interest in drumming comes in part from listening to the Scout marching bands which passed by his house when he was a child and he was hypnotised by the rhythm of the bass drum. Later his interest in jazz was stimulated by the famous American bands he heard on the radio, because, although a local scene already existed, it had little chance of becoming known through the South-African media, entirely controlled by the white minority. His professional career began in groups such the band led by Early Mabuza, or The Chordettes, and with a man he would later play with again in London, Ronnie Beer, and the The Swinging City Six. Moholo-Moholo's first recording was in 1958 with The Chordettes, but although the record was apparently relatively successful, the tapes seem to have disappeared forever. Louis therefore had a solid musical background and experience before meeting Chris McGregor, a decisive encounter for both men. Moholo-Moholo has expressed his frustration with the way that histories of the subsequent events often place McGregor at the centre of things, he sees in this an extension of the racist attitudes which prevailed at the time, though it should be pointed out that McGregor himself is not responsible. While it is true that McGregor, as a white man, had openings which would have been impossible for an all-black band, on a musical and personal level the two men were equals. The fact that they created a 'mixed' band with Johnny Dyani, Nick Moyake, Dudu Pukwana and Mongezi Feza would precipitate future events. The Apartheid regime was becoming more and more strict at the time and the opportunities for such a band to play, or even appear in public, together were rare and increasingly risky. When an occasion presented itself for the band, named 'The Blue Notes', to participate in the Jazz Festival at Juan Les Pins in 1964, the musicians were aware that they were effectively taking a one-way ticket. On the few recordings of the group before they left, we can hear a competent band playing in a fairly classic 'post bop' style relatively untouched by local musics. Paradoxically, their exile was to bring those local influences to the surface.

Once in Europe, the pace of their musical development was to increase rapidly, parallel to the numerous encounters with other musicians, though there were many obstacles to overcome and nothing was easy (for precise details on this period, see Chris McGregor and The Brotherhood of Breath, Maxine McGregor, Bamberger Books 1995). After a period in France where the band was well-received but had few work prospects, Abdulhah Ibrahim (still known as Dollar Brand at the time) gave them an opening in Switzerland. This was to be a defining moment for Moholo-Moholo, meeting for the first time people such as Irene Schweizer and John Tchicai. Then came the call to go to London. Moholo-Moholo describes London as the musical Mecca of the era, and the timing of the Blue Notes' arrival was perfect. Apart from a brief stay in Copenhagen in 1965, London was to be their base for the next few years. Their first recording in England, in 1968, included Moholo-Moholo's old acquaintance Ronnie Beer, and shows both in the title, 'Very Urgent', and the music, the increased confidence and freedom of everyone involved. Fortunately they were able to make use of 'Ronnie Scott's Old Place', which for Moholo-Moholo and the others became a melting pot of musical exchanges. With hindsight we can appreciate how lucky London was at the time to have in its midst two drummers such as Moholo-Moholo and the much-missed John Stevens, making music and experimenting together. However, the musical creativity was counterbalanced by the pain of exile. Moholo-Moholo explains in a book about Johnny Dyani: "We were still young, we missed our families.It was cold and the audiences were not likethe African audiences we knew, loud and appreciating. When there were crises and one wanted to go home, we would sit down and discuss it and come to an agreement. The more we stayed, the more we got used to it, and apartheid was going on in South Africa and we didn't want to go back to that" (from Mbizo - A Book About Johnny Dyani, Ed. Lars Rasmussen, The Booktrader, 2003, P65.)

The first split in the Blue Notes came when Moholo-Moholo and Dyani decided to accompany Steve Lacy on a tour of South America. Although Moholo-Moholo had already begun to expand his horizons, playing with both John Tchicai and Roswell Rudd. The period with Lacy did not finish well, the two Africans ending up stranded in Argentina and only getting back to London after a 'very urgent' request for funds by phone to McGregor! Chris himself had begun working with another exceptionally talented South-African, the bassist Harry Miller, and they would shortly form the group which would reveal the full scope of Moholo-Moholo's talent, the legendary 'Brotherhood of Breath'. The Brotherhood albums with Moholo-Moholo, two studio recordings and several live, are the cornerstone of his career and display his capacities to their fullest. The band was a heady mix of strong personalities both on a musical and personal level, they pushed McGregor's highly original arrangements to breaking point and could obtain a level of joyful intensity which can still surprise even today, 30 years on. Miller's bass, McGregor's piano, and above all, Moholo-Moholo's drums managed not only to keep the band together during these free-form flights of fancy, but to actually point it in the right direction. On 'Kongi's Theme', from the recently released Cuneiform album 'Bremen to Bridgewater', Moholo-Moholo some how manages to control the overwhelming burst of energy of his colleagues, and creates a coherent ensemble. The Moholo-Moholo /Miller partnership was to prove extremely fertile, ending only with the bassist's tragic death in a car accident in1983. Often in trio with the explosive pianist Keith Tippett, they formed the robust, flexible heart at the centre of many of the period's best recordings. Amongst these, in 1977, was the first album under Moholo-Moholo's name, 'Spirits Rejoice', on the Ogun label founded by Miller and his wife Hazel. This album is the ultimate achievement of that heady brew consisting of music and musicians from England, and South Africa. As free as the wind and with Moholo-Moholo's drums as its heartbeat, this proud, passionate, angry album has never been released on CD. The Blues Notes would reunite from time to time, as can be heard on the excellent 'In Concert' also on Ogun. Sadly, some of the most beautiful music these men would commit to tape was the result of tragic events. The sad, needless death of Mongezi Feza in 1975 moved his friends to express their grief and anger in the studio. ' Blue Notes For Mongezi' (Ogun) is monumental in its emotive charge, and is also the recording where the African roots of the musicians becomes most spontaneously apparent. After the no less unexpected death of Dyani in 1986, the surviving trio created the heartbreaking 'Blue Notes For Johnny ' (Ogun).

Beyond the 'Blue Notes', circle Moholo-Moholo has enjoyed collaborating with different pianists. McGregor, of course, and Keith Tippett, but also fruitful partnerships with Cecil Taylor and Irene Schweizer, as well as an album under his own name (thanks again Ogun!) consisting of duos with Tippett, Mervyn Africa and Pule Pheto, the title of which, 'Mpumi', is a heartfelt tribute to his wife. One of his latest releases on Ogun is a duet with the great English pianist, Stan Tracey. The preference for pianists is not surprising in the light of Chris McGregor's comment that "the piano is my favourite drum"! Of the many other musicians who enjoyed using the 'power trio' of Moholo-Moholo, Tippett and Miller, Elton Dean and Mike Osborne are among the most successful examples. Another formation which seems important to Moholo-Moholo is the 'Brotherhood' style big band. He has participated in several such groups, including Centipede, The London Improvisers Orchestra, and The Dedication Orchestra. The latter, a co-operative of British-based musicians, was created to play and keep alive the music of The Brotherhood and The Blues Notes. Their first album, also called 'Spirits Rejoice' (Ogun) brings together an exceptional selection of improvisers and arrangers, and is simply wonderful. On Feza's famous tune 'Sonia's Theme' a loping, seemingly nonchalant rhythm from Moholo-Moholo provokes Lol Coxhill to produce a sneaky, sexy solo on soprano which is a true delight! The friendship between Moholo-Moholo and the gifted saxophonist Evan Parker (also a member of The Dedication Orchestra) is ongoing, and their collaborations in London clubs such as The Vortex have become part of local legend. Evan was also co-producer of the above-mentioned album with Stan Tracey.

Moholo-Moholo's style has diverse origins. He names Big Sid Cattlett as his own favourite drummer, a swing period drummer, but one with enough talent and insight to have been included on some of the first Be-bop recordings with Charlie Parker. At the Club Montmartre in Copenhagen in 1965, Moholo-Moholo met Andrew Cyrille perhaps the first drummer to open the door to the world of free-jazz to Louis. We can also hear evidence of the power and flexibility of Elvin Jones in Louis' playing. The drummer with whom he has the most in common though, is Ed Blackwell. it is not surprising to learn that he was also brought up on Marching Bands, though in his case those of New Orleans. Now, Moholo-Moholo has of course become a source of inspiration for other drummers, his capacity to shift between time and free playing can be seen echoed in the playing of the excellent Hamid Drake, for example.

In an interview on the Internet site www.allaboutjazz.com Moholo-Moholo states "I know I would have made a lot of money playing pop music. A lot of pop bands wanted me to join them; John Lennon and Frank Zappa had an interest; I turned them down". If Louis is a rebel he is also loyal. But above all, he is a survivor. The last of The Blue Notes (McGregor and Pukwana both passed away in 1990) he is also the only one to have seen the freeing of Mandela and thus be able to see the progress made, but also what remains to be done, in his homeland. He often returned on holiday before going back definitively, " I just want to feel that I belong, that I'm not a minority " (www.allaboutjazz.com); he still has a message in his music to pass on. Because we Europeans should not forget that we have heard more of Louis and his music than his compatriots, isolated by the international blockade against Apartheid. "This music saw to it that the Berlin Wall fell. We liberated our country partly through this music. Everybody gave a hand - Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Keith Tippett, Elton Dean, John Stevens, Johnny Dyani, Mongs. We broke the barriers; down fell the Berlin Wall... Music is the healing force of the universe. The political disease that was there needed music to heal it up" (www.allaboutjazz.com).

The Dedication Orchestra se is so-named because it is dedicated to the music of The Brotherhood of Breath. Likewise, Moholo-Moholo is himself a one-man 'dedication-orchestra', dedicated to music and freedom. If then, at 65, he choose to take his retirement, it would be well deserved. But I'm sure I'm not the only one to hope that he will stay on behind his kit, to move our hearts, heads and feet, and to ensure that Free Jazz will always mean freedom.