Louis Moholo is a South African drummer who in 1965 came to London with Blue Notes, with pianist Chris McGregor, saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, trumpeter Mongezi Feza and bassist Johnny Dyani. Moholo has played many international free improvising and jazz groups including a Steve Lacy quartet, Company, Peter Brötzmann’s trio, duos with pianists Cecil Taylor, Keith Tippett and Irene Schweitzer and his own group Viva La Black. His friends and colleagues Johnny Dyani, Dudu Pukwana and Chris McGregor all died within the few years preceding this interview, leaving Moholo the sole surviving member of this expatriate group (Feza died in 1975). A version of this interview was published in The Wire.
I talked to Moholo on the 6th September 1990, shortly after the death of two of his friends and comrades. I asked him to begin by telling me about his background in South Africa…
Ah no! My name is this, I was born by the river, you want me to start like that? You want me to do all that stuff? ….okay… I was born in South Africa in 1940, the tenth of March, under the heat I was born. And I come from a no-good country in terms of laws, a very fucked-up country indeed – you must hear me well, it’s the most beautiful country in the world, I’m saying ‘fucked-up’ because of the laws there and what those white cats are projecting. That’s why I split in the first place. But before I tell you about that, let me tell you about how I started playing drums.
It was just from being a kid, touching this and that, I got two sticks and started banging on the sink, and maybe some notes would come out, then scratching a ruler against the fence on the way back from school, maybe that would sound nice. I didn’t know that this would be the beginning of my appreciating the notes that come out of a drum. And of course in South Africa you know the drum is the thing, it was just banged all over the place, everywhere that you went to some cats would be sitting there banging on the drums and I would come there too and dance, like a kid. There would be boy scouts marching bands coming down the street, and it used to fascinate me the way the cat on the big bass drum used to swing that thing and play; boom boom boom! It used to drive me crazy you know? We used to follow these boy scouts bands and our mothers would come and gather us back because we were going too far and we would come back crying. So we used to get some sticks and tin cans and things and imitate the boy scouts. I would find myself playing on the tin cans and other cats would be picking up papers and rolling them up – that would be a bugle. And we would go round and round the house, just imitating the scouts, banging and making a lot of noise, like kids do, until our mothers would tell us to stop, not realising of course that this was to be my future profession. That’s how I started, though I didn’t realise that I had started.
Then aged six or seven I got into the cubs and then graduated to boy-scouts and then I was near to those kettle drums, the real thing! Ha ha! And then I was there man, playing those kettledrums. But then they got taken away, because the scout-master said I was playing too much, I was unruly… But I had tasted the real thing now, and I couldn’t leave it – right up to now, I’m still on the case, still on it. This morning before you came I was banging away for two hours before you came, every day. It keeps the doctor away!
That is my beginning, that’s how I started and from then on I just went on to do play normal dancing stuff for ballrooms, Glen Miller stuff, and Ellington. Then I left that for traditional jazz, combos and trios, and that just grew and grew. I played in many places in South Africa, I won a prize for my drumming, they were issuing little gold stars you know, ha ha! ‘Oh man, you’re a good drummer, have a little gold star, right on!’ So I gave it to my father, I don’t know what happened to that. Dudu (Pukwana) got one too, Mongs (Mongezi Feza), and Chris (McGregor) too got one. I was tied for my prize with a drummer called Mr Eddie Moboza, who died in South Africa, a very very good drummer. He played with the first Chris McGregor big band in South Africa, one day he didn’t make the gig, this guy, and I depped for him and I never parted with Chris from then, this is about ’61.
We were invited to play in a festival in Switzerland. Dollar Brand invited us to come to a club where he was playing and we worked there and stayed in Zurich for one and a half years. We came to England after that with Dollar Brand and he stayed here for about six months, he didn’t like it at that time. We got out of South Africa to better ourselves, you know? And see the world. With all the shit that was happening there was no space for nobody to do anything in South Africa. We had to come over; I mean we were tired of it. I was working with Chris McGregor and Chris McGregor’s a white cat. We were not supposed to play together; we were not supposed to be on the same bandstand with Chris, we were not supposed to play for white people. I mean I was supposed to play places where my mother wouldn’t be allowed to come in and hear me play. And they wouldn’t only refuse her to come to my concerts; they would also beat her up maybe – so fucked up were those guys in South Africa at that time. And even now they are still like this. So sometimes Chris McGregor would have to play behind a curtain, and vice versa, I would have to play behind a curtain if we got hired by some white cats. And Chris McGregor used to come to this place where we would drink some beer, in the Zulu quarters, but white people were not allowed in here, but Chris dug this beer so he would paint his face with black polish to come in there. The authorities would put someone there to make sure that there was no white people coming into this area, they were not allowed to come in there. You know Chris was not even allowed to come into my village! For a long time white people were not allowed to come into black-townships at all. And vice versa, we had to get papers to come into white areas. I was arrested a lot of times coming from a gig carrying my sticks home, I mean I wasn’t doing anything, but it was an offence just to be there, just to be walking in the street. I had to walk seven miles home, because there are no buses or taxis going to my town and all the gigs were in white areas. And the police would pick me up and I’d be picking potatoes. Straight from a gig to picking potatoes for three months!
And I was sold once you know, I was sold. Sold! There was something happening in my township and this guy sent me to get a bottle of brandy in town, which was the only place you could get it. So I got this money, I walked into town and went into the bar and this guy asked me what I wanted and asked whether I was a coloured person or a black person – because if I was black there was no way black people could get liquor. So he said ‘Come here,’ and ran a pen through my hair, like that, you see? And it stuck, you see, so I had failed to be a coloured because they have hair that is closer to white people’s hair. So I failed and was slammed out, and as I was being chucked away from the bar some policemen came and arrested me, saying, ‘what were you doing being in there,’ being a black you see. So I was arrested and sentenced to four months for being in that house. Instead of just lying about in jail and cleaning up all the feces they sold us to the farmers to go and pick potatoes. They were making money out of us, we got a shilling a day. I did that for about two months, and the third month I was inside this farm working for this Boer, I was called over the loudspeaker, ‘Louis Moholo!!’ and I was taken to Cape Town. I didn’t realise it but I was being released, a guy had paid £25 for my release in order that I could play at a festival.
Anyway we came over to Europe and I started hearing some other vibes. You know I was away from South Africa and away from the chains. I just wanted to be free, totally free, even in music. Free to shake away all the slavery, anything to do with slavery, being boxed into places – one, two, three, four – and being told you must come in after four. I was just a rebel, completely a rebel. And then of course there were people like Evan Parker whom I saw was also a rebel. From then on I just played free, I met John Tchicai, Steve Lacy, Peter Brötzmann. Me and John Stevens were actually the first drummers to play free music in Britain, if the truth be told, and then after that a lot of other cats came in, but we were the first…
Free music is it man, it’s so beautiful. The word ‘free’ makes sense to me. I know that’s what I want, freedom, let my people go. Let my people go! And that’s interlinked with politics, they embrace each other. It’s a cry from the inside, no inhibitions… And the colours are so beautiful; there’s a cry, there’s joy, a joyful noise, there’s sadness, there’s rain, there’s winter, there’s love… that’s why it’s beautiful.
You know someone said this music is the healing force of the universe, Albert Ayleeeeerr! God bless him! I would have liked to have played with him, I missed the opportunity. Me and Johnny Dyani were going to do that, we were going to go to his house. We were supposed to go with Steve Lacy from Argentina, he’d picked us up in London to go and tour with him, but the stupid American ambassador refused to give us a visa! I had sticks in my hands and a Downbeat with my name in, and I showed him this but he didn’t believe I was a musician. He was like, ‘No, don’t pull that one on me,’ and in the end I got so angry with him I told him to fuck off himself, you know? I told him that four hundred years ago they used to hunt me in the bushes in Africa, and put me in some ship and took me to the states, made me work in the cotton fields. Then I didn’t want to go to the states, but they took me by force. And now that I want to go to the America he says I mustn’t go, so I told him to fuck off, to stick America! So we failed, a lost opportunity, because Albert Aylmer, Pharaoh Sanders, Ornette Coleman, they knew we were coming.
We felt very welcomed in Britain, we were not holding back, we didn’t have airs and graces about nothing, we were just innocent guys coming from South Africa. And the people liked us, I mean Dudu was liked all over the place, and Johnny Dyani, I mean the charisma of these guys, and people who met Mongos would just fall apart you know? We were just a likeable band, ask Mr. Keith Tippet about it, ask Evan Parker…
But we were not welcome everywhere. We played at Ronnie Scott’s Club but we never liked it. We had a misunderstanding with the manager. He started calling us ‘boys’, and we are not boys. In South Africa we are called boys, you know my father would be called a ‘boy’ by a boy of about twelve years old just because he’s white. Then at Ronnie Scott’s they would start going, [affects public school accent] ‘Well you see boys… one should do this, one shouldn’t do that… okay boys?’ and I would go, ‘No no, don’t call us boys!’ In any case I am a man myself, I have been to the circumcision school, and I’d been through too hard a time to be called a boy in England. Then one night we were there with Wes Montgomery and I thought, ‘Is this guy going to say “boy” to Wes Montgomery?’ He didn’t say it to him, because he was from the ‘states. I wish we’d never played there; they gave us such a tough time. And the standard of music that was played there was so disgraceful, as it is today, it is awful that music. They were afraid of us and afraid of the music we were doing, because we were playing free and at Ronnie Scott’s it was unheard of. They wanted us to play some boomba-boomba stuff, you know, because they think we come from the jungle.
We had to fight very hard, there was a lot of prejudice. I mean I don’t even want to say anything about it, but someone said I should use Brylcream for my hair! – Ben Webster said that – I didn’t want to say that. My hair was just natural black hair, I didn’t put no Brylcream in it, but he would, like, make a joke, ‘Hey maaan, you should put some Brycreeaam in your hair maaan!’ When me and Mongs asked him if we could sit in with him man and he asked us where we were from and we said South Africa and he couldn’t believe we could play anything, because maybe we were from the jungle. He goes, ‘You come from South Africa my man? No, come tomorrow’. And we did come tomorrow because we were that serious, desperate. Then after two weeks he gave us a break and we played with him, Mongs played so beautiful… and Ben Webster adopted Mongs after that, right there on the bandstand, he goes, ‘Man, you’re my son!’ And he wanted to go through it all, legally and everything, really, ask… I was just going to say, ‘Ask Johnny,’ I was just going to say ‘Ask Johnny’ man… In the end it was just a verbal contract, ‘Okay, I’m your son’. When Stuff Smith died we were consoling Ben Webster, he came to us, me, Mongs, Johnny and Dudu, he was crying and we looked after him for one day. We gave him respect, the respect that we came with from South Africa, he was our father, and he liked us for that, he liked us. He used to look after us very well, Ben…
It’s impossible for you to play free music if you don’t know the finer points and it’s very difficult to know the finer points, and to play something simple, if you don’t know the whole spectrum. It is very difficult to be simple. Like the things Paul Motion does are so simple, he lifts up his sticks and goes wallop! It seems so simple, but it’s not. It’s simple to play one note, just go to the piano and play it, but, fuck, how to put it? Miles Davis is a master of this, he would just play one note and it was so effective, it could knock you out, just one note, Monk too… and Steve Lacy, he can play like that, like a lazy snake, that texture, simple but so rich, you can’t have this richness unless you know the whole spectrum. It’s not simple actually, I shouldn’t say this is simple.
I’ve gone through periods in my life of heavy playing, I used to break my sticks and you have to go through it in order to break it down mathematically so you can just play one line, boom, and that’s it. So when that happens I just welcome it, I can’t say that I set out to do it, to plan it doesn’t work. It’s where the music carries you.
RS: When you start to play is there any intention of playing something in particular, or in a particular way?
No, you’re completely free in there. The approach is from a higher level, you’ve played already. The first note you hit; this is the note that controls you. You just follow, and you can get a vibe from the next person you’re playing with, and, especially if you’re playing with someone like Derek Bailey, there are so many forces that you don’t even have to play. The music just plays itself; the drums just play themselves sometimes.
RS: Is that specific to free playing?
It is specific to free-playing actually.
There’s no one word for it, as well. I’ve asked people for explanations of what happens, I thought that maybe I’m just stupid and can’t speak, you know? It’s difficult to put it in words. Cats like Derek they just tell you to play, ‘Play!’. Other people I ask them to play and they say, ‘Play what?’ I say what are you carrying in you’re hands? You’re carrying a saxophone? So play it!’ It’s very difficult. ‘Play what?’
RS: You mean they want a ‘thing’?
Mmm, but there is no thing! And nobody must make any thing out of it as well. There’s no thing, there’s nothing! Just play! I don’t know how to explain it man, I don’t have the gift of really explaining this music. Sometimes it’s hidden to us as well.
I sometimes think that if the music had been explained to me, what it would do to me, what it would do to me in my life, this heavy duty demand it makes, I don’t think I would ever be interested, now that I know what music can do to a person. I like music, but the life… if I could be born again and know that I’m going to come to be in exile, then no way, because exile is a fucker, self-exile, any exile is something else. Sometimes, a lot of times, I heard Dudu say that he would have preferred the difficulties of South Africa than to deal with the music over here. Because in South Africa, although there was the oppression and all that, we still played innocently, we didn’t know who the bank manager was! Over here you have to deal with him, and VAT, and all that shit. In South Africa at least the music was yours. And the people of South Africa, they recognise that if you are gifted in something, in anything, then you are that, and you are named that. You are respected, and just innocently too, no big deal, not because you have a million pounds in the bank, you are just the village drummer who makes his people happy. So I would be called ‘Louis Who Plays The Drums’, my surname would be ‘Drums’…
But here? It’s just another crazy drummer isn’t it? Whereas in South Africa I’m a person, a person who plays the drums. Here there are so many other things, forces which have nothing to do with life. But I thank God that I came here anyway, you know, because at least there’s one South African drummer who knows how to play free music, to play avant-garde. Because in my early days I thought I didn’t want to have anything to do with avant-garde, free music or jazz; I wanted to pay my rent, and it didn’t pay my rent so well! Whereas there were forces in the pop world that terribly wanted me, John Lennon, Frank Zappa, but I refused, because I just wanted to play with Dudu! And Mongs, Johnny, I couldn’t see myself leaving them, I couldn’t see myself leaving this fantastic music. Though I knew that if I did I would have some money, and then I was scared of this money. I was scared. You see, when I started playing free music I just cut off from everything, from money – there was no money anyway – and I hated it for not having it and then when I had it I’d just fuck it up, you know, just have a big ball and get rid of it, ha ha! So when these guys said, ‘I’m going to give you millions!’ I just said, ‘No thank you very much man, I’m going on the motorway now to play with Dudu in Cardiff for about £16!’ Ha ha! ‘Leave me alone, leave me alone!’ And Mongs too, he would say, ‘Leave him alone! Why don’t you leave him alone! Ah Mongs…
You see, we didn’t understand it. Like Mongs joined this guy Manfred Mann, they would go into this studio and do pop records. It would be £12 per hour, and these guys were fucking around in the studio, stretching the hours because they wanted more money, and Mongs was just wanted to take care of business and split, he was bored, just freaking out. These guys were fucking around for a whole day, and we really didn’t feel like this, so one time when the drummer was fucking around he invited me and we came in and played one track. The producer was very happy because we did this record in two hours, so of course these guys didn’t want us any more, we were fucking up the scene, you know?
The Blue Notes were such an underrated band. It’s a pity. At the time in the ’60s I wasn’t really aware of it, I was just in it, doing it, but it had so much impact on people. But we were never rated, we were not recognised, never, we were just left in the cold you know, we didn’t understand. Hence some of us maybe died before our time as well, because of the hardships in England, we went through some really strenuous shit in England, fighting against sheer odds. But we came to understand that blood is thicker than water. Even when we were not playing together as the Blue Notes we were together in soul, and Chris was helping me out in many ways that I’m not really prepared to talk about, those are secret things you know? We helped each other every way, just by being damned alive, you know, it was just enough. Now that they are gone… it’s like I got the sack you know, sacked out of the band…
I thank God for having met up with these guys. Like Dudu, this guy was a ton of music, you know? Mr. Dudu Pukwana, he used to compose about four songs a day, even in the hardship of South Africa, and practice every day. Dudu was just the pillar of the Blue Notes. Dudu the blessed light, he was a blessing, you know? He was special, I have an interview that he did actually, not knowing that he was going, that it was to be his last one. This guy just gave it to me the other day. I’m afraid to listen to it, it’s in my drawer over there, but I can’t put myself to listen to it.
And Mongs was the darling really, the sweetheart of the band, everyone loved him, Mongs would knock us out, everybody! Then we had this other guy called Nick Moyake, Nick was the older guy to us, and we respected him, he had more knowledge of music – indigenous music, music of the heart. He was just music and he pulled us together in terms of strength.
Then of course Johnny, every song that we played Johnny would just cream it and make it so beautiful, Johnny was so musical, anything he did was… he was kind of like a godsend for us, he had some magic about him. And we knew that from the start, when he was a young boy with a singing band I was playing drums backing them, it was ridiculous, he was such a fantastic singer – singing the high notes with such ease. Then he switched from alto singing to bass playing, and he played it so well. And he just fitted like a glove, he was in the same vibe as us, and he put the music of the Blue Notes where it was at, he was a gift from heaven.
Then Chris. We would just naturally get into songs, we would just take them lightly, like kindergarten songs, and Chris, maybe typically of a westerner, would leave no stone unturned and he saw the gold, which we didn’t because we were in the gold. He just saw this beautiful music, and did something about it. He organised it, put it into perspective from his musical knowledge. So we had everything in there, and everybody had a part to play. Chris was very broadminded, a very, very clever cat. In the end he was very proud of us, and we were very proud of him, secretly.
Now this is a secret, but we were very proud of each other and really kicked each other’s Asses. We did not play games with each other; we did not play buddy-buddy, even though we were buddies. If I fucked up Dudu would just go, ‘You fuck off man!’ No buddy-buddy. If I’m out of line or wrong, there was no bullshit. We were strict in our own ways and really very concentrated on this music. And we were so together too, we never failed to be at anybody’s beck and call, if anybody said, ‘practice’ under no circumstances were we to refuse, we were so keen. It was like an emergency, something very urgent we had to do, and our first record was called Very Urgent. It was just like a flower that burst open!
The Blue Notes did not split actually, we just stopped playing with each other for some time and went off to form our own bands, each of which was successful. And the Blue Notes was the fountain, and we never went back to ask for help. There was a link. And now and then we would meet and play with each other, and that was unbelievable man, unbelievable. Dudu and me were going to do this gig for Chris that would have been the gig of the century, really. But it wasn’t supposed to be…
I thought Chris was the one who was going to live longer than anyone else. Because Chris was the one that was, like, health conscious. So much so that sometimes we would be pissed off with him. Like we would be making this interview in a hotel foyer with some big Italian guys, like the BBC or the equivalent, and Chris would steam in there with a bag, just a see-through bag of onions, which are good for the heart, and some carrots and honey. We’re sitting in this foyer drinking some Champagne and me and Dudu are just wanting to finish so we can have a beer, and Chris would be just the opposite, he’d want the meeting closed so he can go and meditate upstairs. And we want to go and fuck ourselves up with beer!
So I just really thought that Chris would live longest. Up to the point when Johnny died it was just like roulette, like Russian roulette, like, who’s going to go first? It was terrible! And Dudu sometimes was very outspoken; he used to talk about it a lot, like, ‘Whose next?’ And Johnny and me would just tell him to leave it out. It was horrible, just like Russian roulette…
But I thank the Lord for having put it together, for having shared a life with these guys, a very very good foundation, and a very good musical background. The Blue Notes was a school. And from the start it was like we knew that this wasn’t going to last very long this band. But we were given some time; we had a long run, about thirty years, no no, thirty-two years…
And now there’s nobody… Sometimes, often when I’m in a nice place or nice company, I think that I shouldn’t be here, and I start thinking, ‘Oh shit, Johnny’s not here to enjoy this’. Every time. I wish it to go away from me, you know? Because I’m really pregnant with these guys. Pregnant with them, they’re in me. It’s a shame. And I knew them from like boys too, when we were still young…
I dream about them a lot. The day before yesterday I was with Dudu, literally, really I was with Dudu in my dream. We were just relaxed. All of them, I’ve dreamt of all of them. It’s nice, to feel like they’re visiting me now and then, you know?
(6th September 1990.)