When I was up in London recently for the Maria Rita gig I had the pleasure of 'sitting in' and playing percussion with three superb Congolese musicians who perform under the name 'Trio Lokito'. I was actually quite surprised at how easily I slotted in with their music: they were very complimentary about my grasp of their rhythms and I really don't think they were just being polite because they asked me to stick around and play the rest of the gig with them. Afterwards I discovered that they are part of a bigger unit - Grupo Lokito -which is quite well established in and around London. The group fuses Congolese and Cuban rhthms to great effect and you can here examples of the music if you follow the above link.
In fact I'm no stranger to African music. I was first drawn to the sounds of Kwela - the black South African music that surfaced in the fifties - when I was about fourteen and I heard Tom Hark by Elias and his Zig Zag Jive Flutes. Quite how this record found its way into the English pop charts I don't know, but the music seemed to resonate beyond the Townships. A Kwela sequence featured in the musical King Kong, which opened in the West End in with an all black cast in 1961. I don't recall how I saw the scene in question -I guess it must have been shown on TV - but I remember vividly the image of a small black boy (Lemmy 'Special' Mabaso) leaping out of a dustbin in full flight on the penny whistle. Another Kwela musician that I heard around that time was Spokes Mashiyane, who was considered to be the best of them. (If you follow the link you will find quite a few examples of his music.)
My appetite had been whetted for this kind of music and when a show called 'Wait a Minim' came to England it brought with it singer / songwriter Jeremy Taylor (see Woke up this afternoon Part two) and the Tracey brothers - Paul and Andrew (sons of the famous ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey), all three of whom were of English origins but had strong South African connections. They released an album in 1964 called 'Always Something New Out of Africa', which I pounced on eagerly. This contained a wealth of interesting stuff including, ironically, a version of Jobim's 'Garota De Ipanema', neatly linking Africa with Brazilian music by playing the melody on a Kalimba. Of particular interest to me was the tune Masanga by a Congolese musician called Jean Bosco Mwenda. I loved the way it rippled and bubbled along with a sweet, yearning kind of quality to it and it was not that much of a surprise to find that the guitarist John Williams had subsequently recorded it, along with a wealth of other African material, on his 2001 album The Magic Box. I managed to find this clip of Mwenda on YouTube. It's about eight minutes long and is pretty uninspiring at first, but at about 2. 40 secs in he starts to play Masanga. It's well worth waiting for.
At some point towards the end of the sixties I became aware of one Chris McGregor. He was a white South African jazz pianist and composer who had been forced into exile along with the black members of his band, by a regime that couldn't tolerate such a unit. The group was called The Blue Notes and their music came as a revelation to the European jazz scene. by this time I was involved with The Freeman Syndicate club at The White Hart, Southall (see also Mutt and Jeff) and we booked the band to play one Friday night around 1967 or 68 - I can't remember exactly. I do remember being completely poleaxed by the power of their performance however, even if I didn't yet entirely understand what they were doing. Their mixture of Township grooves and free jazz was a bit bewildering at first, but by the end of that evening I was beginning to have a dim glimmering of comprehension.
Most English jazz musicians were not as slow on the uptake as me, and Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo in particular, went on to influence some of our finest musicians. Chris went on to found The Brotherhood of Breath, a big band based around The Blue Notes and expanded by like-minded British players. I was invited to the concert that launched their first LP on the RCA 'Neon' label in 1971. It was a memorable night and I can still remember the kick I got from event, especially a tune called 'Union Special' which made me laugh with joy. Chris died in 1990 but his music lives on when the band is occasionally reassembled to play his compositions. Of the original core Blue Notes, only Louis Moholo is still alive, but the 'empty chairs' are eagerly filled, often with musicians who came to prominence in the great Loose Tubes big band, a unit that drew great inspiration from The Brotherhood and the original Blue Notes. The piano chair has been taken by both Roland Perrin and Keith Tippet. There are no YouTube clips of either the Blue Notes or The Brotherhood to be found at the moment, but here are Dudu Pukwana: sax, Chris McGregor: piano, Louis Moholo: drums and Johnny Dyani: bass, playing Blue Notes For Mongezi - Fourth Movement (end) which was recorded immediately after Mongezi Feza's memorial service in December 1975.
I'll pick the story up in the next posting.