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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Totally off-topic, totally righteous

by | August 23rd, 2013 | 06:03 am

schadeberg resized

I’ll let you in on a little secret: The South African Airways business class lounge in Johannesburg is frequently overcrowded, but most travelers don’t seem to realize that if one goes down the passageway to the left of the bar, there are additional rooms.  On the left, there is a sports-themed room with the iconic photo of Nelson Mandela wearing the Springboks jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup championship game.  Further down the corridor on the right there is another room; I usually go there and read.

Hanging on the right wall of that corridor is a series of photographs, including the one above, of the South African jazz scene in the 1950s and early 1960s taken by Jurgen Schadeberg.

I was reminded of this photograph when my friend in Johannesburg, Brooks Spector, sent me the notice for an event this Sunday, “Lucky Bean presents: A tribute to Johnny Dyani.” Along with Mongezi Feza and Dudu Pukwana, the trumpeter and saxophonist in the photo, Dyani, a bass player and pianist, was a member of South Africa’s first racially integrated jazz band, The Blue Notes. Jazz has always been a form of defiance—it cannot be pinned down, it cannot be contained–but for the Blue Notes, the very existence of their band was a threat. After constant harassment by the authorities, in 1964 the group went into exile in Europe. Dyani and Feza were still in their teens. It is hard for me to imagine anything more sad or more cruel:  to run teenagers out of their own country for…wanting to play music in their own way.

Life as a working musician is seldom easy, but the Blue Notes hoed an exceptionally hard row. Tenor sax player Nikele Moyake, the oldest of the group, had trouble adjusting, and returned to South Africa, dying within a year of a brain tumor. The others carried on, but the band eventually splintered. Most never made it home.

Feza, Pukwana, and, occasionally, Dyani, played in the Brotherhood of Breath, the big band that the Blue Notes’ classically trained pianist Chris McGregor organized in London. Dyani split for Scandinavia, where he and Feza, along with Turkish percussionist Okay Temiz, recorded the wonderful “Music for Xaba.” Feza returned to London and the Brotherhood where he died of untreated pneumonia in 1975. He was 30 years old. The surviving members of the Blue Notes regrouped and recorded the incandescent “Blue Notes for Mongezi” (see below).

They gigged on. Dyani led his own groups and played in duets with David Murray and Mal Waldron. He died of undisclosed causes in Berlin 1986, aged 40. The surviving Blue Notes again regrouped to record “Blue Notes for Johnny.”

McGregor decamped to France and formed another incarnation of the Brotherhood of Breath. He died there in 1990, aged 49.  After the death of his lifelong friend, Dudu Pukwana returned to South Africa and died of liver failure later that year.

Drummer Louis Moholo was the only member of the group to outlast the apartheid regime that had driven them out of their own country.  He returned to South Africa and lives in Cape Town.

People sometimes question veracity of the testimony of the refugees that we have surveyed. It’s a fair point. Their stories are largely unverifiable and people habitually lie to make themselves look better. Whatever their possible dissembling, however, it’s the attitudes of others that disturb me more.  The refugees are an annoyance.  They get in the way of serious people trying to do serious policy.  Once in conversation a South Korean official referred to them as “troublemakers.” The North Koreans call them worse. But tell me, how many times can you play a straight reading of “Onwards Toward the Final Victory” before you want to vomit? How many Johnny Dyanis are there in North Korea?

So if you happen to be in Johannesburg this Sunday, stop by the Lucky Bean and celebrate the life of Johnny Mbizo Dyani. Admission is R100.