Listening to….Johnny Dyani

My fascination for the music of South Africa goes back a long way, probably to the first time I saw & heard  Dollar Brand performing solo at  Copenhagen’s ‘Jazzhus Montmartre’ in the early 1970’s.  The rich and distinctive nature of the  South African folk tunes that DB adapted so freely had a huge impact on me  and made me eager for more. 

Back in England, friends introduced me to the music of The Blue Notes for whom Johnny Dyani played bass.   The story of this group of apartheid ‘refuseniks’ who operated a multi-racial band under considerable pressure in early 60’s South Africa, then defected en masse following an appearance at a 1964 Swiss jazz festival seemed quite extraordinary.  Of the original band, only the homesick tenor player Nick Moyake returned to South Africa, whilst Dyani, along with Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza and Chris McGregor settled in the UK and  almost immediately connected with the ‘free’ jazz community of London.’

The music made by The Blue Notes was a far wilder take on the township experience than Dollar Brand’s stately Ellingtonian themes.  Whilst they were individually fine musicians, it was as a unit that The Blue Notes really took off.  Their live performances were legendary for wild diversions into percussion and vocal improvisations and whilst they were criminally under-recorded as a band, one recording of a 1977 Blue Notes gig from London’s ‘100 Club’ forms part of the recently released Blue Notes Box Set on Ogun and is a fair reflection of what they could do on stage..

The liaisons between The Blue Notes and the local free jazzers in London ultimately led to the Brotherhood of  Breath,a quite extraordinary ‘free’ big band  that incorporated most of the Blue Notes, along with the cream of the UK’s free players.  Their history has been rather better documented, with several studio recordings and a number of live sets available on CD.

Individually, members of the band were also active in a variety of projects, not all of them as musically challenging as The Brotherhood or the Blue Notes – for example, Pukwana, Moholo and Feza were involved in a jazz-rock band called Assagai, who recorded unsuccessfully in an attempt to exploit the Osibisa/Santana fan base. 

Johnny Dyani’s fat, Mingus-like tone  brought him many admirers and meant that he, too, had plenty of opportunity to work with other musicians.  He toured in South America in 1966 with Steve Lacy, then moved from London to Copenhagen, where he played and recorded with other Scandinavian incomers like Dollar Brand and Don Cherry.   He also recorded with the likes of Mal Waldron and David Murray as well as maintaining a foothold in both The Blue Notes and (occasionally) the Brotherhood of Breath.

In the 1970’s, Dyani signed a contract with the Danish Steeplechase label and produced a series of excellent albums for them (often featuring Dudu Pukwana) up until his death in 1986.  ‘Angolian Cry’  (did he mean ‘Angolan’?) from 1985 was the last of these and is an excellent post-bop session that features a piano-less quartet involving sax player John Tchicai, drummer Billy Hart and trumpeter Harry Beckett.  The session veers from Ornette-ish free pieces through township-influenced blues (including one dedicated to Nick Moyake, the ‘Blue Note’ who went back to South Africa) to  more mainstream pieces.  All the soloists get their moment in the sun and both Beckett and Dyani himself are in notably good form.


My fascination with South African music continued (and does so to this day), but the problem in the 70’s and ’80’s was getting hold of anything other than the small quantity of  ‘expatriate’ South African music available -which was usually jazz.  Eventually, and increasingly as the release of Mandela drew close,  more stuff began to emerge -including great swathes of South African popular music made over the years since the Second World War.  I began to learn about kwela and marabi and mbaqanga and gained a dim understanding of the huge complexities of the South African music scene under apartheid and -in particular- how music, too, was subject to a kind of apartheid, with each racial/tribal community having its own favoured styles and performers.

That, however,  is a conglomeration of many complex topics – so, definitely one  I’ll save for another time!


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