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Top 10 Albums of the South African Jazz Diaspora

Tony is a writer and photographer who lives in Pretoria, South Africa.


International Connections

On trips to Europe in the late 1980s and early '90s I used to remark, only half facetiously, that the best South African music was to be heard in the jazz clubs of London, Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam—rather than in South Africa. Indeed some of the best South African musicians then lived there, having left the rigours and horrors of their apartheid-ridden homeland in the three decades of the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

Among these were perhaps most notably Abdullah Ibrahim and Chris McGregor, two pianists from Cape Town who each had considerable compositional and arranging skills, who each had already made names for themselves as bandleaders back in South Africa.

In his preface to Christopher Ballantine's excellent history of early South African jazz Marabi Nights (Ravan Press, 1993) Darius Brubeck writes: “... in the 1960s and 1970s South Africa was, musically speaking, better known for its 'exile' musicians, while players living in the country were largely unknown.”

He went on to ask: “What cultural forces impelled world-renowned artists like Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Chris McGregor to become jazz musicians in the first place?”

Clearly, the existence of a deep and interesting jazz culture in the country was one such force. The musicians did not spring out of nowhere. They were building on a rich and deep history of music as a cultural expression. Chris McGregor, who studied classical music at the College of Music in Cape Town, was deeply influenced by the fact that he grew up in a rural area, where music was an integral part of the people's lives, where music was the natural expression of and accompaniment to all-important life situations. All life-changing events were celebrated or mourned, as appropriate, with songs, instruments, drums and dancing. So when he came across the already lively jazz scene in Cape Town in the late 1950s he felt immediately at home, as if that tradition was just a continuation of the music he had experienced and heard in his school days in the old Transkei. Very soon he found this music to be more relevant than the works of the old masters of Europe, and he left the College and became a full-time jazz musician, risking a lot in the process, as he had been almost assured of a good career as concert pianist and composer.

As he expressed it in an interview with writer Graham Lock (Chasing the Vibration, Stride Publications, 1994): “I felt I couldn't line myself up behind that Occidental tradition. I felt it wasn't feeding me, that it wasn't mine. Something in my creativity wasn't being satisfied at all. I didn't realise then what it was, but I know now: I grew up with different stuff.”

So, while jazz as a form originated in the United States, it found a ready breeding ground, as it were, in South Africa, where music was in any case so important in the everyday lives of the people. The interaction between local musicians and people from the US started in the 1800s when various US choirs, mostly church-related, arrived in South Africa to tour. One of the most famous of such interactions was with the Confederate ship the “Alabama” which came to Cape Town in 1863, a visit, the effects of which are still felt in the music of the Cape.

This interaction continued through the middle of the 20th century when Abdullah Ibrahim, then still known as Dollar Brand, already deeply into music, would visit the sailors of US ships in Cape Town Harbour and listen to the music they brought with them. One version of the story of how he got to be called “Dollar” is related to his visiting these ships.


It All Started With a Musical Called King Kong

One way the rest of the world became aware of the music of South Africa was the arrival in London and the US of the musical, also called the “jazz opera,” King Kong, which had started in South Africa in 1959 and went to London and the US in 1961, the year after the Sharpeville massacre.

The South African cast included Miriam Makeba in the role of Joyce, but she was replaced by Peggy Phango in the overseas cast. The cast which went to London reads like a list of the top jazz musicians of South Africa at the time, and the tour of the show was really the beginning of the South African jazz diaspora – the cast included singers Nathan Mdledle of the Manhattan Brothers, and Ben “Satch” Masinga, Sophie Mgcina, and Abigail Kubeka, Thandie Klaasen, and a very young Letta Mbulu. Pianist, composer, and arranger Victor Ndlazilwana was in the cast as a photographer, Caiphus Semenya as a gumboot dancer and bassist Gwigwi Mrwebi played the role of an old gossip of the township. The show was like a hothouse growing South African jazz musicians in a new way, because in the orchestra were people like legendary alto player Kippie 'Morolong' Moeketsi, also known as the “Charlie Parker” of South Africa, composer and pianist Todd Matshikiza, under the leadership of the great Mackay Davashe, whose Jazz Dazzlers band formed the core of the orchestra. The show was, in the words of David Caplan (In Township Tonight, Ravan Press, 1985): “ ultimate achievement and final flowering of Sophiatown culture.”

While the music of King Kong was not really jazz per se, the presence in the cast and orchestra of so many jazz musicians gave it a strong flavour of township jazz. As Harold Bloom wrote in the introduction to the Fontana Books 1961 edition of the book, the music of King Kong “reflects all the shades, moods, and contrasts of life in Johannesburg's shantytowns.”

Many members of the cast decided not to return to South Africa after its runs in the UK and the US, choosing instead the life of exiles, a bitter-sweet existence far away from both the horrors of apartheid and the roots of their music. Some returned after the liberation of South Africa in 1994, some died in exile before liberation, and some have chosen to remain in their adopted lands.

All of the exiled musicians made contributions to the development of the South African jazz oeuvre, some as leaders, some as composers, some as arrangers and some as players. For the purposes of this article, I am going to concentrate on six who led their own outfits on recording dates and so have left lasting documents of their musical skills and approaches: Abdullah Ibrahim, Chris McGregor, Hugh Masekela, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Mbizo Dyani and Bheki Mseleku.


1. Home Is Where the Music Is (Hugh Masekela)

This is a very fine album which was, for some inexplicable reason, not available on CD until 2008. In my view, it is the best album has ever made, not least because of the arrangements by Dudu Pukwana, who also contributes some fine alto playing on the album. Masekela and Pukwana are joined on the album by Larry Willis on piano, Makhaya Ntshoko on drums and Eddie Gomez on bass. A superb lineup, with the non-South African musicians providing some excellent and sensitive accompaniment to the South Africans. The tracks range from Caiphus Semenya compositions to songs by Kippie Moeketsi, Sekou Toure, and Miriam Makeba. They are all so great that I find it difficult to single any out but listen to the incredible playing of both Masekela and Pukwana on the Makeba song “Uhome” (The Dove) and that wonderful ballad by Semenya “Nomali”. Also outstanding is another Semenya song, “Maesha.” Truly an album to treasure.


2. Good News From Africa (Dollar Brand Duo)

Recorded in 1973, this album features a duo comprising Abdullah Ibrahim (then still billed as Dollar Brand) and the bassist who went into exile with Chris McGregor's Blue notes, Johnny Mbizo Dyani. It opens with one of the most well-known indigenous hymns in South Africa, “Ntsikana's Bell”, written by Xhosa saint and sage, Ntiskana, who was one of the first Xhosa converts to Christianity, and whose songs comprise a separate category of Xhosa songs, iingoma zikaNtsikana (Dave Dargie, Xhosa Music, David Philip, 1988). This particular song is the one Ntsikana used to call his followers to worship (hence the “Bell” in the title). The “Bell” is usually sung as an introduction to the “Great Hymn” which he composed and which is still sung by choirs all over South Africa but especially by the isiXhosa-speaking people. Dyani himself was umXhosa. This track is for me engrossing and wonderful, and should always be played at the maximum volume available on your player! Both musicians on the album play various instruments and sing on some of the songs. The sound of Dyani's bass is particularly wonderful.

Six years later the duo made another album, Echoes from Africa which is also great.


3. The Journey (Ibrahim and Dyani)

In September 1977 Ibrahim and Dyani collaborated again, this time with a large ensemble of US musicians, including Hamiett Bluiett on baritone sax and clarinet, Don Cherry on trumpet, Talib Kibwe on alto sax and oboe, Carlos Ward on alto, Claude Jones on congas, John Betsch and Roy Brooks on percussion. The studio recording followed a performance at New York's Alice Tully Hall the evening before. The album comprises three tracks, all Ibrahim compositions: “Sister Rosie”, “Jabulani” and “Hajj”. “Sister Rosie” is a wonderful romp of Cape Town rhythms, harmonies, and melody, harking back to Ibrahim's roots in the Creole culture of that city. Wonderful echoes of the New Year's Carnival in Cape Town. “Jabulani” is a joyful sonic explosion of growls, grunts, and high-flying trumpet over an ever-moving percussion with the bass providing comments. Dyani's extended solo ranges from passages of free playing to echoes of Xhosa traditional songs. Ibrahim plays only soprano sax and not piano on these two tracks. The piano features only on the final track “Hajj”, which is a long tone-poem with a hypnotic beat and lots of melismatic playing giving it a near eastern flavour. Typical of Ibrahim's later works.


4. Song for Biko (Johnny Dyani Quartet)

This 1978 album features Johnny Dyani in a quartet with Don Cherry on cornet, Dudu Pukwana on alto and Makaya Ntshoko on drums. All five tracks were composed by Dyani and show his varied compositional talents—from the jaunty “Wish You Sunshine” of the first track to the long, reflective “Lonely Flower in the Village” which evokes images of his birthplace in the now-destroyed Duncan Village suburb of the Eastern Cape city of East London.


5. Mbizo (Johnny Dyani Quartet)

Johnny Dyani and his quartet made this live recording in Glasgow, Scotland, in February 1981, little more than five years before his untimely death. The quartet comprised, besides Johnny, Ed Epstein on alto and baritone saxes, Dudu Pukwana on alto, and Churchill Jolobe on drums.


6. In the Townships (Dudu Pukwana)

This album epitomises my comment about the best South African jazz being played in Europe tather than South Africa. From the opening notes of track one, “Baloyi” the South African energy and urgency come through. Pukwana's alto dominates with its fiery, percussive beat leading the attack. The seven tracks all breath this energy, this love of melody, harmony and rhythm. As critic Brian Olewnick writes on the Allmusic site: “Happily, these melodies are so utterly catchy that one can wallow in them for hours, listening with giddy enjoyment as these musicians overlay and embroider them with uproarious playing, not to mention the frequent vocal exhortations and cries.” The album is also notable for the considerable contribution of the still young Mongezi Feza on trumpet, as is the next album. Mongezi died too soon to leave a great discographical legacy so any opportunity to hear him be cherished, and on this album, his contribution shines.


7. Diamond Express (Dudu Pukwana)

Dudu Pukwana was the fiery, feisty alto player who went to Europe with pianist Chris McGregor's Blue Notes in the 1960s along with bassist Johnny Dyani, trumpeter Mongezi Feza, and drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo. This group shook up what was a rather staid British jazz scene with their eclectic mix of African rhythms and harmonies with the free jazz sounds that had burst onto the jazz scene with the release on Ornette Coleman's historic double-quartet album entitled Free Jazz. Pukwana, who expressed a fondness for the sound of Johnny Hodges, was nevertheless a player of hot, angular alto lines that were a far cry from the smooth sound of his hero. This album, sadly long out of print, is a wonderfully ebullient expression of township jazz mediated through an electronic haze of sound, with Pukwana's alto always wailing over the mix. Recorded in 1975, it is also a valuable documentation of the skill and artistry of Mongezi Feza, who died tragically not long after the recording session. The album brings together some notable South African exile musicians with a few of the younger British jazz musos like Elton Dean, giving it a somewhat funkier feel than Pukwana's earlier, more solidly African, In the Townships. But it is a great album for all that. Feza's solo on “Bird Lives” is just wonderful.


8. Yes Please (Brotherhood of Breath)

Chris McGregor was invited to play the Angouleme Jazz Festival in France in 1981, along with his big band the Brotherhood of Breath. This is a studio recording of the set the band played at the festival and it is a joy. It features a typical McGregorian mix of African and European musicians, including two basses and two drummers, along with a cello. The recording also marks something of a change for the Brotherhood – a more structured approach that enabled the band, in the words of one critic, to gain enormously in coherence and legibility “without losing too much of the libertarian flame which ignited it so joyously in the past.” One of the outstanding tracks is the lovely, reflective “Uqonda” which features a flute obligato beautifully played by Bruce Grant under the theme stated on the bass by Ernest Mothle and a great solo from trumpeter Peter Segona. This track alone is worth the price of the album if you can find it. I have found a bootleg CD of it has been released by Downtown Music Gallery in New York City. Get it if you can, even if its a bootleg!


9. Country Cooking (Brotherhood of Breath)

Recorded in 1988 this is perhaps the finest Brotherhood of Breath album, certainly very representative of the last version of the band. McGregor died two years later and the band did not long survive him. His arrangements shine on this album as does his piano playing. McGregor's debt to and love of Ellington shows in the amazing track “Maxine” (named for his wife). It is a great, African-sounding collection of songs with a few outstanding numbers—my favourite (apart from “Maxine”) is the lively Peter Segona tune “Sejui (You and Me)” to which Chris added a rocking boogie section. Great listening!


10. Celebration (Bheki Mseleku)

Pianist Bheki Mseleku in a superb album with US-based musicians Michael Bowie on bass and Marvin 'Smitty' Smith on drums, with contributions from some British musicians like Eddie Parker on flutes, Courtney Pine and Steve Williamson on soprano sax, fellow South African exile Thebe Lipere on percussion and Jean Toussaint on tenor. This album so clearly demonstrates the creative possibilities that open up when people from different cultures and backgrounds get together with an openness to those possibilities. This is a great album by a South African jazz man who has now also sadly “left us.

Chris McGregor with Archie Shepp, 1989

Chris McGregor with Archie Shepp, 1989

The Two-Edged Sword of Exile

In writing this article I have been alternating between tears and joy—so much was lost and so much gained through the diaspora. It was indeed a two-edged sword that took musicians away from their roots and the sources of their art and exposed them to the richness that was happening in the jazz world of Europe and the States. How to weigh up what was gained and what was lost?

The fact is these great artists did leave their homes and families, they did hear what was happening in the new worlds they went to, and they were changed. Along the way they also changed the way jazz was played and heard, in Europe especially. The list of musicians who played with and were deeply influenced by that relatively small group of South African musicians is long and honourable, including Dave Holland, John Tchicai, Evan Parker, Keith Tippett, Mike Osborne, Barry Altschul, Barre Philips, Archie Shepp, John Surman, and on and on.

It is a rare and wonderful thing that these few, humble musicians from South Africa could do what they did, despite the pain, despite the many losses. Of the group that left South Africa with McGregor only Louis Moholo-Moholo is left, the others having died in exile without ever returning to their homeland, except for brief visits. And that is the final, tragic truth about them As Joe Boyd wrote in his White Bicycles (Serpent's Tail, 2006): “Whatever the cause of death on the certificate, homesickness and exile were their true afflictions, and the potential cure of being welcomed by their adopted British homeland was never really on offer.”

© 2009 Tony McGregor


ixwa on January 24, 2014:

True, Gallo being one of the Music robbers of African musicians and many others.. Well, Tony, great work of some of the most important artists here in Mzantsi.. Used to hang with many of them here in Mzantsi and at times in their dwellings overseas.. Great coverage and excellent musical history.. not very well-known in the West. Videos will give a sense of the music that these Artists have created and composed for the uninitiated. I am in some Wall on FB and they are dealing with a lot of African American Jazz, well, I am there too, introducing them to the South African Jazz and the musicians that created it.Since it is an International Audience, I do receive much feedback, but am still struggling with the Jazz Music lovers in America, who still do not have a sense of what Jazz in South Africa is all about.Well, you have done such an excellent job, I will drive some of them your way-hope the come and read and listen to the Hub's History of Jazz in south Africa.. And most of them like to listen too.. Hola! Tony, hope I have not hogged space here.. Just adding my two cents to a great Hub above...

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on February 14, 2011:

Barbara - thanks for this very supportive and interesting comment. I guess my caring for these artists is personal as I know many of them personally and of course, one is my brother! I do have a certain reluctance to post vids of South African artists because of the copyright thing and the fact that so many of them were robbed of the payments due to them by unscrupulous record companies and the like.

However the main reasons were that I couldn't at the time find any that I liked well enough to put here and I didn't want to burden the Hub. I have come a long way in how I put Hubs together since I did this one and so maybe I should edit it a bit to add some vids. Good point.

Thanks for stopping by and many hugs to you, good friend!

Love and peace


Barbara from Stepping past clutter on February 12, 2011:

Hey tonymac! I read this hub with my usual interest, yet I noted two differences in this presentation- a switch from your normal fare.

First, I experienced the emotional response you felt, describing the challenges these musicians survived. I found this revealing of your character and very touching. :)

Second, I scanned the hub for a musical rendition representative of the artists you shared. This was lacking. I went to YouTube myself and downloaded Chris McGregor, playing Brotherhood of Breath, because I like to read music hubs with musical accompaniment. I thought perhaps these artists were not, for some reason, on YouTube, but I found that thought was incorrect.

Because videos were not here, I had another thought; perhaps you are protecting the artists, i.e., against copyright infringement? In past hubs of yours, you have included samples of the actual music.

If this is a raised consciousness, perhaps I will have to reexamine my own music hubs. I tend to think sharing the music encourages sales, but perhaps you have learned otherwise?

I appreciate your caretaking spirit as evidenced in this articulate telling. Hugs, Barbara

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on November 12, 2010:

Audrey - thank you so much. I really appreciate that. And my best to Randy! Hope he enjoyed.

Love and peace


Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on November 06, 2010:

Hi Tony, my friend. Enjoyed your hub and am sending it to my son, a jazz musician, teacher and Luthier, Randy. Thanks and voted up and awesome.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on June 01, 2010:

Bkuzemka - thanks for the visit and the comment. I don't think you'll be disappointed in "Good News" - it's a great album!

Would love to hear how you got turned onto McGregor?

Love and peace


bkuzemka on June 01, 2010:

ive dug mcgregor a lot before & tho my knowledge of masekela goes only as far as a greatest hits album, i love the guys stuff nonetheless. i ll have to take your word on good news from africa & check it out. groovy article.

nextstopjupiter from here, there and everywhere on November 05, 2009:

Thanks for another great hub! Unfortunately I have only one of these albums (Dudu Pukwana - Diamond Express) but I hope to find some more soon.

Frieda Babbley from Saint Louis, MO on November 02, 2009:

I'm anxious to get my ears listening to these. Thanks Tony!

Kartika Damon on November 02, 2009:

Fabulous hub, Tony! Every album cover is a work of art - I will have to check these musicians out! I love Miriam Makeba another amazing artist from South Africa - I was lucky enough to get to see her live in the 60's (remember when?) in Cherry Hill, New Jersey! Have a wonderful day! Peace, Kartika

Barbara from Stepping past clutter on November 02, 2009:

The painting at the top is fantastic. Thanks for the information on these jazz picks. Now I have to zip to YouTube and take a listen!

Dave McClure from Worcester, UK on November 02, 2009:

Hi Tony - thanks for this great insight into a different music scene. I've not come across these musicians before but I'll know who to be looking out for, armed with your suggestions.