Political Songs | Jo’burg – New York – Johnny Dyani Quartet

The ‘Johannesburgness’ of this track from the jazz artist’s acclaimed Song for Biko album makes it the perfect pairing for Sam Nhlengethwa’s exhibition of City of Gold artworks. 

On Saturday 12 October, artist Sam Nhlengethwa took the Goodman Gallery staff on an introductory tour of his latest exhibition, which was opening at the Johannesburg gallery that day. There to deejay at the opening, I eagerly tagged along. “Joburg has everything that you want,” he said, summarising the spectacular centrepiece of his new exhibition, Joburg Selected

This massive, magnetic piece, titled I Love Jozi, covers a wall in the spacious gallery. It’s a collage of pale sky, buildings, roads, pavements, flyovers; a movement of cars, taxis, workers, pedestrians, jobseekers, waste pickers, hawkers, dreamers, wanderers, outsiders; urban life alive on the canvas, you can almost smell the smoke, sweat, dust, money. It’s the roar of a metropolis trying to survive against the odds. It’s a love letter to a city that some find difficult to like, but many cannot resist.

In his prints and paintings, Nhlengethwa uses overlays of techniques such as collage, painting, drawing and photography. Born in Springs in 1955, he has spent much of his life working in and around Johannesburg. 

In the exhibition, Nhlengethwa shows how the City of Gold has “everything you want”. But can you get it, he asks as importantly with the 24 works on display.

2019: I love Jozi a collage by Sam Nhlengethwa is one of the works on show in his latest exhibition, Joburg Selected, which opened at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. (Artwork by Sam Nhlengethwa)
2019: I love Jozi a collage by Sam Nhlengethwa is one of the works on show in his latest exhibition, Joburg Selected, which opened at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. (Artwork by Sam Nhlengethwa)

Around the corner from I Love Jozi is an equally powerful, but much smaller, mixed-media work – measuring 95x115cm – called JSE in Winter, as in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. It focuses on a photograph of the 132-year-old JSE’s fifth stock exchange building at 17 Diagonal Street in downtown Johannesburg. It was one of the first atrium buildings in the city. The JSE moved out of this building in 2000 as part of the capital flight from the inner city, relocating to its current home in the upmarket area of Sandton.

The multilayered collage that is JSE in Winter hits you in the solar plexus. In the foreground, in black and white, is a queue of black working-class men in overalls, clearly from the late 1970s and early 1980s, waiting to get into the temple of white capital, the stock exchange. They want access to the riches of the boom town, but we know the answer to the question of whether or not they can get it.

South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, the promised redistribution of wealth has never materialised. Last year, the South African Human Rights Commission said that 64% of black South Africans, 41% of people categorised as coloured by the apartheid government, 6% of South Africans of Indian descent and 1% of white people live in poverty.

That contrast in JSE in Winter eloquently illustrates this discontent, of a season that hasn’t changed for those still queuing outside in the cold.

Soundtrack to the art

My job at the opening was to play vinyl records that hummed along to the jazz and Joburg-loving Nhlengethwa’s works. As a believer in more is less – more or less – I packed enough LPs and 45s to easily play for four, five times longer than the requested two-hour set. They included classics like Miles, Coltrane (both Alice and John), Nina, Mingus and even more to the left field with Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders and Gary Bartz. 

Lots of beauties came along in my South African record bag, many reflecting the politics of home: Letta Mbulu, Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Basil Coetzee, Miriam Makeba, The Movers, Harari, Batsumi, Jabula, Teenage Lovers, Soul of the City, Dudu Pukwana and Joe Malinga.

And then there was the Johnny Dyani Quartet’s powerful Song for Biko, an album that was released in 1978, a year after Steve Biko’s death in security police cells in Pretoria.

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It was recorded in Copenhagen on 18 July 1978 and released on the SteepleChase Records label. Cook and Morton wrote in the 1998 authoritative The Penguin Guide to Jazz that it comes from “Dyani’s most consistently inventive period”, describing him as “one of the most distinctive bass players since Charles Mingus”.

“He was a robust and intelligent bass player whose symmetrical sense of structure brings to his compositions both challenge and accessibility,” wrote Jazz Journal International magazine’s Chris Sheridan on the sleeve notes of Song for Biko.

Dyani was born on 30 November 1945 and grew up in the East London township of  Duncan Village. He was clearly prodigiously talented from an early age. His life changed radically when revered, interracial jazz band the Blue Notes played a concert in Duncan Village. The brave Dyani, then a mere 16 years old, asked to practice with the band. 

As Brandon Norman retells it in a biography for South African History Online, the members agreed and “realised from the instant he began to play that this was no mere boy, but rather an incredibly talented musician. Dyani became a member of the band that same day.”

Dyani and the Blue Notes

The Blue Notes were a big deal. Lloyd Bradley described their sound in his book, Sounds Like London (2013), as a “perfectly balanced blend of free jazz invention and township swagger”.

At the age of 19, Dyani joined the Blue Notes – comprising Chris McGregor on piano, Mongezi Feza on trumpet, Dudu Pukwana on alto sax, Nikele Moyake on tenor sax and Louis Moholo on drums, with Dyani on bass – when they went into exile in 1964. As a highly politicised band, they had no choice. 

“So if we had stayed in SA, I think we would have been fucked up,” Moholo told the All About Jazz website in a 2002 interview. “The Boers would have succeeded in breaking us up.”

Once they had settled in London, the Blue Notes became hugely influential, both as a band and subsequently as individual musicians, in rejuvenating the then dormant British jazz scene. “They were at the core of London’s contemporary jazz world as it imposed itself on Europe,” wrote Bradley in Sounds Like London.

From the 1970s onwards, the members largely went in their own directions. The prolific Dyani settled in Scandinavia and maintained his links with the Blue Notes, especially with Pukwana. They played together on the acclaimed Song for Biko and Witchdoctor’s Son, recorded within months of each other in Copenhagen.

The song I played from Song for Biko during my set at the gallery was its magisterial final track, Jo’burg – New York, for its “Johannesburgness”. Dedicated to the people of South Africa, it is 16 and a half minutes of exhilarating free jazz as a fine example of this experimental subgenre. But it’s also a dedication to Dyani, who sadly never tasted political freedom. He died aged 40 on 24 October 1986, after collapsing backstage following a concert in Berlin, Germany.

Sam Nhlengethwa’s exhibition, Joburg Selected, is on show at the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg, until 16 November.

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