Home is the space

From exile, bassist and composer, Johnny Mbizo Dyani (1945-1986), explored and promoted the folk music traditions of South Africa.

Album cover for SteepleChase.

I wish you all sunshine
All of the time …
I wiiish you all someday you will understand
The pain my people have suffered …

– Johnny Mbizo Dyani (from “Wish You Sunshine,” 1978)

Johnny Mbizo Dyani made this wailing call through song at the Willisau Jazz festival in 1978. “Wish You Sunshine” has made its way into many of his recordings and I am always left clutching for my life after every version of this song that I’ve been introduced to. It is not so much the suffering that sits with me but it is rather how his people in South Africa remained at the center of inquiry. In all of Dyani’s recordings, whether celebratory or melancholic, it is always clear to me that his music was firmly attached to the material, epistemic, ontological struggles and hopes of conquered blacks under apartheid South Africa. In “Lament for Crossroads,” “Song for the Workers,” and “Song For Biko,” the references to home were heavily embodied throughout his recordings.

Born in 1945, three years before the advent of apartheid, Dyani grew up in Duncan village in East London, where he started playing piano and later double bass. In 1964, he left on a one-way ticket for exile in Europe with members of the Blue Notes, which included Mongezi Feza, Nick Moyake, Louis Moholo, Chris McGregor, and Dudu Pukwana. The effects of being barred from home, and its unspeakable criminality, meant that Dyani and his peers were cast away, as it were, into involuntary fugitiveness and displacement.

Music gave them the space to express the distress of exile. Dyani’s music in particular, mined the unconscious and continually showed that nothing ever withers in the mind, both joy and suffering are pulled from hidden places. His homespun voice and beautiful melodies, lyrical bass tones, and tightly organized rhythm section were rooted in a tradition of chants and fluid improvisation; a different form of improvisation, not the sort which is stylistically borrowed from jazz, but rather a direct interaction with pre-colonial musical imaginations. Improvisation as a call and response—born out of the interaction of language, poetics, magic, and parables. Dyani played music with the energy and integrity of real experience. By doing so, he became a supreme figure within the improvised music scene and a formidable archivist of folk music from South Africa.

After the death of trumpeter and flautist, Mongezi Feza, the Blue Notes reunited and recorded an improvised requiem titled “Blue Notes For Mongezi.” Pianist Chris McGregor noted that “Mbizo’s music grows like a tree with dignity”—with deep, sprouting roots in Nguni musical aesthetics, yet never missing the co-creative potentialities through his collaborations with trumpeter Don Cherry, Turkish percussionist Okay Temiz and many others.

Dyani’s exiled status, proximity to Europe, and subsequent alienation from his people, fueled a particular contemplation, study and performance of music that was rooted in a historical consciousness that predated apartheid and colonial forms of ideology. His vast sonic vocabulary meant he could play unhinged, free from imposed genre logic across seas and borders without ever drowning or fatally compromising the sonic aesthetics that shaped his unique approach as a bassist. Put differently, Dyani’s brilliance relied on his emphatic insistence that western temporality had no definitive bearing on his music making. He could belt out folk stories through song while in full command of his double bass. He embodied a seductive tango with a nostalgia that only a body in one country and mind in another can understand. He showed us that behind the politics and apartheid scenery are human lives and people who had gone to great lengths to escape the banality of such a system—evading the danger of not being able to socially reproduce themselves on their own terms in their native home.

Dyani was one of those musicians who prompted me to contemplate about the sort of energy, space and institution that informed a type of music making, which I feel is closely aligned to Amilcar Cabral’s persisting and anchoring appeal for us to return to the source in the wake of political ‘independence’ across Africa. His nostalgic ideation cannot simply be understood nor fully contained within jazz; therefore, he was one of the key music intellectuals who pushed me to think about what is outside of jazz. He points us towards folk music. Largely considering himself a folk musician, in many ways no different to, and drawing from the same cultural portal as native music makers in southern Africa.

He drew immensely from iingoma zasemaXhoseni (songs from the Xhosa people’s musical tradition). I am reminded of the documentary film A Brother With Perfect Timing, a film focused on Dyani’s close collaborator, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. He remarked on how these instruments mimicked sounds that already existed on the continent, therefore, the proposal that Africans “just picked up sounds from these foreign instruments” could not be legitimately sustained. The large canon of South African jazz is emblematic enough to show that people’s exploration of western instruments is never detached from their own fertile soils. His aversion to being read as a jazz musician were clearly articulated: “I don’t like to see my work described as jazz because it introduces connotations that I don’t regard as relevant.” This is not so much a denouncement of the beautiful tradition of jazz, but rather a celebration of the hidden musical strands that shaped and anchored South African jazz and popular music.

Dyani argued that “in Europe they admire the Americans so much but the Americans are copying us [South Africans]. It all comes from Africa, but the South African musicians are not strong enough within themselves.” His insistence on relying on a folk musical canon came from this understanding, that home is the space and home is everything. He gave the double bass a voice like a folk instrument, mimicking his own singing tone always full of contemplation, rapture, and rage. His seminal record, Witchdoctor’s Son featuring Dudu Pukwana and John Tchicai is the most exemplary affirmation of the importance of home, its remembrance and heritage.

At the same time, cultural workers in southern Africa, such as Thami Mnyele from the exiled MEDU Art Ensemble in Botswana, were debating the political imperative of the arts community and whether there can be artistic freedom from people in captivity. Mnyele and his interlocutors argued that art practice ought to sustain the class interest of the community, and the role of the artist is to ceaselessly search for the ways and means of achieving freedom. Mnyele understood the act of artistic expression as a productive force, a form of labor, and in his words, not different from the act of building a bridge—a collaborative process. For me, Dyani’s 1978 Willisau Jazz festival live recording is exemplary of this way of seeing the impossibility of captivity. In other words, captivity requires a relinquishing of subjectivity. Dyani was notorious for his positive instincts towards political subjectivity as an essential part of being. “I’m trying to work for Africa so that Africa can work for me … Where the other cats are concerned the instruments are playing them, instead of them playing the instruments. I mean, I refuse to be played by an instrument.” Dyani struggled with the alienation that came with of exile and argued that many exiled musicians succumbed to their instruments and got lost in the woods of European musical aesthetics. Working for Africa meant pursuing, with integrity, its musical heritage, community, and an emancipatory politics.

Dyani’s live recording explicitly takes us on a process of longing and re-humanizing. He does this with artistic freedom and constraint, both by-products of his exiled status. He could honor both the laboring effects and revolutionary endeavors of the anti-apartheid struggle, while in search of an artistic presence that predated colonial conquest. Brazilian theorist and theater practitioner, Augusto Boal, said “you find yourself in the things that you do”—in the process of doing we discover ourselves. This was no different for Dyani. By the time of his death in Berlin in 1986, Dyani had been playing with deep contemplation and in constant search for the advancement of African polyphonic concepts. Having left South Africa at the height of urbanization and the cultural mixing and experimentation amongst the urban proletariat, he became one of the foremost musicians who continued the efforts of Marabi, a musical tradition that specifically came out of the laboring efforts of black urban life. At the age of 39, he left us with an un-lived future that has often felt like impossible knowledge. In the quiet violence of exile that buries its own, ruthlessly, the trajectory of his life is a testament that sometimes darkness does not pass, and you have got to dance in its drought infested garden until it pours.

Further Reading

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