Things we Lost in the Dark

On a number of occasions we’ve written about the important role that music, and in particular, protest songs, played in the anti-apartheid struggle. But there’s a whole other side to the story that we haven’t looked at, and that’s what apartheid robbed us of.

More than simply entertainment, music as an art form enriches our lives, and with the countless number of musicians who were forced to flee South Africa during the apartheid years, whose to say how much we really lost? One example is the South African jazz ensemble, The Blue Notes. This jazz sextet is considered to have had a seminal influence on the development of European jazz, and achieved worldwide acclaim, yet the band are relatively unknown in their country of birth.

They were free spirits and very intuitive as musicians, so I suppose some of what they were letting loose in London comes from being brought up in an oppressive regime, and once they had the freedom to play, they just played.” Hazel Miller, Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital

Mongezi Feza on trumpet at the concert in 1964 that is the source of the newly discovered photos

Mongezi Feza on trumpet at the concert in 1964 that is the source of the newly discovered photos

Recently photographs have emerged of The Blue Notes taken by a young South African student and photography enthusiast, Norman Owen-Smith. The photos, which were taken at a jazz concert at the then University of Natal Pietermaritzburg’s Great Hall, capture an important moment in South Africa’s jazz history. This multi-racial band appears completely at ease in the photographs, belying the true story of what was happening in the country at the time.

The photos were taken in 1964, at the height of apartheid, following the clampdown that happened after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. In that era a white man playing with black musicians was considered tantamount to treason by some people, and it was this corrosive atmosphere that resulted in artists leaving South Africa in droves during the 1950s and ’60s. Those who remained were subjected to bizarre demands, alienating them from the musical fraternity.

In a documentary on jazz in Britain, Blue Notes drummer, Louis Moholo-Moholo, talks of how he would have to play behind a curtain when performing with a white band. Musicians would only be booked or offered recording deals if they complied with the demands of the industry – what to play, who to play with, and how to play it.

The Blue Notes in full swing in Pietermaritzburg on the eve of them leaving the country

The Blue Notes in full swing in Pietermaritzburg on the eve of them leaving the country

The same documentary features a snippet of The Blue Notes performing at the 1964 Antibes Jazz Festival in France, which is the point at which the band went into exile – the day after Owen-Smith took his photographs. In 1963, The Blue Notes won the award for the country’s Best Jazz Group, but the tightening rules following anti-apartheid uprisings made life impossible in South Africa for a racially-mixed band so, in 1964 they fled the country via an invitation to perform at the Antibes Jazz Festival.

Co-founder of The Blue Notes, pianist Chris McGregor

Co-founder of The Blue Notes, pianist Chris McGregor

Saxophonist for The Blue Notes, Nikele Moyake, was forced home by ill-health shortly after the festival, but the remainder of the band stayed abroad for most of their lives, with only Moholo-Moholo eventually returning home in 2005. In 1995, a live recording, taken in Durban while the band was on their farewell tour was finally released. In 2011, The Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra was formed as a way of bringing the band’s music back home, but the original magic of The Blue Notes was never experienced by the majority of South Africans, and you have to wonder about all the other incredible musicians, and painters, and actors, and dancers that were lost to our country….

The Blue Notes were made up of pianist Chris McGregor, alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, tenor saxophonist Nikele Moyake, trumpeter Mongezi Feza, bassist Johnny Mbizo Dyani and drummer Moholo-Moholo – the only original Blue Notes member still alive and working. The majority of the band died whilst in exile.

Images courtesy of and

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