Louis Moholo – Avant-garde drum pioneer

Louis Moholo
Avant-garde drum pioneer

By Struan Douglas

A pioneer of avant-garde, a soldier of expression and still a fighter for freedom. Great South African drummer – Louis Moholo – returned to Langa for a brief holiday break. Struan Douglas caught up with him.

I had never met Louis Moholo, but only heard those vivid Brotherhood of Breath recordings, seen the expressive anger in the seminal photographs Basil Breakey caught in Athlone and listened to the countless European musicians gushing about his performances. He?s always been something of an icon, but a rather enigmatic icon as he was forced into self-imposed exile and has thus found it to difficult to return.

“It’s fantastic, I really have a good time. People like me hear, my friends are hear. This is my beginning, this is my end. This is my home here,” he said, sitting in the doorway of his Langa home wearing a large green veldt Stetson and black waist-coat (the type a photographer would wear). His silk shirt hung unbuttoned to his belly button, whilst around his neck on a piece of leather hung a long animal tooth – probably of a hippo. He placed a CD in the player – and left it to play. At first only silence. Somehow it didn’t even need to play to know what it was about. To know Louis Moholo is to know his music. I didn’t know him, however to see him, to intuit his strength, his motivation indicated the intensity of his sound.

Out of the silence, a dramatic frenetic series of cymbal thrashes broke, before the calming sanctity of a piano riff rose. More silence, a guitar – scratching, strumming, grinding over a drum beat that knows no time, a drum beat that seems beyond time. I can?t hear the melody, I hear the rhythm I feel… “feel my heart beating,” Says Louis. “This kicks my ass – this is what keeps me going.? The music builds and falls, never soothing, never relaxing, its chaotic. “I am a soldier by nature – I like to put up a fight. That’s where the music took me – to fight to be on top, to stay on top.” The music continues to play, with the bass storming up and down the scales in a bebop fashion and the saxophone screeching, breathing, stopping and playing again as if warming up. As if saying something really intelligent, but very important.

The Berlin Wall, Apartheid, civil rights, the list of oppressive structures could go on and that?s what these musicians were reacting to, shouting out against with serious and expressive jazz. Even though there were parallel streams of avant-garde jazz in the America’s at the same time Louis Moholo was one of the pioneering musicians of avant-garde jazz music – an expressive movement building on the desperate need for a world-wide assertion of freedom and the right to live beyond rules.

“We were fighting on all cylinders. Everyone was changing to the avant-garde all over the place. It was a whole bunch of new stuff starting to bloom up. It was fashionable and intellectual. Oh yes sir and we enjoyed it. We break all the rules,” tells Louis. “We are not considering anymore to be conventional. We drop that and play what the heart says and we are quite a brotherhood of breath in what we are doing. It is a whole kind of heavenly music – it is so beautiful.”

The Brotherhood of Breath was where this avant-garde started for Louis. After an extended tour of Argentina with bassist Johnny Dyani, they returned to England. Chris Macgregor had been playing with the existing members of the Blue Notes, Mongezi Feza and Dudu Pukwana. Louis and Johnny immediately joined them and, “it started to make sense,” tells Louis. “We were hot then. We were not messing around man. We were kicking and it hit – the people loved it. Yeah. Chris started to write – then I started to tell Chris you better be serious because this music is out bra, and he said ‘Louis, just thinking the same thing,’ so we formed the band straight away.”

Since then all the other core members of South Africa’s greatest musical outfit in exile have past away, but Louis is continuing the expression, the power, the aggression of the avant-garde music. He is heading up a 23 piece big band called the Dedication Orchestra, playing rearranged classics from the Brotherhood of Breath and featuring a variety of famous European musicians.

Liatening to some of these recordings I have become overwhelmed at how avant-garde the music music has become. Whilst the vocals flirt up and down the scale like a drunk opera singer, the piano bashes out a few notes and the drums go mad in incoherence. Is that true spontaneity?

It sounds pretty spontaneous to me, however it does remind me of my old philosophy tutor. He used to take reasonable quantities of drugs on campus and then jump around doing rather peculiar manoeuvres all in the interest of proving to himself that he had the ability to act freely and spontaneously. It doesn’t take a philosophy graduate to notice the blatant irony in that. However is that where avant-garde music of the day is? Contrived. Is it still relevant and an expression that didn’t fall with the great wall?

Louis is convinced that the form is still real, still relevant. “There’s a fight still burning inside. Lets face it the world is not right at the moment,” he says citing a variety of tragedies, wars and epidemics happening across the globe as the music dances and daints with a furious unpredictability. “As I am, I am a rebel – it hurts me. All these tragedies are an influence to us – it hurts. We apply this in a music form because that is all we know. Some like it hot, some like it cold – its one of the same thing.”

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