Dear Mailing List,
I got a very nice surprise last year. Matsuli Records got in touch to tell me they had tracked down a project I worked on fifty years ago with the great South African saxophonist, Dudu Pukwana. They have just now released it as a good-looking double vinyl album and, if I do say so myself, it sounds wonderful. And don’t just take my word for it, the Financial Times gave it 5 stars and called it “an unheralded classic of South African jazz”. All credit to Matsuli for doing a brilliant job of re-mastering and putting it all together.
Dudu and I met one night in 1966 in Ronnie Scott’s ‘Old Place’ in Gerard St, where South African pianist Chris McGregor and the rest of the Blue Notes, South Africa’s first inter-racial jazz group, were performing. I was astounded; they had great jazz chops but weren’t just following the Yanks, the way most ‘international’ jazz players did; their music was overflowing with South African harmonies, rhythms and attitudes. I produced a jazz album with them, Very Urgent by The Chris McGregor Sextet. We later did a Brotherhood of Breath big band album and a few others.
Dudu and I, meanwhile, became friends. We spent one evening in 1969 talking about South African township music and came up with the idea of doing an updated kwela album for a non-South African audience. (This was almost 20 years before anyone uttered the words ‘world music’ or ‘Graceland’.) We got McGregor and a few Blue Notes involved, as well as some Nigerian players (who were working on their own Osibisa project) and some English guys Dudu knew. We recorded enough for an album but didn’t think it was really good enough. We spent another long evening drinking wine and talking about South Africa and the fact that Dudu had been away for over five years and things there had changed a lot. We agreed to go to Johannesburg together and check out the music scene. I said I’d buy the tickets and bring along a tape of what we had so far and try to sell it to a South African label to recoup the cost of the airfares. Which was pretty nuts, considering I knew almost nothing about the South African music business. In the end, though, it worked, sort of. A Trutone executive gave me £1000 for the South African rights, along with a lecture about how Miriam Makeba would “come crawling back to South Africa on her knees one day…” I couldn’t wait to get out of Jo’burg.
The new style there was mbaqanga, which was guitar-driven and edgy, quite a change from the jazzy lilt of kwela. I brought back some records and, on a whim, gave them to Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol from Fairport Convention and asked them to learn those licks. The sessions weren’t bad and we felt we were on to something, but somehow never really got to where it sounded to us like the finished article. Meanwhile, my production company was struggling with too many nice reviews and too few sales. Nick Drake, for whom I’d had such high hopes, wasn’t selling at all. I accepted an offer to go to work for Warner Bros in LA and Dudu’s album never got released outside South Africa.
The Blue Notes’ story is a sad one. The Brotherhood of Breath, of which Dudu was a part, had a huge influence on European jazz, but never sold a lot of copies. When I persuaded Virgin to fund a revival in 1989, no sooner was Country Cooking released than Chris was diagnosed with cancer and died within weeks. Dudu passed away a few months later.
Hearing Dudu’s album (which includes all the tracks recorded before and after our trip to South Africa) after so many years was a traumatic experience: wonderful, because it’s so joyful and beautifully played, but also heart-breaking. Why didn’t we think it fit to release? Is the zeitgeist so altered that what sounds great now could have felt like a work in progress in 1970? It’s painful to think how much Dudu would have loved (and badly needed) the acclaim then his record is getting now.
“Don’t look back”, a great man once said. You, readers, are not burdened with agonizing over choices made by my younger self. You can simply put it on and enjoy it, so go on, click here:
and get yourself a vinyl album or a download. And if you want to hear more, the equally diligent and praiseworthy Fledg’ling Records has the 5 albums I produced with Chris McGregor, Dudu and the Brotherhood of Breath:
Until next time, look after yourselves.