Louis Moholo-Moholo Credit: Maarit Kytöharju

Some days, Louis Moholo-Moholo must feel like the last man standing. Every single one of the 77-year-old drummer’s original compatriots has died—the same musicians with whom he cut his teeth in South Africa, fighting against the oppressive weight of apartheid. Many of them, Moholo-Moholo included, emigrated to Europe in the mid-60s—just as free jazz and improvised music reached escape velocity—and eventually established a new home in London. Some colleagues, such as saxophonists Nik Moyake and Kippie Moeketsi and trumpeter Mongezi Feza, died long ago; a rash of deaths beginning in the 1980s took the rest, including pianist Chris McGregor, bassists Harry Miller and Johnny Dyani, and alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, who succumbed to liver disease in 1990. The fact that none of Moholo-Moholo’s colleagues lived to 60 is no coincidence—life as a creative musician in South Africa was hard on a body.

Louis Moholo-Moholo’s 5 Blokes

Sun 9/3, 3:30 PM, Von Freeman Pavilion

“Chris was white, and we couldn’t play with him,” says Moholo-Moholo, who finally returned to his homeland in 2005. He’s referring to the pressure that the regime put on the Blue Notes, a massively influential interracial band formed in Cape Town in 1962; its classic lineup included McGregor, Dyani, Moyake, Feza, Pukwana, and Moholo-Moholo. “The state of emergency meant four, five people at a time was illegal, so a quintet wasn’t possible. Sometimes I had to play behind a curtain. We decided to go away from South Africa to preserve the music. Everyone in the band worked so hard to help liberate South Africa. Unfortunately, I’m the only one who made it back. Sometimes I go to the sea—I go alone—and I start to think about the guys, and tears start to fall.”

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To look at Moholo-Moholo, you wouldn’t know how rough it’s been on him. He’s a tall man with a loose, relaxed demeanor, sparkling eyes, and a benevolent smile. This past April, I had the chance to sit with him at a cafe in Berlin, where he was playing at another festival, and I was struck by the ease with which he moved among people, laughing with fellow musicians and punctuating most of his sentences with a gentle “man.” He engaged with journalists, attended to fans he’d just met, and gabbed with his long-haul friend Hazel Miller, widow of bassist Harry and chief of Ogun Records, which has been releasing South African jazz for the past 44 years.

“To be in a free country,” Moholo-Moholo says, reflecting on the moment the Blue Notes landed in London. “Both hands and feet free. Flying free! And the British opened up their arms to us, man. The welcome was fantastic. Wes Montgomery was there to greet us! How much welcome do you expect? It encouraged us tremendously. For once in our lifetime it was up to us, not somebody else. So we flew!” In the UK the Blue Notes not only played as a band but also collaborated with virtually every significant member of the European improvised-music community, including such luminaries as guitarist Derek Bailey and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. Many of them also spent time in McGregor’s ambitious new big band, the Brotherhood of Breath.

Moholo-Moholo’s music has a remarkable buoyancy and lightness of spirit. It emanates from a tradition that drew on not only the liberties of new jazz but also the indigenous sounds of the townships, which had in turn been deeply influenced by African-American religious music. “There was death in South Africa,” he says. “In the midst of death, one finds joy in the sadness itself. The sadness of it all can somehow encourage you, make you strong. You become cheeky when you’re not a cheeky person. You become angry when you’re not an angry person. And you become a fighter when you were not really a fighter. People were being slaughtered in front of you. That can change your whole perception as a human being, because these things are not acceptable—so you fight. We fought musically. We didn’t choose music; music chose us. Music dictates to you. That’s the magic of music.”

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Moholo-Moholo has kept that spark alight in the music of his group 5 Blokes, who make their Chicago debut at this festival. He compares his bandmates—saxophonists Jason Yarde and Shabaka Hutchings, pianist Alexander Hawkins, and bassist John Edwards—to the original Blue Notes. But Moholo-Moholo knows his old friends can never be replaced. “I have a broken heart,” he says, honoring his grief while slyly referring to the cardiac arrest that almost took him out of the game two decades ago. “It’s very difficult to move forward with a broken heart. And you need that heart, man! There’s a lot of things in your heart—the blood, the pump! It doesn’t flow so easy; there’s ups and downs. Ah, man, sadness is a motherfucker.”

His return to the land of his birth, after the dismantling of the disgusting regime that kept the races separate and unequal, is its own kind of salve. “Home is home,” Moholo-Moholo says. “I’ve come home to roost! If truth be told, when our bodies were over there, our hearts were here. But as somebody said: you only find love in your mother’s arms.”  v