30 June: Dudu Pukwana In My Mind

Thirty years ago today, on 30 June 1990, Walmer Township-born reedman and composer Mtutuzeli Dudu Pukwana died in London. He was only 51 years old.

Mtutuzeli Dudu Pukwana 100 Club

I was fortunate to know Dudu in the late 1960s and 1970s, in Oxford, where he and the late trumpeter Mongezi Feza were regular and loved guests of our university jazz society, and later in London. There, South African friends in music, and neighbours, formed a supportive and welcoming community, making massive contributions to the city’s cultural landscape –  and creating some of the most memorable music nights at the 100 Club on Oxford Street.

Too few of Dudu’s own words about his life and music in exile survive. He wasn’t a big talker: when asked – even in relaxed social situations – “What do you think about…?” he would often respond “It’s in my music…just listen to my music.”

Into that absence and silence intrude the interpretations of others. One example is the liner notes for a just-released album from Matsuli Music: Dudu Phukwana and the ‘Spears’ https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/album/dudu-phukwana-and-the-spears, a welcome reissue of rare tracks laid down in the late 1960s.  Meticulously compiled by collector and music journalist Richard Haslop, those notes reconstruct, from interview reminiscences, producer Joe Boyd’s narrative of the recording sessions.  (For more on the album, see https://www.newframe.com/review-dudu-pukwana-and-the-spears/ )

That narrative is necessary background, and the recordings are unarguably essential (and often beautiful) listening. But when it’s about somebody you knew, you get pulled up short by what isn’t in the story: the missing context some listeners may need to make sense of the lives of exiled South African musicians in London.

Diamond Express: artwork by Dambudzo Mdledle

What pulled me up short was a passage where Boyd expresses his recurring regret about being unable “to get some decent solos out of Dudu” to complete one session, because of the saxophonist’s heavy drinking. It wasn’t meant maliciously; that’s how the industry talks. But that relentless logic of extractive capitalism, applied casually to a dead man’s creativity, stopped me cold.

“Exile”, observes drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, “is a fucker.” Let’s unpack that a bit.

Even in London, which at least under Harold Wilson’s Labour government paid lip service to accepting anti-apartheid refugees, their status was always precarious. Seeking a place to stay, a Black South African would pass house after house advertising ‘Room to Rent’, with the postscript “No Dogs, No Blacks.”  The fascists of the National Front marched regularly; racist individuals freely made themselves obnoxious in public spaces such as pubs. (Watch and hear last week’s brilliant Windrush Suite https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHkLvRbPLZM for a vivid evocation of that experience from London’s Caribbean community.)

Dudu and Barbara Pukwana in London in the early days

Frustrating bureaucracy rendered state assistance (which did exist) complex to access, although the African National Congress in exile provided some – very modest – support.  The mythology of exiles living high on the hog is just that.

The late guitarist Lucky Ranku recalled “In exile, I had no family. We used to walk around with plastic bags collecting beer bottles to make a few pennies for food.”

Lucky was our closest South African neighbour, living a few streets away in Streatham in a flat shared for a time with artist Dumile Feni. Lucky and Dumile often walked round to do their ironing, share a meal, and watch football. And when Dudu sometimes visited Lucky, he’d walk along to visit us too. Or we’d all end up, after the 100 Club, at the home of lawyer Eddie Tatane and his partner, American violinist Gaby Forrell, for a beer or a few, and sometimes an impromptu jam. It was at one such jam that I learned what a tricky construction Dudu’s apparently straightforward Sonia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5prnBpWN6E was – until he sensibly took my congas away.

Musicians and artists didn’t waste too much time discussing racism or poverty. That, like the cold grey weather, was simply a fact to be shrugged off with a sigh; it was what it was. They talked about home (with longing); about struggle (with conviction); about music (with passion).

White imaginings of Africa

And they talked about their own working lives. A recurring refrain was the corrosive stress of white paymasters demanding they enact a South Africa  – or, worse, a whole “Africa” – conjured up from the outside. It might be the Africa of upbeat “good-time”dance music, feeding into all the over-sexualised caricatures, or the Africa of “wild” free jazz, or something else. But none of those straitjackets represented how these musicians knew South African jazz. It gave no scope to their autonomy, intellect or skill, and that hurt. They relished improvising out to the spheres, mastering harmonic complexity, and coming home to the defiant joy of a danceable groove, all in the space of a single number. Doing that in a decent studio was a freedom they yearned for. As for the other stuff, they bitterly agreed, sometimes you had to be drunk to survive it.

Assegai 1971: I recall nobody much liked the cover

Dudu despised those constraints, and it cost him, financially and emotionally. The closest he came to commercialism was the band Assegai, with future Osibisa bassist Fred Coker: the UK Vertigo label’s one foray into Afro-rock. On their 1971 album, the track Telephone Girl’s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYhHbPG97bM dynamic groove carries double-entendre lyrics that might allude to sex work. It was briefly banned by the BBC after a complaint – but got the outfit airtime too. No publicity is bad publicity, they say.

But the reedman did enjoy a lot about Assegai: he met new audiences and lived his pan-Africanism working with West Africans like Coker.  Getting inside as much African/ diasporic music as possible mattered deeply for his composer’s imagination; he also participated in Toots and the Maytals’ Reggae Got Soul https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ivk0x1vThY.

If Dudu discussed Telephone Girl at all, though, he swiftly dismissed the lyrics and offered instead forensic dissection of the groove and rhythms (listen to Louis Moholo-Moholo’s superb drum break). He could be at his most expansive and fluent with the sound turned up, educating: “Listen…do you hear how ..?”

When Dudu was bandleader and life had thrown something to make him despair, times backstage – and onstage – could be chaotic. Yet despite the volatile blow-ups (often resolved with interval hugs all round), he genuinely cared about decent treatment for fellow-musicians.

Pukwana’s creative haven: his studio

I once helped organise a college gig where Dudu was sideman and discovered the leader had lied about payment. “Show us the cash,” he demanded. The other players joined in; reluctantly, the leader complied. Pukwana shook out the bag and ostentatiously counted band members and then money, creating five equally small piles of notes. He took his own, and stood up. “To me,” he said, “that seems fair. And as for you, you lying mofo, I will never, ever, work with you again – not because the money is little, but because you lied to us.”

Eloquent and poetic

That’s all background. As Dudu himself said, if you really want to know him, listen to the music. One collaborator, the late UK drummer John Stevens (who collaborated on the Johnny Dyani tribute Mbizo Radebe/ They Shoot to Kill), observed: “When you listened to Dudu, he would actually be saying something very eloquent and poetic. When somebody else is playing a load of arpeggios, what are they actually saying? It may sound like a lot of skills – but what are they saying?”

Stevens and Pukwana in session for Mbizo Radebe

So remember Dudu today by listening to him. Listen to Mra https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZsGoO0DJCQ, to Bambelela https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnFTma3Gezg, to Sondela https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1GJb88It0k,  Tete and Barbs In My Mind https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThhGpdwD2Lc, B My Dear https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o40vC1gf9LM , Flute Music https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Z7W3KlcYiM, Radebe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAFNLSYfeqU, more – so many songs that you could (and should) create a university course from his work alone. 

In his too-short span of years, Dudu gave us not just “some decent solos,” but his soul. I wish I had the isiXhosa to offer adequate praises.

3 thoughts on “30 June: Dudu Pukwana In My Mind

  1. Thank you for this stirring, beautiful tribute to a giant of our country. Your words breathe life into his memory, Sis Gwen. Extraordinary doesn’t begin to describe his story, and while pain appears to lurk as an omnipresent sideman in Dudu Pukwana’s journey, his bravery is a triumph that brings comfort, healing and imagination to those who matter today. Pukwana lives.


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