Abstract: Mtutuzeli Dudu Pukwana was a South African jazz pianist and alto saxophonist from Port Elizabeth. Due to rising political oppression imposed by the Apartheid regime, Pukwana was forced to flee to Europe. While living in Europe, Pukwana preformed in many countries with multiple bands, most notably The Blue Notes and The Brotherhood of Breadth. Through this mutually felt discrimination, Pukwana developed close relationships with mentor Chris Mcgregor and drummer Louis Moholo. Pukwana spent the majority of his career developing his mixed sound of roots South African and European free jazz. His sound emitted a message of peace, love, and acceptance.

Key Words: Dudu Pukwana, Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo, The Blue Notes, The Brotherhood of Breadth, apartheid, alto saxophone

Rising tension due to the Apartheid regime and bigoted mentality cultivated a need to use culture as a language and mechanism to protest and cope with every day life within the black community in South Africa. Musical resistance gained most of its popularity during the 1960’s Civil Rights movement in what was at the time labeled “freedom songs”.  These freedom songs became an instrument for change for the African American community, helping propagate their message of tolerance in a time of extreme prejudice and racial subjugation. While the emergence of 1960’s African American anti-racism music began to take form, the popularity of resistance-based township music and culture rose simultaneously with the increasing anti-black legislature and incarceration. The extreme racism and constant fear of unjustified imprisonment drove many of these activist musicians out of their homeland in search of a more accepting society. A prime example of this tragically common experience is alto saxophonist and Port Elizabeth native, Mtutuzeli Dudu Pukwana. Throughout Pukwana’s career with the Blue Notes and the Brothers of Breadth, he experienced staunch racism at his performances due to his Xhosa heritage. These compounding experiences eventually became too much and forced him into a life of exile in Europe. Although Pukwana’s sound may come off very happy and upbeat, in actuality it is intentionally paradoxical, embracing his African roots to taunt any hate that had been previously directed his way.

During the late 1940’s, Sophiatown was the Mecca of South African jazz, an escape from brutal discrimination and an instrument to vocalize their social and political agenda through their music. The Group Areas Act of 1950 changed everything. Little did the Apartheid regime know that the government mandated destruction of Johannesburg’s cultural hub of Sophiatown would spawn a musical revolution. The Group Areas Act was sanctioned by parliament under the apartheid government permitting the forceful removing and relocation of black and mixed-raced residents from developed areas to racially segregated urban townships. The living situations were stark and virtually uninhabitable. Corrupt police would patrol the townships enforcing racially biased detainment laws[1]. Gwen Ansell describes these living situations in a chapter labeled “Jazz for the Struggle, and the Struggle for Jazz” out of her 2005 work Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music, and Politics in South Africa. Ansell explains the brutal transition from life in Sophiatown to townships in this chapter stating,

“The pictures have changed. Gangsters no longer wear sharp white suits and fedoras. Their faces are hidden by balaclavas and kerchiefs, and their hands hold traditional sticks or police-issue R4 Rifles. They no longer cruise the domestic clutter of Sophiatown, but scurry down the back alleys between tiny township houses and shacks, hurling petrol bombs or firing into bedroom windows. The smoke-blackened tatters of burned-out buildings look on, as soldiers from armored cars helter-skelter into homes and out again, clubbing those they have grabbed into submission before they exit between rolls of razor wire. Teenagers toyi-toyi- down the same streets, armed and simmering in their search for retaliatory justice. Everything smells of tear gas. And the nightclub stage has become a wooden platform, the audience of a few hundred grown to a crowd of tens of thousands, the jazz players silhouetted before a banner calling for justice and change.”[2]

Through the segregation of Sophiatown and creation of townships, the apartheid regime inadvertently formed a new movement and genre of music, Township Jazz. Ansell conveys that during a time of severe violence and gentrification, the black South African population rallied behind the musicians to amplify their voices and promote their message for “justice and change”.

Throughout his musical career, whether in his homeland or abroad, Pukwana tries to propagate the values and objectives of early Johannesburg Township Jazz. Mtutuzeli Dudu Pukwana was born on July 18, 1938 in Port Elizabeth’s Walmer Township. He was born into a family of musicians, his mother being a vocalist and his father a singer and pianist. Pukwana was heavily influenced by his father, which translated into his love for the piano from an early age. His raw talent caused him to be quickly involved in the local music scene performing with popular bands such as the Four Yanks, and eventually forming his first band The Jazz Giants.[3] Through his immersion in the jazz piano culture, Pukwana eventually crossed paths with his soon-to-be band mate, Nikele Moyake. Pukwana was so entranced by Moyake’s distinctive tenor saxophone sound that he decided to pivot towards playing the alto saxophone. In the early 1960’s in Cape Town, Pukwana was touring around the greater Cape area as a solo pianist and alto saxophone performer. Through his growing notoriety within the South African Jazz community he crossed paths with Chris McGregor , a visionary jazz pianist and composer. Aided with McGregor’s deeply rooted musical connections, the two formed a sextet together called The Blue Notes along with Nikele Moyake, Johnny Dyani, Louis Moholo and Mongezi Feza. The Blue Notes wanted to step out of the realm of the Cape Jazz scene seeking broader recognition. After their performance at the 1963 National Jazz Festival in Johannesburg, the group’s popularity skyrocketed--quickly becoming a household name within the jazz community.

Increasing popularity coupled with rising anti-black sentiment in Johannesburg made the dynamics of a mixed race musical group very difficult. Whether it was the anti-black sentiment or the disapproval of a white ringleader in an all black group, The Blue Notes were often booed and berated with food while on stage.[4] This racial prejudice proved to be too much for the group when they finally elected to move to Europe, “the Mecca of jazz”, together to begin their lives in exile.

While in Europe, The Blue Notes began to preform all over Europe, primarily in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and France, where they appeared in the 1964 Antibes Jazz Festival. European jazz aficionados had never heard a sound so unique and diverse, “their mix of township kwela music and hard bop would transform British Jazz”[5]. After Antibes, the group spent the winter in Zurich, where they collaborated with fellow expat Abdullah Ibrahim, Cape Jazz’s most prominent pianist. Their collaboration symbolized a unity through mutual suffering and hope to empower any refugees experiencing a similar situation.  

Although The Blue Notes fled racial tension in South Africa, Europe was not very accepting of their multi-racial background and refugee status, leading to work discrimination and familiar bigotry. In an interview about the Antibes Jazz Festival, Blue Notes drummer Louis Moholo acknowledges this mentioning, “I would play with the white band behind the curtain, behind the stage. I couldn’t be seen you see, playing with white people”[6]. It is apparent that racial discrimination was unavoidable at the time, which is why The Blue Notes continued to make innovative music to challenge the archaic, xenophobic mentality prominent across the world.  Although their success was unquestionable, McGregor’s dedication to The Blue Notes began to waiver as his dreams for a larger, free jazz -oriented band emerged. This persistent search for something bigger and better led to the inevitable disbandment of their group[7].

From the remnants of The Blue Notes arose a new project, Chris McGregor’s brainchild, The Brotherhood of Breadth. The Brotherhood of Breadth was masterfully crafted, genetically modified version of The Blue Notes. Jazz prodigy and musical scientist Chris McGregor worked tirelessly toward melding together the perfect combination of exiled South African and talented British musicians to form his nonconformist, new era, jazz super group. LAUNCH Media describes this melting pot of musical outlaws as “a big band as sophisticated as Duke Ellington’s, but as riotous as a New Orleans street parade”.[8] Some of the notable contributing musicians include the Blue Notes very own, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, Nikele Moyake, Mongezi Feza, and Johnny Dyani, as well as, South African newcomer Harry Miller. This 1970’s, mix-raced band also included noteworthy London jazz musicians such as Mike Osborne, Harry Beckett, and Evan Parker. From early 1971 to late 1972, the Brotherhood of Breath released two groundbreaking albums, their first self-titled album called “Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breadth” (1971) and their EP labeled “Brotherhood” (1972). This creation of a new, against-the-grain jazz sound was a cathartic experienced for the Brotherhood of Breadth’s refugee members. For these exiled musicians, their divergence from the traditional South African roots sound was symbolic of the breaking of their heavy, oppressive chains[9]. In a review of Maxine McGregor’s autobiography, Drummer Louis Moholo is quoted articulating just that. He begins his introspective dialogue saying, “When we first came here I started hearing some other vibes. I was away from South Africa…away from the chains. I just wanted to be free, totally free, even in music. Free to shake away all the slavery, in everything, being boxed into places – one, two, three, four – and being told you must come in after four. I was a rebel, completely a rebel. And then there were people like Evan Parker whom I saw also a rebel. From then on, I just played free”[10]. Moholo’s vulnerable interview is the closest we can get to comprehending the psyche of these expatriate musicians. He mentions that the experience of letting go of his musical chains is not only spiritually liberating, but that there is a physical relief of his burden. Chris McGregor’s ex-band mate, John Steven, gives us another reflective look into the deeper impacts of improvised music. Stevens is quoted stating, “What improvised music really offers us is a potential community of people to create together in spontaneous fashion. When you listen to Dudu, he would actually be saying something very eloquent and poetic. When someone is playing a load of arpeggios, what are they actually saying? I may sound like a lot of skills but what are they saying”[11]. Steven’s self-analysis exposes the unmentioned impact of this large musical family. The process of improvising music and alchemizing this new community provides a home for these musicians who were forced out of their own. These refugees speak through their instruments, finally giving them back their voice that was stripped away from them by the racial oppression of the apartheid regime. Raising the question, what are Dudu Pukwana and the Brotherhood of Breath actually saying through their music?

The Brotherhood of Breadth’s first studio album “Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breadth” contained six tracks: MRA, Davashe’s Dream, The Bride, Andromeda, Night Poem, and Union Special. It is important to acknowledge that this is the first time the Brotherhood of breadth has recorded in a studio together. As an improvisation-based band, creating a concrete, premeditated track list is not something they were used to. Staying true to the musical idiosyncrasies they pride themselves on, the Brotherhood of Breadth fully developed their token, eccentric sound on their first studio album. The album’s lead off and arguably most popular track perfectly encapsulates the musical freedom Louis Moholo mentioned earlier. “MRA” marks a clear transition in the timeline of the Brotherhood of Breath’s life. As the band begins their tour around Europe, you can hear the disjunct melody and fast-paced tempo mimicking the lifestyle of the big, bustling cities they are experiencing together for the first time. Although lacking any vocal accompaniment, “MRA” has a strong sound and voice. Diverting from their roots sound in The Blue Notes, The Brotherhood of Breath experiments with the new undeveloped world of free jazz.  Dudu Pukwana and Nikele Moyake’s wailing saxophone riffs pair with a rolling drum accompaniment that symbolize the breaking of the expatriate’s oppressive shackles. As the Brotherhood of Breadth continues to challenge the conventions of traditional jazz, their musical voice and message becomes more apparent. The band’s defiance of typical jazz standards parallels their fight against the silencing of their voice by Apartheid South Africa[12]. On their fourth track “Andromeda”, The Brotherhood of Breath stay true to their sound with another quick tempoed, swing styled, instrumental jazz anthem. The song is filled with furious trumpet solos, smooth saxophone melodies from Pukwana, and rhythmic piano playing by bandleader Chris McGregor. The song also displays clear European jazz influences from their new British members that uniquely compliment their non-Cape, new era jazz sound[13]. Through their first studio album, The Brotherhood of Breadth connected with other exiled South Africans conveying the importance of resilience and the confrontation of their homeland’s tyrannical regime.

After his tenure with the Brotherhood of Breadth, Pukwana formed a new band called Assagai with former Blue Notes members Feza and Moholo. The band name came from the traditional Xhosa word Assagai meaning “a slender, iron-tipped, hardwood spear used chiefly by southern African people”. Through their new band, Pukwana, Feza, and Moholo tap back into their traditional South African jazz roots after a brief artistic hiatus. After abandoning the roots sound to adopt their new free jazz genre in the Brotherhood of Breadth, these expatriate musicians started to feel a disconnect from their home country. Although the act of diverting from the South African sound was symbolic of their resistance against bigoted mindsets, Pukwana and friends wanted to convey to their fellow refugees that being South African was something to be proud of. Also, that with enough resistance would come change, that rebelling against the Apartheid regime could lead to a restructuring of this autocratic government. One of Assagai’s most popular and moving songs is called “Kinzambi” off their 1971 album Zimbabwe. “Kinzambi” is filled with traditional African drums accompanied with amazing saxophone solos by a clearly more musically developed Pukwana. Mid-way through the song all other instruments fade out besides the hand drums creating a very ancestral and indigenous interlude. The song also includes electric guitar accompaniment not found in any of Pukwana’s previous work.[14] Assagai’s goal was to regain the power of their homeland, through the embracement of their traditional native sound. They hoped this message of empowerment would cause a ripple effect, which would inevitably lead to fundamental change in what was now a domineering government.

Years later in 1978, Pukwana decided to create his own record company Jika Records along with his final band Zila. Zila was compromised of powerful female vocalist Pinise Saul, guitar player Lucky Ranku and bandleader Pukwana. Zila recorded two studio albums, Zila Sounds (1981) and Zila (1986) along with a live album recorded at the Bracknell Jazz Festival labeled Live in Bracknell and Willisau (1983). Zila’s track “Ziyekeleni”, meaning “Let Us”, comes full circle in Pukwana’s musical career incorporating recognizable, nostalgic motifs found in his early roots music. The song has an upbeat, feel good vibe strikingly similar to the one found in “Sondela”. The singer, Pinise Saul, sings in both English and Xhosa paralleling the culture melting pot Pukwana has exposed himself to during his musical career[15].

Dudu Pukwana’s greatest achievement was his ability to use his paradigm-altering music as a means to facilitate tolerance, as well as, intimately connect with and inspire his fellow expats. Louis Moholo perfectly describes the psyche of an expat in his interview for the documentary “The Blue Notes and Exiled Voices”. He says, “your mind is in the country you belong in, and your body is in the country you are in. So, there are these two things happening, and it is very hard to cope”[16]. Throughout his whole life, Pukwana has been in this constant state of discord, torn between his love for his country and his hate for its current political standings. His homeland of South Africa is what molded him into the man and musicians he is today, but that very same country drove him into a life of exile because of its repressive nature. Soon after his final performance at the 1990 Nelson Mandela Tribute at Wembley Stadium and death of his beloved mentor Chris McGregor, Pukwana died of liver failure in London, never reuniting with his homeland and solidifying his position as an iconic expat musician. All of Pukwana’s experiences and life choices were compiled and musically formulated into his archetypal sound that embodies the message of non-acquiescence. Whether it was his experience with racism in Sofiatown or in Europe, his message was always clear.

In one of his final live performances, Pukwana chose to play a new song that perfectly personifies this outlook. Originally written by Ringo Madlingozi, Dudu Pukwana adapts “Sondela” translating it into a more upbeat South African roots love song. The song is centered around Pukwana telling a woman that he is in love with to come closer and that he will never her hurt her. Looking past the surface analysis, Pukwana uses “Sondela” as a unification anthem calling all disenfranchised South Africans to come together and peacefully fight against Apartheid and racial oppression. His pacifist diction such as “We’ll have peace my love/ I’ll stand by your side/ Until the very end” clearly displays his endorsement of love, peace, and tolerance throughout South Africa and the entire world.[17]

End Notes

[1] Breakey and Gordon, Beyond the Blues: Township Jazz in the ’60s and ’70s.

[2] Ansell, Soweto Blues: Jazz, Polular Music, and Politics in South Africa, 180.

[3] Southern, “Mtutuzeli (‘Dudu’) Pukwana,” 221.

[4] Coplan, In Township Tonight!: South Africa’s Black City Music and Theatre.

[5] Moholo, The Blue Notes and Exiled Voices.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Mtutuzeli Dudu Pukwana.”


[9] McGregor, Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breadth: My Life with a South African Jazz Pioneer.

[10] Vickery and Wilmer, “Spirits in Action.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Brotherhood of Breath, MRA.

[13] Brotherhood of Breath, Andromeda.

[14] Assagai, Kinzambi.

[15] Zila, Ziyekeleni.

[16] Moholo, The Blue Notes and Exiled Voices.

[17] Pukwana, Sondela (“Come Closer”).

Ansell, Gwen. Soweto Blues: Jazz, Polular Music, and Politics in South Africa. New York, NY: Continuum, 2004.

Assagai. Kinzambi. Vinyl. Zimbabwe, 1971.

Breakey, Basil, and Steve Gordon. Beyond the Blues: Township Jazz in the ’60s and ’70s. Cape Town, South Africa: New Africa Books, 1997.

Brotherhood of Breath. Andromeda. CD. Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. Repertoire Records, 2000.

———. MRA. CD. Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. Repertoire Records, 2000.

Coplan, David. In Township Tonight!: South Africa’s Black City Music and Theatre. London, England: Longman, 1985.


McGregor, Maxine. Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breadth: My Life with a South African Jazz Pioneer. Bamberger Books, 1995.

Moholo, Louis. The Blue Notes and Exiled Voices. Interview by Imruh Bakari, 1992.

“Mtutuzeli Dudu Pukwana.” South African History Online, May 23, 2013. http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/mtutuzeli-dudu-pukwana.

Pukwana, Dudu. Sondela (“Come Closer”). Vinyl. Live at Leed’s Trade Club, 1985.

Southern, J. “Mtutuzeli (‘Dudu’) Pukwana.” In The Black Perspective Music, 18:221. Professor J. Southern, 1990. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1214884.

Vickery, Steve, and Val Wilmer. “Spirits in Action.” CODA, n.d.

Zila. Ziyekeleni. Vinyl. Jika Records, 1983.

This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project

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