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8 Jan 2003: Basil Breakey: Beyond The Blues  

Basil Breakey: Beyond The Blues
Beyond The Blues, published by David Philip 1994
By Steve Gordon

MUSIC performance is most often photographed at Events: Between crowds of people, and celebrities, photographers capture smiling faces and a view of the artist-on-stage. But Basil Breakey's photographs are intimate, showing the half that's never told: the rehearsals, the non-events, the empty chairs, the failure and frustration of gifted performers to find the avenue or platform to connect with their natural audience in their home country.

Basil Breakey's photographs are documentary, and their essence is that they portray times and experiences he shared with his subjects during what he terms "the Verwoerd and Vorster years"

Something of a migrant himself, 1961 saw Breakey moving from the Eastern Cape back to Hillbrow, his birthplace. Frustrated with his clerical job, Breakey signed up with the Tropics photo agency in Johannesburg, and was living the life of an artist. "We were part of a Bohemian scene in Hillbrow", explains Breakey, "trumpeter Dennis Mphale asked me if I could help out with accomodation for a young guy coming up from Cape Town, and thus Chris McGregor ended up sleeping on the floor of our flat".

It was the time of Verwoerd, Hillbrow had an artistic milieu, but this was rather stifled by the pass laws. I had my flat in Hillbrow, so the guys would come and stay over after the gig, just sleep on the floor. We had to be secretive, because they were not allowed to be in the white area, as they didn't have a pass to work. They were meant to be in the location."

There was never any major problem in Hillbrow, but musicians and photographer friend were arrested at a township party when police raided for illegal liquor: "We were all taken to the Meadowlands charge office, where we were split into two queues - a black queue, and a white queue. The police also accused me of immorality, expressing disgust (at their own suspicions) that I could be after these black girls..." The cops told Kippie to play for them, to prove he was a musician, so he played "Don't fence me in".

The cops stopped for a while "Jy speel lekker man, hardloop...!" Kippie was released. But obstacles were not restricted to legalities. As Breakey explains, there was not yet an audience for the music. The guys were struggling, and recognition was only to come later - first abroad, and later still, in South Africa. Breakey therefore, was not a photographer on a brief to cover a "happening" jazz scene, bounded by the constraints of news deadlines or the directive of picture editors. He documented a world which he shared, and which he captured in what he describes as "almost naive" style.

The photographer's only earnings came when some of his photographs were used for the cover and liner illustrations when the Castle Lager Big Band recorded in September 1963. For the musicians too, the Castle Lager project was a "bread gig", providing what Chris McGregor described as "two weeks of economic life" following the Blue Notes competition win.

Breakey continued documenting the musicians as the Blue Notes slowly evolved into the sextet which would leave for France, and for a musical life in exile far from their homeland. The photographs contained in the first section span the period 1961 - 3, and show musicians practising at Dorkay House, performing at the Downbeat Club in Hillbrow, and rehearsing as the Castle Lager Big Band.

The second section documents performances in Swaziland, some at the Royal Swazi Spa, others at the Swazi Independence Celebrations of 1968. It should be noted that despite the location, these were all South African musicians, taking time out in the relatively relaxed neighbouring state.

The remaining photographs were taken in Cape Town, when Breakey was working at the Cape Times in the early 1970's: Ten years after leaving South Africa for Europe, Blue Notes drummer Louis Moholo returns for a visit, similarly, Abdullah Ibrahim is back from abroad. Breakey also captured on film the young Basil Coetzee (two years before Ibrahim's Manenberg recording), and tenorman Winston Mankunku Ngozi.

The photographs were taken in available light - Breakey explains that he was "a purist who was not into using flash at the time". At any rate, he felt that flash would have been too intrusive in the intimacy of the rehearsal, or during the soundchecks and backstage moments which are so prominently featured. Photographs were taken with an Asahi Pentax SLR, the film was Kodak Tri-X Pan, "often pushed to 1600 or 3200 asa."

Breakey hardly printed up any of his work at the time, except for a few copies for the musicians - Kippie Moeketsi, for example, had posed for a shot, as had Christopher Columbus Ngcukana. The negatives were stored, and only retrieved and printed for an exhibition at Cape Town's Jazz Den in 1988, and at Johannesburg's Market Theatre the following year.

"Beyond The Blues - Township Jazz in the '60s and '70s"
Published by David Philip 1997
ISBN 0-86486-242-3
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