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Kippie’s Memories by Kippie Moeketsi
Taken from "Sophiatown : A reader" compiled by Ntongela Masilela
In my family we were music inclined. My brother, Jacob, is a pianist—he was taught by a white woman. Father played the organ and mother would sing hymns. The whole family was like that. It is only my sister who was not into music. I took up music at twenty and taught myself to read it. My late brother, Andrew, used to sing bo‐ Itchi Mama, old harmony songs.
Every time I saw him I would ask: ‘Kana, tell me, man. How do I know the clarinet keyboard? Where must I place my fingers?’ He would shout at me, ‘Hai, no. Put your fingers there!’
Then I would ask again, ‘What is a crochet?’
He would say, ‘Aga man, you’re worrying me. It’s a beat.’ And from there I had to see to it myself. I had to find out on my own what a crochet was. He left me there! I also read music books. I would say it is the Ortolandi that taught me music. I learnt to play the clarinet with a saxophone book. ‘Strue, that’s how I taught myself music. I can still play the clarinet. I didn’t practice how to play the saxophone, I just play it. Yah, once you know a clarinet, a saxophone is a boy.
The first group I played with, ‘The Band in Blues’, broke up firstly because I didn’t want to play in Denver, esidigidigini. The other guys liked to play at the Jorissen Centre and other such places. In those days the tsotsis were rough. Musicians used to get a hiding from now and then. They would say to us that we were thinking that we are clever, and better than them. Sometimes we would play from 8:00 pm to 4:00 am non stop. It was like that. Sometimes the tsotsis would force us to play right through up to 9:00 am. By force! We played all the songs they wanted. I remember one incident in which I managed to escape with my dear life. It was in ’48 when we were still playing at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre. Tsotsis came, man. There were about seventeen, carrying tomahawks, and chopping everybody in the hall for no reason. After they had finished with the audience, they came onto the stage while we stood glued there, frightened. They then began chopping up our instruments and just then we ran for our lives with the thugs in hot pursuit. One of them chased me down Von Wielligh Street. It was about three o’clock in the morning. He shouted at me, ‘Kom hier, jong, Kippie!’ His name was Seven.
Fortunately for me, a police van appeared and the thug disappeared. The tsotsis were attacking us for the fun of it. They were from Alexandra township. I think it was not yet the Spoilers; it was before their time. Yah, musicians used to have a tough time during those days.
After the band broke I joined the Harlem Swingsters in 1949. We had chaps like Gwigwi Mrwebi, Skip Phahlane, Ntemi Piliso, Randolph Tai Shomang, Norman Martin (if I’m not wrong) and Todd Matshikiza. Sadly, the majority of the guys are all dead.
Those olden days, you wouldn’t play in a band if you could not read music. Unlike today, where you just play. That’s why I don’t like today’s music. I don’t say I’m condemning it. I don’t say it is ackward. In fat, some of today’s musicians are good. The trouble ith them is that they are too commercial The talent scout tells them, 'Don’t play jazz because the audience don’t like it.’ You understand what I’m trying to say?
A year after I had joined the Harlem Swingsters, the band broke up. Really, there were no reasons, except for financial difficulties. In those days, big bands didn’t make sufficient money. Those were the days of the best big bands in the country—Jazz Maniacs, Swingsters, Merry Blackbirds, Rhythm Clouds and African Hellenics. General Duze, Boykie Gwele and Mzala Lepere—I don’t know who was the drummer at that time—they made a quarter accompanying the Manhattan Brothers. Duze said I should come and join them soon after the Swingsters disbanded.
I really enjoyed my long stay with The Manhattans (who were THE group at the time), as a member of the backing band called the Shantytown Sextet. Oh well, we did fine some way or the other with our accompaniment.
I think the money was coming in okay—for me personally, and I got better money as we used to perform regularly, all over. Springs, Pretoria, Klerksdorp, Potchefstroom, Nigel and places like that. We went on playing and then the late saxophonist Mackay Davashe joined us. I think, in 1951. Then Davashe later became our leader. I don’t remember how. Dambuza Mdledle was also our leader at one time.
But when we went to Cape Town, we found ourselves stranded, though the Manhattans were a big name. We left for Langa location in Cape Town, playing to nearly empty halls. At one juncture, people started throwing stones on the roof of the hall while we were playing inside. Hey, it was terrible! The people of Langa said we were playing ‘nonsense’. Manhattan Brothers and all. They said we were playing the same kind of music the Manhattans always played. They wanted something new.
During that confusion, Todd Matshikiza disappeared from the cast! And that is how we got a replacement on piano, a chap called Dollar Brand, from District Six. I don’t know how they got Dollar Brand, only Dambuza. . .he came with Dollar while we were at a hostel staying in Langa, stranded. Dambuza came to me and asked me, ‘Do you know this guy?’ meaning Dollar. I replied, ‘Yah, this guy I know. . .I saw him once at Rio bioscope in Johannesburg, playing at a concert with me and Gene Williams who was leaving for Germany.
Dollar was scared of us. He was kneeling down, virtually begging us, man, I’m telling you. This Dollar Brand—things do happen, ‘strue’s God. He wore big boots, looking like a skollie‐nyana so‐oo Kane the chap is a good musician.
Hai, we took a train, the whole cast, to Port Elizabeth. At that time nobody was aware that I had a lot of money with me then, because I used to sneak out every night to play at a certain nightclub. The chap who got me this private job is one of the finest guitarists we’ve ever had—Kenny Just.
I got ten pounds a night—which was quite a lot at that time—and used to make it a point that the other guys shouldn’t know about this. When I ended my stint after a week, Kenny gave me a bottle of whisky and hotel remnants—chicken, sandwiches and things of that nature.
That’s also when I started to be a buddy with Dollar. It was in P.E. that we made a departure in our music. We said ‘Now we are not going to play English music any more. We are going to play indigenous music—Xhosa, Sesotho and all that.’ Who came up with this idea? It was Davashe and Dambuza.
You know what was the cause of all this? It is because of the reaction of the audiences in Cape Town where we didn’t have a following. So, we got a stoke somehow or the other, that no, man, this (English) music, people are bored with it and we’ll have to change it.
Change we did, yah. We could read and write music but were doing it all by ear—quickly. You know, African music is easy, and we didn’t bother writing it down. All we did was to write down the keys; the melody line and tune, that’s all. Afterwards we would arrange it our own way.
By the way, this show of ours was named ‘King’s Holiday’—by Dambuza—because we were then living like kings, enjoying life and eating the money. In East London, we played to packed houses for one and a half months.
We stayed in that area for two months, having parties every night after the show! We had made about a thousand pounds which made us feel really good for the cost of living was still low at that time. Each member got sixty pounds as pocket money, but hey, when we went to Queenstown, none of us had a penny on himself. All we had were our train tickets.
We had lived up to the name of the show—King’s Holiday. Dabuza came with all this idea, I’m tell you. Dollar was still with us. He was a small boy then, a ‘yes, sir’ boy. We stayed for about a week in Queenstown and spent all the money we had earned, and went back home broke. I’m telling: no penny, no
A week after we arrived from the Cape, we went to play in Springs, and the pay I got there was the first that I was able to give to my mother. Mzala Lepere played bass, Norman Martin returned to play drums and General Duze featured on guitar. Dambuza Mdledle, leader of the Manhattans, one day said: ‘Hey, gents, there is a girl who is singing with the Cuban Brothers. I don’t know how I can remove her from them. . . ‘
That time, the only female singer with the Cuban Brothers was not known. She was nothing, man. She was just another girl who was trying to sing. ‘How can we get her? She is a good singer. . . ‘ Tapyt said, ‘I heard her singing at DOCC in Orlando East the other day!’ We coolly said, ‘Naw, man, just bribe her with some money. Call her to a corner and talk to her ma‐private. . .It does not matter even if you give her a pound. . .’
I don’t know how Dambuza solved that, but after a few days, we saw him come with this girl who was singing with the Cuban Brothers. Just like that. She had joined the Manhattan Brothers. Her name was Miriam Makeba. And it was with the Manhattans that she began to be noticed. To tell the truth, the Manhattans made Miriam famous. In those days, the Manhattans and Inkspots were the best groups. When I say Miriam was made famous by the Manhattans, I don’t mean they taught her to sing. . . As an individual. Miriam was shy and really scared of us. Oh, she was. . .
Well, the three of us—me, Mackay Davashe and herself, we used to sit down and practice‐sometimes we would tell her how to use her voice; how to improve her vocal chords and all that jazz. And Miriam would listen attentively. Before she became the famous Miriam Makeba she is today. You know, I must admit, I never thought Miriam would become what she is now. What I mean is this; at Orlando township while she was with the Cuban Brothers, I though ‘Ag, she’ll never make it big.’
I thought she would never make our standards—you know we regarded ourselves then as the big‐shots. We thought we were The Guys, if you understand what I’m trying to say. I regarded the Cuban Brothers and Miriam as small‐fry, let me put it that way. They were not bad, on the other hand, because they in fact started close harmonies in this country, based on the American group, the Modernnaires.
To me, Miriam was just an ordinary girl—a novice. Ons was die ouens then—the real guys—thing of that nature. You’ll forgive me for my English.
Miriam was not that attractive—I mean, curves and all that jazz. I think our first concert with Miriam was somewhere in the East Rand—singing negro spirituals, you know. But still, I was not yet impressed, maybe because I was so influenced by this Negro guy— Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker.
Awright, we toured the Free State, Cape and Natal with Miriam. Before the show, Davashe and I would test her vocal chords, advising her here and there, and she would listen. Because during my schooldays I used to be a singer—yah. . . with Duze, we would tapdance.
My teacher, Mr. Ramokgopa, liked singing and he formed the group Lo‐Six. I came with a composition from the Chesa Ramblers band in Gemiston—boSipho, bo mang‐mang. Gange ya Germiston. Their song was Saduva. That later became our closing song in our concerts.
Yah, at 4 am before playing the national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’I Afrika, we would play Saduva when we’d know its chaile—closing time. It is this song Saduva which really gave Miriam a boost because at that time, Dolly Rathebe was the number one girl singer.
When Miriam got onto the stage with the Manhattans, singing this song, she got the crowds raving. In those days we dressed smart—the guys with suits and bowties and Miriam wearing long evening dresses.
We played with her for a long time, until she left us and joined Alf Herbert’s African Jazz. She was by now involved romantically with Sonny Pillay, who himself was a good singer.
Then came this guy Spike Glasser, a lecturer in music at the University of Cape Town. Kante all the time Todd Matshikiza was writing the score for a musical work he was performing with us. We were playing songs from the musical unawares—and I can remember well how we used to play the very overture from the musical—King Kong—at the Selbourne Hall. We were three then— Todd, General and me, at variety concerts. Spike Glasser, came to us with his wife at Dorkay House, where we were all introduced. We were told he was from overseas and all that jazz.
We didn’t know he was a local guy—you know we suffer from this complex that whenever a man is from overseas he’s the end in life. ‘There’s nothing better than a man from overseas! Ha! Ha! You know, daai gedagte—that kind of impression. Monna ga bare o tswa overseas ra mo sheba, man. Ra mo tshaba—when a man is from overseas we admire him. We go around in England, that guy.
Musically‐speaking , the guy was there, if you know what I mean. He came with some musical scores—aga man, I was just a scrappikkie of a laatie then. Wearning my ysterbaadjiie and my Hong Kong suite which was rather too tight on me.
Awright, present were the usual Dorkay crowd—bo‐Mackay Davashe; Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, whom again? I think others like Todd Matshikiza and the late clarinetist Gwigwi Mrwebi. Then Glasser went away, returned some weeks later and chose me, Davashe and Sol to assist him to arrange the music of the King Kong show.
We sat with Glasser for a coupla months—I think two months if I’m not wrong—arranging the score, at Dorkay. At times we would go to Glasser’s home in Orange Grove or Yeoville, spend some nights there. Or, go back home in the early hours of the morning at about three o’clock—with a bottle of whisky! This was to keep stimulating us, let me put it that way.
First stage rehearsal! Miriam Makeba was one of the leading characters together with Dambuza Mdedle playing the part of King Kong himself.
Really, I didn’t concentrate on the play which was by Harry Bloom. Glasser, a jolly guy, not pompous, was the musical director and Leon Gluckman was the director of the whole show.
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There I began to realize that this girl—Miriam—can sing! I said, haw—I nudged Davashe during one of the rehearsals, do you hear what I’m hearing, Mac? This girl! Huh! We performed for sometime with Miriam then poof!—she’s now up there. Our opening night of the show at the Wits Great Hall had been fantastic—Oh, God, the reception was wonderful, man.
I then realized that ‘heh, this Miriam Makeba—she’s so clever this cherrie. . . Klaar, klaar, she had recorded the song Lo‐Six, the one she had been singing with the Manhattans. We had some professional jealousy. We toured the Cape and Natal with the King Kong show—I think in Cape Town we played to mixed audiences. At the Great Hall I could not see the audience because I was in the orchestra’s pit.
It was not very long after Miriam had left for America, Masekela followed also—before the show went to London Abigail Kubheka was Miriam’s under‐study—the script and the music. I went to London a month after the whole cast had left because I had been hospitalized after an assault. In London, I had to audition for my previous place in the orchestra!
About a month after my arrival in London, something happened to my brain. I became berserk and had to be taken to a mental asylum in London—Ferreira Hospital. Hah, I had to leave the King Kong show. A substitute was found – a white guy took my place.I stayed for a month at the hospital. Then, one day one of the doctors took me to a concert in London where pianist Oscar Peterson and Trio were playing, including Ella Fitzgerald and her group.
I sat there, you know (the doctor wanted me to find out whether I’m awright, because they suspected that I thought too much, musically, if you understand what I mean). They thought that my liking of music could have been one of the causes of my sudden illness that made me not to be quite normal.
Okay, I went to that concert. Well, I was normal then, you know. . . But when Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown (on bass) and Ed Thigpen (on drums) started playing there, I felt like standing and jumping, things of that nature. The doctor said, ‘Sit down, sit down, Kippie!’ Hey, this Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen.
Second half, came Ella Fitzgerald and her group and the same thing happened. Ella was gone! With Herb Ellis (on guitar) and the other guys—one white and two negroes. I can’t remember their names. After the show, I got an autograph from Ella.
And from there, the doctor said to me, ‘No Kippie, I think you’re still not awright. You’ll have to stay another two weeks in the hospital.’ After the two weeks, I was discharged, having been given treatment—like electric shock—three times. That thing can make you stupid, man.
It makes you to become forgetful. Even now, I’m like that—forgetful. I have this tendency of forgetting things—I can hold a pen and forget where I have to put it.
But the doctor said it would do me good. He told me that if one nerve in my brain snapped, I had had it and would eventually become insane, if I kept on thinking too much about music. He said electric shock treatment was the best for me.
Afterwards, I went to this place—I forget it, man. . .Newport Hotel... there I met Jonas Gwangwa and the other cast members of King Kong. By the way, the doctor had told me not to booze, but all the same I drank though the doctor had said, ‘If you drink, you’ll die.’
Those who returned to South Africa with me were Mackay Davashe and Abigail Kubheka, while several others remained in London I had to come back home because I could no longer stomach it in London. Oh well, a week after my arrival, I went t Dorkay House where Mr. Ian Bernhardt began to run musical shows for some of us there—including the late pianist, Gideon Nxumalo. We played at City Hall, Selbourne Hall and some nightclubs here and there. Gideon was just too fantastic! I mean, as a musician. I would say, he was a born musician, though he was much more into classic music, ya. But he was a master—he could read and write music well. He could handle that instrument of his!
Oh yah, I remember so clearly now moments in what I believe was the best small band in the country—Jazz Epistles, featuring Dollar Brand on piano, Hugh Masekela on trumpet, Jonas Gwangwa on trombone, and Makhaya Ntshoko on drums, and me on alto saxophone
I now recall ‘Scullery Department’, which I composed and recorded on our first album, Jazz Epistles Volume One.
We were playing at a certain nightclub in Johannesburg. During a musical break, we were taken to the kitchen to have our meal. Yah, we sat down in that kitchen, eating. Then I said, ‘By right, you know Dollar, this is all nonsense—this idea of us being taken into the kitchen when there’s a break.’ I further said to the guys: ‘Are we kitchen “boys”. Aren’t we here to entertain the people? Aren’t we the “thing” here?’
Dollar replied in a soft and skollie‐like voice: ‘Ja, man, jy praat die waarheid ou pellie.’ There and then I started to think of a song. . .to remember the kitchen incident by, but I didn’t think in terms of the word scullery. It was suggested by Dollar.
He said, ‘Ja, ou pellie, ons kom nou en dan by die kombuis. . .the scullery department.’ And that’s how that song was born, because I said to the guys. ‘Yes, I should write a song called “Scullery Department”!’
After discussing this, we immediately called the son of the owner of the nightclub into the kitchen and told him: ‘Look here pellie, it is not good this thing of you bringing us into the kitchen for our meal.
‘You’d better see that we get our own table right there among the customers. We’re also important in this whole affair, you know? ‘In fact, we ARE the thing here! And do you know, if it were not for us, we’re telling you you’d have no business.’ ‘But you know chaps, my license,’ he replied. We answered back: ‘Your license? Why don’t they stop us playing in front of whites?’
After that, he went away—and set a table for us right among the customers! The Jazz Epistles was the best band I ever played in, here in South Africa.
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