Home to the Story of South African Jazz
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.
return to index

Playing marabi on the typewrite with Todd Matshikiza ... musician, composer, writer

We can smell the intensity of the music of the golden era through Todd Matshikiza's heartwrenching style of writing ...

In the Beat of Drum he writes "I loved the dinghy lights of the clubhouse. The smell of roast meat from the kitchen behind the stage, the people muttering through tobacco smoke and rhythm pounding through my head. I loved the beautiful piano tones of Samuel Tutu and I stook leaning against the piano. His technique dazzled em and I stood in a haze. Snowy's soprano. Tutu's piano. Singer Ezekiel Mogale carried me out of the hall and poured cold water over my face. Voices were saying, 'the little boy is overpowered by the music...
"Zuluboy Cele said his big bold sound was ideal for transporting the musical ideas he had in mind. He had been for many years a house pianist in the marabi joints and he had always wanted to paint marabi tones in a broader canvas and with bigger scales. He bought a saxophone and learnt to play it. Zuluboy Cele was the kind of musician who wanted to bring music to those who danced to the new swing sound, loud, forceful and big, the same element that was present in marabi."

Todd Matshikiza tells the stories of him, ZuluBoy Cele and Peter Rezant in this transcription of the racy radio drama produced by SABC

The interviewer asks : "You are extremely confident about being a South African … "

The only way to handle the apartheid laws is with a mixture of very strong criticism and of amusement and I am sure it does hurt but I write about it to cope with it.

I never thought you would when you got married… first you were teaching then you had the job at the bookshop but there was always the music …

I want to compos something that is really big, something that will knock the socks off everyone. Something truly African.

… My style is the matshikeeze …

“Playing jazz on the typewriter?”

…more like marabi, playing key board style on pedal organs because they are relatively cheap to get. Of course they have a lot in common with American ragtime and blues to be honest most of Drum is Americanised. Africa is drunk with American culture. The music, it is now wonder! The missionaries taught them that the music of Africa is barbarous.

…the marabi is modelled on the American string band. And this has produced the first generation of professional black musicians in South Africa. But on a more basic level the marabi does have a lot to do with the African drink culture. The sound of the marabi is intended to draw people into the shebeens, and then to get them dancing. We call them night time girls, the dames that make and break the man. These women are real and they love the musicians.

Like you?

There is only one women in my life the beautiful Ezme Matshikiza. But I go to the shebeens. I relax there. I listen to the loping melodies and loping rhythms that can go on all night. I have a few drinks but most importantly I observe.

And then you beat out the rhythm of what you observe on the typewriter, what is that all about?

It is about the marabi, the mabokwe, also the itswari, and famu, but whatever it is called it is vital, like the dames that like it. This one is about the old days when the men didn't kill each other for the dames, there was a gentleman's code about double crossing women. I recall an episode at Nuclear, espikidikili, the place of hell, dancing on dagga, and the most famous singers for whom the girls vie with each other.

What happened?

Two guys were in love with the same girl. They came to the show and at the interval, they called her outside. Jimson had a whip, he said to the dame, you dirty dealing damsel, I will teach you not to do it again and then he hit her long and bitter and when he was through he handed the whip to Zim who repeated the painful process on the girl who was now almost faint and then the two man shook hands and went inside to sing again.

That seems a bit harsh?

Let me tell you what happened at the Pashar place. There was a great pianist called Bob Gwaza. The girls showered him with presents every night. One night a women gave him a scarf, he put it around his neck and Bob forgot to take it off when he went home. He was so tired, he fell asleep with the scarf around his neck. He had a very jealous mistress. She looked at him with venom in his heart and then she poured paraffin on his body and set him on fire. Bob died a painful death but he forgave her in his kind heart. She was never punished for that…

And you say all this is true?

I would never write it if it wasn't. Bob Gwaza was one in a long line of pianists who were great men, playing tirelessly from 8 till 4 non stop. Then there was Solomon Ashedy in his black overcoat. He played all day at the Bantu Men's social centre. He never played requests unless you gave him a cup of tea. And Douglas Koko pounding the piano, his favourite stunt was to play with his elbow and Samuel Tutu who always practiced accordion on the train. He always told me, ‘boy I was the lion of the keyboard until one helova boy came and dragged the crown right out of my hands, he was Mickley ‘fingertips' Matshikiza.

Your brother?

Yes, I was playing at a dance he said, and when Mickley played after me, the next morning I took the first train and quit East London for Johannesburg.

So you are from a musical family?

My mother was a renowned soprano. And my father played the organ in the Anglican church. I am the youngest of seven and we were all taught music from a young age. Mickley passed on his infectious passion for jazz to me. My earliest professional experience was playing in one of his bands.

I remember my mum used to say to me, yes my son, your elder brother was born during the great flu in 1919. Peter Rezant was on stage then and still is today. He remembers the days when the band wouldn't play if they didn't have a four gallon tin of beer standing by to keep them from falling. It is great fun today. We have lots of class fun without the 4 gallon tin of beer. Thanks to Peter Rezant who has got coronation balls, nurses balls. Amen to that. Whose who is worn off for another evening with Peter Rezant. All the classy people turn out in white ties and tails, waltzing the nights away but tonight he is playing in Sophiatown.

I just heard him play with the Merry Blackbirds, I remember him in 1936 at the great Empire exhibition in Johannesburg, huge wonderful exhibition, gold pieces from Joburg, uncut diamonds from Kimberley, washing machines and Wales people from Durban, pygmies from the Sahara, swings, ruby rings meet with the finest things on earth and put them there for us to see. I saw nothing there, I was too small, but I saw the huge large showboat on a big lake. Peter Rezant and his famous Merry Blackbirds orchestra, here daily and nightly. People would come to the showboat every day, judges, lawyers, policemen and pimps, ladies, gentlemen and thieves. They didn't come in ones, they didn't come in two's, they came in tens to hear Peter Rezant and his Merry Blackbirds. It is funny/. I am just thinking now that I saw people there. I saw them gape at the strange blackbird Peter Rezant. They said, of course he is different. I said, so his my right foot from my left. You can say what you like man, Peter Rezant is a ruby of a ruddy blackbird. He has done this country good.

… I worry about the future. Sometimes. What's going to end fast in me. All that. Acts, mixed marriages, immoralities, population registration, group areas, separate registration of voters and the worst one, Bantu education. What is going to happen to my children?

… It makes me both excited and sad. Last night listening to Peter Rezant play, I couldn't contain myself but now finishing my story, thinking of all the many tragic cases, I have little hope. That boy Zulu, he was the kind of musician who wanted to bring music to those who danced to it, the new swing sound, the marabi. He was in demand with the Jazz Maniacs, so they made a huge mistake. They accepted double engagements because they didn't want to disappoint their patrons. They were hired to play in Pretoria, they said yes. And then took a train that same night on a tour to Cape Town. Legal suits, selling of instruments. The band was no more. The Jazz Maniacs of Zulu boy Cele gone. But worst of all is he was found dead on the railway line of Johannesburg. No one knows who killed him. Something happened at a party and his body was carried to the railway line. Others say he was forcibly thrown in front of a fast moving train. No musician these days wants to talk about the murder of the Z boy. And his great maniacs are as dead as he is. Even if they were not murdered.

Todd plays with Peter Rezant …

Peter says, “You know why I like Duke Ellington so much? His music has an African sound. That sound of a fella coming across the veld, playing his concertina beneath his blanket, repeating the theme for a long long time. And also humming a Count Basie tune. Once on eth mines there was a cold night and I remember playing the general jump at dawn and the people were dancing and when we finished playing I turned to the boys and said you know? If Duke Ellington had walked in here he would have complimented you tonight. There was this other time. We were playing at Zonderwater hospital. And this man introduces us. He says, ‘The Americans have got their Duke Ellingtons and their Count Basie, but we have got Our Merry Blackbirds and the curtain goes up… those people thought they were dreaming.

Peter says to Todd …

“You put life into your music and that is what the audience wants. Should we start with the tango to get the young ones onto the dance floor.”

Here is an extract from a record reviewby a well-known writer and composer, Todd Matshikiza:

Brothers. . . I’ve got smashing news for you. Real hot-poker stuff. The kind of dope that you get once in a blue moon. D’you know King Force? Hey? The big, broad-shouldered, hawk-eyed veteran sax maniac. Hey? The chap that’s the life blood of the great Jazz Maniacs Orchestra of Johburg. You should know who I’m talking about, man. The fellow that lots of recording firms have begged and begged with big bags and bundles of dough to make discs for them. And he always said, “Nix.” The great guy that gulps giggle water by the gallon and makes greater and greater sounds with every additional drop. What a man. Everybody that’s ever heard this sax giant has been raving mad about him.



Have you enjoyed the Story of South African Jazz research and development archive? Any donations can shift us closer to our dream of sharing the expression and all will be rewarded with multiple platforms of media ...


FROM : The Stars of Jazz by Todd Matshikiza

The location slept peacefully all night till just after midnight. AT something like twenty past midnight the residents began to shift uneasily in their beds because the sound of the church bell at the Moravian Mission in Scanlan Street was clanging loud. Loud. As loud as any sound is heard at that time of night when everything else is quiet. The sound of the Moravian Church bell might not have been disturbing but for two reasons. First, it was ringing at that time of night, which might have meant, as the custom is still understood today in most churches, that someone had passed away at that hour. A well‐known church‐attending resident had died. In that case the residents wake up, sit up and think up all those things that the dead one meant or didn’t mean during life A wretch, a coon or a regular fool. A king, a kong or “God what a loss.”

Second, the sound of that bell was disturbing anytime. It was a large bell with a huge crack in its side. The crack made the bell sound like so much water taking a gurgle. Grong. Grong. Grong. And d’you know who was ringing the bell? GASHE. Gashe, the jazz organist with a crazy shriek across his brain. He’d just returned from a jazz session in the location. Gashe. We called him “Boet Gashe” in 1928 because he was older than we were, but more so because he used to delight in wearing hideous masks and frightening us from our parents’ laps at the concerts if he wasn’t ringing his mischievous midnight bells. But if he had an all‐night session playing jazz organ at the beer‐brewing and pleasure‐soaked west end of Queenstown location, then the church concerts fared well. He was the only jazz organist. No pianos in those days. His organ was carted on a donkey truck from house, and wherever it moved, the people went. Queenstown was happily situated for Gashe because every train bearing miners (“mine boys” in South African
English) between the Eastern Cape and Johannesburg stopped there overnight. And the miners’ veins were full with jazz, as they were with women, and they got both at Gashe’s jazz sessions. We looked upon the women Handjievol, Nomadabi, Annatjie, Nodoli and others with awe. Us kids knew those women’s names weren’t clean, though we never knew why. But we knew they were the women that danced where Gashe played.

Gashe’s dances were called “I‐Tswari” where you paid 3d. at the door and entered into a dingy, stuffy room where the dust from the dancers’ feet smothered the solitary paraffin lamp which flickered in the shadows of dancing partners who could hardly see or didn’t know each other. The hostess hunched next to a four‐gallon tin of beer in the corner. She sold jam tins full at 6d. a gulp and held her hand open for another 1s. if the client wanted to go into the room behind the curtain. But actually one saw nothing in that dust. Not even Gashe, who was bent over his organ in one corner, thumping the rhythm from the pedals with is feet, which were also feeding the
organ with air; choking the organ with persistent chords in the right hand, and improvising for an effective melody with his left hand. He would call in the aid of a cuestick to hold down a harmonic note, usually the tonic (doh) or the dominant (soh), both of which persist in African music, and you saw the delirious effect of perpetual motion. Perpetual motion. Perpetual motion in a musty hold where man makes friends without restraint. Where Gashe plays “I‐Tswari”—a music consisting of three chords fighting themselves infinitely over four, five or six hours each night, punctuated only by murmurs and groans of deep satisfaction. Finished only when Gashe stops for a draught of beer, which is part of his pay. In the morning, the men have pawned their papers, passes and purses. They’ve had their fun, and the women too. And Gashe trucks his organ to the next “Tswari.”


afribeat.com is a free resource and portal dedicated to LOVE, truth, uBuntu, peace on earth and many friends