Home to the Story of South African Jazz
Interview Ezme Matshikiza Cape Town 1999
Did you go into exile with the musicians?
We did not go with them because Todd was not really involved in the production side of it. He was commissioned to write the music so was in the background and wasn't involved in the production side of it. We didn't go on the tour with the musicians when they went out of South Africa. We left the country the year before they went on their tour to Britain. We didn't go to Britain on the King Kong wagon we went separately as a family.
Was it exciting?
It was very interesting yes, but none of us thought it would become such a success. The show ran for more than two weeks. It totally surprised everyone, did you read the article in the Mail and Guardian?
What about the multi-racial and economic aspects?
Todd used to come home sometimes very distressed and very upset and sometimes extremely angry about a lot of things that are happening that he didn't like and that he thought he wasn't allowed to take responsibility for. It was like that. He would sometimes come very upset. In general it went quite well.
What was the scene like?
Very lively. We had achieved some kind of a direction even though it was through artistic means and in a sense political as well. We knew where we were going and we knew where we wanted to go. I hink we even got to a point where we wanted to make a breakthrough. The politicians and musicians are the workers but South Africa really belongs to everybody and particularly the black population. We were being surprised and we were being short changed. This sort of thing was not on. Naturally we were a part of this country. Insinctively we had the feeling that things were actually moving ahead. There was a lot of self confidence around even though things at that stage were starting to go very bad for us. We didn't see it in that light before until Sharpville happened and that is when we saw these guys were serious about what they were doing and that they were prepared to resort to violence to hold us back. When that happened we were ready to make that break and authorities must have understood more than the previous government that things were not in their favour. There was a sense of fearlessness and courageousness that things were going to happen for us. And there was nothing that was going to hold us back. This country belonged to us. There was no feeling at all that it was just for blacks, we were nixed up with everybody in this country. A lot of this self confidence came with the fact that a very small minority of white South Africans were completely accepted. And there was a very strong communication between people who worked on Drum and journalists that came from outside. Other people were interested by what was happening and impressed by what Drum was doing. There was communication on an equal level and that happened in a very small way particularly up in Johannesburg and I was a part of that, interacting very easily with people from other communities. That gave us the feeling of self confidence that nothing can hold us back, giving us the feeling of where things should go.
Was it a plan of King Kong to mix white and black?
There were no white performers. The director was white Leon Gluckman, he was the only professional really and then Arnold Dover who did the choreography, he was professional, he was white and then Stanley Glasser wh orchestrated the music and Arthur Goldreich who was the aristic director. He designed the cover of the record and the programme. And of course the backers who were the Menels and someone personal like Robert Loader. He was very much the driving force behind it.
Was Todd with Drum magazine then?
He had left Drum magazine by then. He was still very much a public performer. He was a musician, he played in a jazz orchestra. He had also been a teacher. He had worked for Drum. He was very much part of the local and artistic scene.
How did they get the money?
Loader was working for Anglo American and very quietly from behind the scenes he helped to produce that money. Robert Loader was a friend of ours long before King Kong happened.
King Kong is a fruitful cooperation between white and black people. “Any person who has seen the show will think twice before he pushes an African out the way on a street corner.” Leon Gluckman
It is true. Nobody knew it was going to be so successful. It was just an interesting story that came to the notice of Irene Menel who first thought of writing it, but you would have to confirm that with her. I am not sure how we met the Menel's, but they they met Todd and we all used to get together sometimes at their house. And that is how the story and the idea for the production started. I have the feeling it was Irene's idea in the first place and Clive the husband very much supported that and Robert Loader brought in money and helped with the production side.
Why did they do it?
I can't really answer that question. That objective was not in the forefront. It is something that happened. Here were musicians that were able to produce all that music. Here were musicians that were able to perform all that music. We needed a production team to put all of this together. And then it just happened. So I don't really know. That is a very interesting question but I can't really answer it. I suspect that particular point was not really the forefront.
Did you ever come into contact with the police?
Not directly. Todd did. As you know the pass laws were very much the mode of the time. They were beginning to enforce pass laws on women as well at about that time. Pass laws started to include women. Do you know how the pass laws system used to work? If you were employed in the city. You had this pass that said you are allowed to be there. If you are not employed you only have a permit to be there for 72 hours. If you don't have work within 72 hours you have to get out. If you don't have that of course you can get locked up for two weeks. And you will be sent to some farm for people who grow potatoes and something like that. On top of that you were not allowed in the city after 11pm at night, curfew time, so these performances and these rehearsals, even if it was nothing to do with King Kong, even a cultural event that took place in Johannesburg; that we would attend; and sometimes the show would finish at midnight or maybe four in the morning. And the venue where the show was held would always have a secretary and somebody like that who would sign a document to say that you were returning to the township at that time of night and had attended a function at such and such a place and signed that. If the police stopped you, you would have to produce this document to say you had the right to drive through central Johannesburg back to the township. If you didn't have that of course you would be locked up. The rehearsals were held in a warehouse in the Southern part of Johannesburg. And that went on until quite late at night and of course all the artists, (and sometimes Todd went to listen to the rehaersals) had to have this stupid document signed to say that because of whatever they were doing they had to be in the city at that time to go through the city to get back home. We were fortunately during those years not as angry as we became later. Half the time all of this was a joke. In fact it was seriously humiliating to have to go through that process. Even if you were born in the middle of the city, you had to prove you had the right to be there at night. Inevitably there would be instances where the police would stop the car loads of musicians who were either leaving or arriving to try to harass them but most of the time they had their papers in order.
At the time when Todd was working for Drum what were you doing?
I was a social worker and worked at Johannesburg City Council. They had different departments. They had the Non European Affairs department which itself was divided into the coloured and the native section. I wasn't just a social worker working in Johannesburg, I had to work with a particular community.
Was going abroad with small children difficult?
It was very exciting. The thing was our passports took them a long time to issue. They were quibbling about all sorts of things and finally after a year we made our applications for the passports. The passports were valid for three years. And we were intending to come back after three years. It was an exciting thing to get out of South Africa and see the wide world. Having made so many very good English friends and all of us having had missionary education, having been taught English literature and those things, one knew about the Dickens era and things like that so it was very exciting to go and see that first hand. It was very exciting indeed and of course we had intended to come back after three years but after 1961 the government under Verwoed left the commonwealth and we really agonised about what we should do and all my friends advised we take a British citizenship because they knew things were going to go from bad to worse in South Africa. Also with South Africa leaving the commonwealth we would have difficulty in working in London and Britain without British citizenship. It took us a long and agonising time to decide whether we should keep our South African citizenship or not. We opted for British citizenship and as things became worse and worse in South Africa the opportunity to come back became more and more remote. That was the agonising part.
At that time there were no exiles. There were one or two black South Africans who had gone overseas to study and do higher diploma's, but very few. The surge of exiles happened after Sharpville when the ANC and other Liberation organisations were banned. The intellectual community gradually started leaving the country, taking teaching jobs in West Africa or the United States and places like that. Gradually people started moving out but in 1976 came the real surge with people moving out of the country without passports. In the early 1960's there wasn't a real exile community as such. The exile really happened at the time that South Africa left the common wealth and we all became very concerned about what was going to happen here. And also with young children not wanting to take them back to Bantu education and things like that. That was the time that a groundswell of exiles started growing.
What was your support network?
We were lucky as a family to have had so many English friends before we went. They, one way or the other, helped us to be culturally accepted and settle down so that was really a great advantage. And then we had to do things on our own after that. Sometimes that wasn't easy. Things were very tough under certain circumstances. And then of course the exile community started growing and the support base started growing and we kept very close to each other.
In 1963 Todd was invited to go and work in Zambia with what was going to become the new Zambian government after the break up of the federation of Northern Rhodesia and Malawi. And then of course the ANC the followng year opened an office in Lusaka. And of course many exiles came and there was also a very good exile support base at the Zambian government. And the Zambians themselves were very supportive as well. We all had very good jobs and those sorts of things so in a sense it was home from home.
So much has been said about the content of the King Kong play. John wrote in his article that there was a subtle message for Mandela's treason trial.
That particular song “Sad Times Bad Times.”
Lewis Nkosi wrote a piece saying he is quite disapointed because for him it was the perfect opportunity to bring a strong message which it didn't have.
There are a lot of messages, especially if you look at the Xhosa lyrics that were written. “Sad times bad times,” was written a few years before King Kong was produced and it had to do with the fact that Henry Nxumalo who is a senior journalist on Drum had been killed by some person who had stabbed him when he was investigating something that happened in the community there. And another beautiful musician and comedian, an artist Victor Mkhize he had been to Durban to perform and he was driving back home. Miriam Makeba was in the car with him and one or two other musicians and they had an accident on the way between Durban and Johannesburg. Victor was killed. This was a great loss to the community, Henry and Victor so close, quite a short time between the two incidents. There was a plan to raise funds for the family, a commemorative concert. Todd was asked to write a piece for this concert and he wrote “Sad Times Bad Times.” The lyrics are acrually saying what have these two done to have this disaster? Very appropriately “Sad Times Bad Times” was used in King Kong as the prelude to the whole production and the same lyrics were used. And appropriately this time they reflected on what was happening in the treason trial because the treason trial was opened on the same day King Kong opened at the Wits university. And again what have these men done that they should be standing a trial like this? The message was very subtle indeed and I don't think that the government understood that. There is also the bus queue song, 'In the queue'. It also talks about the hardship that people go through when they have to go to work. If they have work. Going to work in the dark and having to stand in a long bus cue. Very subtle lyrics that are saying if you don't catch that bus, the boss is not going to be at all sympathetic. You would probably lose your job or something. It was quite subtle. The Xhosa lyrics were very subtle. Anyhow what Nkosi is saying is probably true but on the other hand there is a very subtle message that came through.
What do you feel about the restaging of King Kong?
I think it should happen. My view is that 1960 came the point where we were cut off with Sharpeville with the banning of the liberation movements and with the beginning of the exile movement and things like that. The generations of 1960 and 1990 are thirty years apart. The young generation of 1990 had no idea what happened. The thirty year gap has totally elliminated that part of their history. Is a society reliable without its history? That is my question and also my answer. What apartheid attempted to do was elliminate people's history and there are no people that survive and are relieable without their history. It doesn't matter who it is and it doesn't matter how ancient the history is. Europe today stands up on what went before such as 1066. And they are still proud of that history and whatever it should be, so why should we not remind ourselves what happened.