South Africa: The labor of love is a treasure in jazz history

One of the most damaging consequences of apartheid was the silence of black artists, which led to the loss of their history, among many other things. As many culture documenters know, when artists die, their stories and oral histories go with them. Tracing these stories now and piecing them together is a daunting task for any researcher, but journalist and author Sam Mathe has attempted to do just that in his new book, From Kippie to Kippies and Beyond.

It is a tribute to hundreds of South African musicians who are a forgotten memory as well as to the younger generation performing now. Spanning four generations of musicians from the 1920s to the present day, it paints intimate biographical portraits of jazz, folk and pop artists. Heavyweights such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Lucky Dube, Brenda Fassie, Abdullah Ibrahim, Dorothy Masuka, Letta Mbulu and Johnny Dyani are among those featured, while music styles include marabi, kwela, mbaqanga, free jazz and contemporary sounds.

The book charts new territory with a collection of just over 300 mini-biographies, the oldest artist being saxophonist Peter Rezant (b. 1902) and the youngest singer Zoë Modiga (b. 1994). Each entry is presented with the musical background and career of the musician and a short discography at the end. There are no photographs. It can be used as an encyclopedia, a reference work or even a “rough guide” to jazz. The first edition is titled Volume 1 and Mathe is already working on the second volume.

For his research, he sought out either the musicians themselves or the most important people in their lives, especially their family members who could help him complete their stories. Sometimes he would visit tombstones to verify the accuracy of dates or make sure to track down and verify details. He relied on material from previously published books and also used his own articles as reference material.

The title is inspired by clarinetist and alto saxophonist Kippie “Morolong” Moeketsi, whom Mathe considers “the father of South African jazz and its symbolic representation”. Born in 1925, Moeketsi was a legend not only for his musical acumen, but also for mentoring many artists. Although an icon, Moeketsi’s musical contribution has gone largely unrecognized, except for a few examples such as the legendary former jazz club Kippies, which stood near the Market Theater in Newtown. A statue of Moeketsi outside the site was unveiled in 2009. The Cape Town International Jazz Festival has also named one of its largest stages in his honour.

Choose your goal

One of Mathe’s first articles on music was about Moeketsi, written for Pace magazine in 1994. He already had the idea for the book at the time, but he was still a rookie journalist and needed more experience. in the field. While working for the Sunday Sun weekend tabloid in 2005, he found he had more free time and pledged to begin research for the book. His initial interest was in profiling the older generation, but in the end, he found he couldn’t ignore new era talents such as Sisonke Xonti, Thandi Ntuli, Kyle Shepherd, Shane Cooper and Bokani Dyer.

“We have a very rich jazz heritage as a nation, but we still have some pretty exceptional talent among musicians today,” says Mathe. “They represent the same tradition of performers that began with the likes of Kippie Moeketsi and therefore deserve to be documented for posterity as well.”

Mathe encountered various funding issues and frustrations from the Ministry of Sports, Arts and Culture and the National Arts Council while trying to complete the project. As a result, the book is largely self-funded with some help from the Association of Academic and Nonfiction Authors of South Africa and the Norwegian Embassy.

At first Mathe did not think of self-publishing, but when no publishing company showed interest, he approached Robert McLaren of Themba Books, who agreed to a co-publishing deal. The book was released at the end of August 2021.

Mathe credits his love for storytelling to his family. “I was born into a family of storytellers. My grandmother was a great storyteller of folk tales.” When television was introduced in 1976, he says, it was for white people and “at that point I believed my grandmother’s stories were the best thing that no small box could compete with”. He describes himself as an avid reader from an early age and the book is dedicated to his parents, who introduced him “to the pleasures of reading and the importance of education”.

where it started

The author’s love for music was cultivated by jazz, which he remembers hearing on the radio as a child. “Somehow this music caught my attention and I became curious,” he says. “I was still in my pre-teens in the 1970s when I first heard Kippie Moeketsi on the radio. It was either Umgababa, Stop and Start or Tshona!.

“Weekends known as gumba-gumbas were organized around a vinyl roulette called ‘space-gram’ [a radiogram with a turntable]. Gumba-gumba also referred to the sound system itself. Vinyl records were mostly available in 45 rpm. I first saw an LP during the next decade, when hi-fi was now part of the furnishings of many African homes. Later, in college, he frequented music stores like Kohinoor World of Music in Johannesburg and began collecting cassette tapes.

Mathe ended up covering music by choice because, he says, he loves music in general and South African music in particular. He was inspired by 1950s Drum writers like Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, Casey Motsisi and Arthur Maimane. “When I discovered Es’kia Mphahlele, and later the other Drum writers, it became possible for me to nurture the dream of being a writer. Knowing that there were writers of their caliber in literature and South African journalism was a big deal for me and they inspired me to follow in their footsteps.

He always wanted to be a journalist and was first published in 1987 while a student at the University of the Witwatersrand. Today, he wears many hats as a writer, poet, researcher, editor, editor, and social historian, and he’s busy with other book projects, including one on poetry.

In the introduction to From Kippie to Kippies and Beyond, Mathe describes it as an “enterprise that aims to reclaim this brilliant but woefully neglected legacy”. He refers, of course, to the largely undocumented history of South African jazz and laments the lack of biographies or memoirs. Above all, he adds that in 2021 alone, artists Sibongile Khumalo, Tshepo Tshola, Steve Kekana, Andre Petersen and Lawrence Matshiza have all passed away. To his credit, he was able to talk to many important musicians before their deaths, including saxophonist Robbie Jansen.

Part of the apartheid legacy is that many black artists died in obscurity. There was a disregard for musicians and their identities, with little care and respect for their lives. It is an almost impossible task to verify all the information in Mathe’s book due to the lack of documentation, much of it relies on memory.

Although jazz in South Africa has deep roots in black social and political history, there are only a handful of books published on the subject. This leaves gaps in the history and knowledge of jazz and there is still a lot of work to be done. Mathe’s book is important for filling in some of these gaps, but it can also be used as a springboard for further research. It is an immense task that allows Black South Africans to begin the work of restoring their cultural history.

Mathe will appear at The Time of the Writer festival on March 15, where he will host a panel discussion with Barbara Masekela, Marah Louw and Des Lindberg. It is also planning a series of book launches starting with an event at The Commune in Braamfontein on April 27.

From Kippie to Kippies and Beyond is available on Amazon.

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