/ 20 April 2022

‘From Kippie to Kippies and Beyond’: A treasure trove of jazz history

Kippie Moeketsi Scutpture
Bronze monument of South African jazz legend, Kippie Moeketsi, outside the old Kippies Jazz Club in the Market Theatre complex, Johannesburg. (Hoberman Collection/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

One of apartheid’s most damaging consequences was the silencing of Black artists, which resulted in a loss of their histories, among many things. As many documentors of culture know, when artists die, their stories and oral histories go with them. To go back now and piece together these histories is an arduous task for any researcher, but journalist and author Sam Mathe has tried to achieve this in his new book, From Kippie to Kippies and Beyond.  

It is a tribute to hundreds of musicians who are a forgotten memory, as well as the younger generation currently performing. Stretching back over four generations of musicians, 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 the styles of music include marabi, kwela, mbaqanga, free jazz and contemporary sounds.

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

The title draws inspiration from clarinettist and alto saxophonist Kippie “Morolong” Moeketsi, whom Mathe considers to be “the father of South African jazz and its symbolic representation”. Though an icon, Moeketsi’s musical contribution has gone largely unrecognised save for a few examples such as the legendary former jazz club Kippies, which was situated near the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg. A statue of Moeketsi outside the venue was unveiled in 2009. The Cape Town International Jazz Festival also named one of its largest stages after him. 

Choosing his focus

One of Mathe’s first music articles was about Moeketsi, written for Pace magazine in 1994. He already had the idea for the book then, but he was still a rookie journalist and needed more experience. While working at the Sunday Sun in 2005, he found that he had extra time on his hands and committed to beginning research for the book. His initial interest was profiling the older generation, but in the end he found that 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 quite exceptional talents among the current musicians,” says Mathe. “They represent the  tradition of performers like Kippie Moeketsi and, therefore, they deserve to be documented for posterity.” 

Mathe ran into funding issues and frustrations while trying to complete the project. As a result, the book is largely self-funded with a bit of help from the Academic and Non-Fiction Authors’ Association of South Africa and the Norwegian embassy. 

When no publishing house showed interest he approached Robert McLaren of Themba Books, who agreed to a co-publishing deal. The book came out in late August 2021. 

Where it started

The author’s love for music was cultivated by the jazz 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 radio. It was either Umgababa, Stop and Start or Tshona! 

“Weekend parties, known as gumba-gumbas, were organised around a vinyl spinner called a ‘space-gram’. Gumba-gumba also referred to the sound system itself. The vinyl records were mainly available in 45s. I first saw an LP in the next decade when hi-fis were becoming part of the furniture in a number of African households.” Later, at university, he frequented music shops like Kohinoor World of Music in Johannesburg and began collecting cassettes.

Mathe ended up covering music because, he says, he loves music in general and South African music in particular. He was inspired by Drum writers of the 1950s 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 a dream of being a writer. To know that there were writers of their calibre in South African literature and journalism was a big deal for me. They inspired me,” he says. 

He always wanted to become a journalist and was first published in 1987 as a student at the University of the Witwatersrand. These days he wears many hats as a writer, poet, researcher, editor, publisher and social historian, and he is keeping busy with other book projects, including one on poetry.

In From Kippie to Kippies and Beyond’s introduction, Mathe describes it as a “venture that aims to reclaim this brilliant but woefully neglected heritage”. He is, of course, referring to the largely undocumented history of South African jazz and lamenting the lack of biographies or memoirs.

Importantly, too, he adds that in 2021 alone artists Sibongile Khumalo, Tshepo Tshola, Steve Kekana, Andre Petersen and Lawrence Matshiza all passed away. To his credit, Mathe was able to speak to many musicians before they died, among them saxophonist Robbie Jansen

Despite jazz in South Africa having deep roots tied to Black social and political history, there are only a handful of books about it. This leaves gaps in the history and knowledge of jazz; Mathe’s book fills some of these gaps, but it can also be used as a launchpad for further research. It is an immense work that allows Black South Africans to begin the work of restoring their cultural history.

From Kippie to Kippies and Beyond is available on Amazon. Mathe is also planning a series of book launches beginning with an event at The Commune in Braamfontein, Johannesburg on 27 April.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on New Frame.