Veteran jazz pianist Pat Matshikiza played a pivotal role in the evolution of township jazz. Photo: Gisele Turner
Veteran jazz pianist Pat Matshikiza played a pivotal role in the evolution of township jazz. Photo: Gisele Turner

Pioneer jazzman ‘Bra Pat’, the legend

By Sam Mathe Time of article published Jan 4, 2015

Share this article:

Johannesburg - Pianist, singer and composer Pat Matshikiza, 76, who died on Monday night at his Queenstown, Eastern Cape home, will go down in the annals of South African music as one of the jazz pioneers who played a pivotal role in the birth and evolution of our kind of jazz.

History will also remember him as the creator of a township jazz evergreen which he composed at a time when the genre was relegated to a cultural wasteland owing to the massive exodus of jazz artists into exile in the 1960s and ’70s.

But the release of Tshona! in 1975 with the great altoist Kippie Moeketsi symbolised the resilience of a creative spirit and the staying power of township jazz against all odds. Like Abdullah Ibrahim’s Manenberg and Mankunku Ngozi’s Yakhal’inkomo, this intoxicating tune has since occupied pride of place in the great South African jazz songbook.

It is one of the country’s most recognisable township jazz tunes. Despite his ability as one of the country’s accomplished jazz pianists, unfortunately Matshikiza will also be remembered as a woefully under-recorded artist as his discography attests.

Born in a prominent family of pianists, his father Meekly “Fingertips” Matshikiza was an official pianist for the eisteddfods in Queenstown – a musical place with an enviable reputation of being the country’s cradle of jazz. Its moniker, Little Jazz Town, says it all.

Pat’s brother, Todd Matshikiza, pianist, jazz scholar, journalist, world-renowned composer of King Kong fame and probably the only vibraphonist of his generation in the country, was one of his teachers.

The family played a broad variety of music, ranging from George Handel to Duke Ellington.

Pat and his six brothers were taught to play the piano and read music from an early age.

He started playing the piano and organ from the age of seven. After matric, he enrolled at St Matthew’s College – a missionary teachers’ training institution in Keiskammahoek, a small town in the Eastern Cape, where he became a resident organist during church services.

He continued in this role when he was transferred to Lovedale College, where he completed his teachers’ diploma in 1957.

Unable to secure a teaching post, he landed odd jobs, working variously as a petrol attendant, clerk, page, steward and nightclub pianist before relocating to Joburg in 1962 where he met the great pianist, composer and music teacher Gideon “Mgibe” Nxumalo who taught him some of the key points of the music world.

He first played with revered tenor man Mackay Davashe’s Jazz Dazzlers alongside luminaries such as Kippie Moeketsi (alto), Blythe Mbityana (trombone) and Dennis Mpale on trumpet. Sadly all of them have since died.

He was also a resident pianist for Union Artists’ productions at Dorkay House – notably with Ben “Satch” Masinga’s Back in Your Own Backyard.

The township musical included Victor Ndlazilwane’s Woody Woodpeckers and songbirds Thandi Klaasen, Abigail Kubheka and Letta Mbulu. In 1964 he joined the Early Mabuza Quartet which comprised Early Mabuza (drums), Ernest Mothle (bass) and Barney Rachabane (alto sax).

The highlight of his stay with the combo was when they shared first prize with the Malombo Jazzmen at the 1964 Castle Lager Jazz Festival.

The subsequent recording of five tracks included two of his compositions, Maxhegwana (Little Old Man) and Inyameko (Perseverance). His next prominent band was the ’70s outfit, Spirits Rejoice, whose members included Sandile Shange (guitar), Duke Makasi (sax), Sipho Gumede (bass), Gilbert Matthews (drums), George Tyefumani (trumpet) and Khaya Mahlangu (sax).

A defining moment in his chequered career was in 1975 when he recorded Tshona! with Moeketsi.

The four-track album featured Basil Coetzee (tenor sax), Dennis Philips (alto), Alec Khaoli (bass) and Sipho Mabuse (drums). Recorded during a decade when township jazz had declined remarkably and overtaken by soul and disco, Tshona! became an instant hit in the country and eventually took its place as a classic in the discography of African jazz.

“The vibrant jazz scene at the Dorkay House influenced the composition,” Matshikiza later recalled.

“The message (of Tshona!) is to encourage people to get down and work hard. At the time I belonged to Mackay Davashe’s Jazz Dazzlers band and during breaks I would sit at the piano and do my own compositions.

“The vibrant jazz scene at Dorkay House provided a pulsating atmosphere that gave birth to the song.

“Dorkay was a musical mecca that had everyone deeply involved in music. It was a matter of time before one was inspired to compose something like Tshona,” he added.

The song’s 1976 successor, Sikiza Matshikiza, also recorded with Moeketsi, was a quality album and vintage township jazz.

It featured members of Spirits Rejoice, but never achieved the publicity, praise and staying power that Tshona! still enjoys today.

In the late 1970s he disappeared from the mainstream scene, assumed another identity and lived in the “coloured” township of Eldorado Park in Joburg as Patrick Matthews. He had taken refuge in a new identity with the hope of evading police who wanted to deport him to the Eastern Cape.

Matshikiza spent the next two decades playing on the hotel circuit. He started at the Hillbrow Tower club as leader of a resident band.

But their contract was terminated when the lead singer, Vicky (Busi) Mhlongo, refused to sing one evening after patrons asked her to sing like Shirley Bassey. She felt insulted that the club owners didn’t think much about her own God-given talents.

He then played at hotels in neighbouring countries, notably Swaziland and Botswana. His longest stay was at the Amatola Sun in Bhisho, Eastern Cape, where he spent 14 years, and later the Ulundi Holiday Inn in KwaZulu-Natal, playing classical and folk music for overseas tourists.

Back in Joburg, he briefly performed at Lebo Morake’s Kilimanjaro nightclub in Melrose Arch (2003) and in Kind of Blue in Randburg (2004) as a resident musician.

Seasons, Masks & Keys (2005) was Matshikiza’s last studio album and a retrospective work that also served as an overdue attempt to bring this underrated legend of South African jazz to greater prominence.

This is a landmark project of instrumental and vocal compositions that span half a century, music that in essence is a chronicle of his artistic journey and a tribute to his contemporaries – the likes of Moeketsi and another illustrious son of Queenstown, Victor Madoda Ndlazilwane.

In the mid-2000s he left Joburg for Durban where he lived as a forgotten man of South African jazz – destitute, wheelchair-bound and in poor health.

Five years ago he suffered a stroke. It impacted seriously on his physical and mental well-being.

A week before his death, his wife, Philile Bridgette Matshikiza, died after suffering a heart attack.

Matshikiza is survived by five daughters. His son, Sean, pre-deceased him.

* Discography: Castle Lager Jazz Festival 1964 (CCP Records, 1997 reissue); Tshona! (As-Shams/EMI, 1975); Sikiza Matshikiza (As-Shams/EMI, 1976); Seasons, Masks & Keys (Gallo, 2005).

Sunday Independent

Share this article: