Pat Matshikiza and Kippie Moeketsi: Tshona! — a reissued masterpiece

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Pat Matshikiza died in poverty at the end of 2014. He lived in Queenstown, in the Eastern Cape, the birthplace he had left as a young man in search of fame and fortune. The pianist came from a family of musicians: his father, Meekly “Fingertips” Matshikiza, was the official town pianist; his uncle Todd was the famous composer of the jazz musical King Kong. By the time Pat arrived in Johannesburg in 1962, most of South Africa’s golden generation jazz musicians had gone into exile, but he played with all the major combos, with bandleaders from MacKay Davashe at Early Mabuza.

In 1975, after a few years with the fusionists Spirits Rejoice, he joined forces with alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, one of the few musicians to feature in King Kong still in the country — to record Tshona! for Rashid Vally’s As-Shams label. Reissued by We Are Busy Bodies, the album sounds like it could have been recorded anytime since the mid-1950s. Matshikiza sets up rolling marabi vamps over which Moeketsi lays down swinging, singing alto lines.

In addition to Moeketsi, the record features Basil Coetzee, whose searing tenor saxophone recently featured on Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Mannenberg.” Bass and drums come from Alec Khaoli and Sipho Mabuse of Afro-rock band Harari. On the title track, after extended solos by Moeketsi, growl and Coetzee, Dennis Phillips adds a sunnier alto solo that rounds out 11 minutes. Matshikiza’s other composition, “Stop and Start”, begins with Moeketsi and Coetzee blowing in unison, an octave apart, as Matshikiza slips and goes out of sync with Mabuse’s rapid tambourine triplets and Khaoli nails the rhythm.

Side B contains two of Moeketsi’s rare compositions. “Umgababa” is fast and urgent, and ends with the two saxophonists exchanging phrases, Coetzee on the left, Moeketsi on the right, breaking the groove of piano, bass and drums. “Kippie’s Prayer” is a cooler meditation with just piano and viola, Moeketsi soaring while Matshikiza keeps the beat grounded.

This was the highlight of the pianist. Sikiza Matshikiza united Moeketsi with Spirits Rejoice but was a relative flop. When in 1977 he played the piano on Our boys do, a veiled celebration of the ANC’s military wing uMkhonto weSizwe, he was a sideman to Moeketsi and trumpeter Dennis Mpale. After that, he was reduced to performing in hotels to bored, indifferent audiences. Eclipsed in the annals of South African pianists by Ibrahim and Chris McGregor, Matshikiza’s masterpiece remains Tshona!.

★★★★☆

Tshona!‘ is published by We Are Busy Bodies

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