Album Review: Pat Matshikiza and Kippie Moketsi – Tshona! : uplifting classic South African jazz from the 70s.

The Breakdown

A record that makes for deep, rootsy listening – seminal urban jazz music, bustling, bold and beautiful.
We Are Busy Bodies 8.7

Those inspired curators at We Are Busy Bodies continue to astound with this latest release in their expanding achive from the seminal South African jazz label As Shams/The Sun. Pat Matshikiza and Kippie Moketsi’s ‘Tshona!’ (available from 15th April) was originally issued in 1975 and produced by label boss Rashid Vally, a pivotal figure in nurturing the Johannesburg scene. ‘Tshona!’ marks the first combination of the dynamic musicality of both saxophonist Moketsi, a founder member of The Jazz Epistles alongside Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela, and composer/pianist Matshikiza. They would re-unite a year later on ‘Sikiza Matshikiza’, the piano player’s uplifting debut, and again on 1977’s ‘Blue Stompin’, Kippie’s dual header with Ellington veteran Hal Singer (both also ready and waiting through We Are Busy Bodies).

Another strand in the ‘Tshona!’ narrative is the guest-presence of tenor-sax titan Basil ‘Mannenburg’ Coetzee , the player who earned that middle name as soloist on Abdullah Ibrahim’s watershed song. So, even before you get to the music, this is an album that entices with its historical significance, set to send collectors scrabbling through their discographies. That’s not to say that the main value of ‘Tshona!’ is as an artefact. It might be an important documentary but the record also makes for deep, rootsy listening. Sharing compositional duties with two tracks a-piece, Moketsi and Matshikiza capture the same rough, buoyant township energy of Mafa Ngwenya’s striking sleeve art. ‘Tshona!’ leaves you in no doubt that this is urban jazz music, bustling, bold and beautiful.

Matshikiza’s title track provides the record’s hopeful wake-up call, striding out into the day break on his clipped, crisp piano motif and a beat that saunters along confidently. Before long Moketsi and, for this track, Dennis Phillips’ alto-saxes join to add a warm counter then break away from main conversation for a couple of solo excursions. Here the contrast brings the colour, one section soaring, flighty and assured and the other, with all the characteristics of Moketsi’s more vocal, thrillingly unpredictable approach. The tune has room for a sassy big band fanfare before the fade but maintains its spikey street corner edge with the shouts and hollers from the band.

The quirky ‘Stop and Start’, Matshikiza’s other composition on the album, continues with the same buoyancy and bounce. It’s a deceptive tune which flows between a soca or calypso sway with a dash of almost ragtime eccentricity. The determined focus on the repeated rhythm pattern, that pauses and rolls in precision sequence, has a surprisingly minimalistic feel. On top of this unmistakably township stroll, Bill Coetzee joins Moketsi for a tenor-alto switch between hugging horn lines and individual singing to the track’s folksy dance.

The capacity for gentle surprises continues on the flip with the Kippie Moketsi penned pieces. As one of the pioneers of early South African jazz in the late 50’s and 60’s, the saxophonist was at the forefront of distilling the influences from the US in his own country’s emerging scene. Some even say he got Abdullah Ibrahim listening to Thelonious Monk. ‘Tshona!’ however shows another side to this undervalued figure’s musicality as, perhaps in response to Matshikiza’s more home-cooked approach, he digs back into his early shebeen band beginnings. His track ‘Umgababa’ has that unshakeable verve and melodic vitality that distinguishes South African Jazz. Hitched around a more contemporary swing, where the fine locked- in rhythm section of drummer Sipho Mabuse and bassist Alec Khaoli make light of the tightest grooves, the piece revolves tirelessly around its jit-jive connections. Moketsi and Coetzee’s solo’s may skip playfully away from the melody but they soon return to the song tight structure at Umgababa’s heart, its layers, calls and responses resonating with the power of South Africa’s mighty choral tradition.

‘Tshona!’ closes simply with the reverential paired back sound of piano and sax on ‘Kippie’s Prayer’. The setting of Matshikiza’s exact piano vamping with the fluid lyricism of the sax conjures notions of the partnership’s first jams when they discovered the natural potency of their combined playing. The track’s last breathy notes are a poignant closer to what stands as an important recording, pulsing with life and hope made in the face of suppression and apartheid. ‘Tshona’ is definitely an album that still carries a musical message and maps a history that continues to live.

Pick up a copy of Tshona! by Pat Matshikiza & Kippie Moketsi from your local record shop or order at:

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