In the old days everybody knew Kippie Moeketsi. He was the best saxophone player around. He played with big bands like the Jazz Maniacs and the Harlem Swingsters. He played with Hugh Masekela and Dollar Brand. He played in big shows like King Kong.
Now Kippie’s life is different. He cannot find work. He lost his house in Soweto last year. He had no money for rent.
Kippie now lives in Mabopane. This is a township near Pretoria. He lives with Dolly Rathebe and her family. Dolly was a famous singer in the Sophiatown days.
Learn and Teach went to visit Kippie Moeketsi in Mabopane. He told us about his life.
Kippie Moeketsi was born in the slums of Johannesburg in 1925. When he was a baby, his family moved to George Goch location. Kippie’s father was a clerk in the municipality.
Kippie’s father loved music. He played the organ for the church choir. He wanted his six children to play music. All the children became good musicians. Jacob, the oldest son, played the piano for the Jazz Maniacs.
Kippie was the youngest boy in the family. All his brothers went to school and studied hard. Jacob passed matric. Kippie’s brother Andrew became a teacher. But Kippie was not the same. He did not like school.
Kippie had three good friends. They played together all the time. They were very naughty. Sometimes they missed school and went to the golf course. They got jobs as caddies.
“We only got paid one shilling and sixpence a day,” says Kippie. “So we stole golf balls. Then we sold the balls back to the guys we stole them from. We sold the balls for two shillings and six pence.”
They had another trick. They put sticky tar on the end of long sticks. They went to the shop in George Goch location. When the shopkeeper was not looking, they reached over the counter with the sticks. The tickeys behind the counter stuck to the tar. They went back to the shop the next day. They bought sweets with the same tickeys.
Kippie left school after standard five. He was 18 years old. He got a job sweeping floors in a men’s hostel. But the wages were low and the work was boring. He left the job. He got a job at a chemist. He delivered medicine on a bicycle.
Then Kippie got a present. His brother Lapis gave him a clarinet. At this time, Kippie decided he wanted to be a good musician. He worked in the day. At night he played the clarinet.
“I played that thing until 2 0’clock in the morning,” says Kippie. “On weekends I played for 12 hours a day. The neighbours complained about the noise. But I did not stop playing. I loved music too much.”
Kippie learnt how to read music. After two years he played the clarinet very well. Then he learnt how to play the saxophone. Soon he was also a good saxophone player.
Other young musicians also lived in George Goch location. They played jazz together. They started a band. They called themselves the “Band in Blue”. Kippie played the saxophone for the band.
The Band in Blue played in an old house near George Goch. The band played marabi music – the music of the people. The people from the slums came to listen. They bought food and booze. They danced until 4 0’clock in the morning. Kippie’s problems started now. He started boozing a lot. He never stopped.
Kippie enjoyed playing for the Band in Blue. But he wanted to play in the townships. The small bands did not play in the townships. The gangs did not let them.
Gangs like the “Russians” and the “Spoilers” ruled the townships. The gangs only let big bands like the Jazz Maniacs and the Harlem Swingsters play in the townships.
Then Kippie got lucky. In 1948 the Harlem Swingsters offered him a job. The Harlem Swingsters started three years before in a backyard in Western Native Township. But now they were famous. The great Todd Matshikiza played for the group.
The Harlem Swingsters mixed American music with marabi. And they mixed it well. Music fans followed them all over the country.
The Harlem Swingsters had six good years. Then people stopped liking them. Kippie left the group. He started a small jazz band called the Shantytown Sextet.
The Shantytown Sextet played with a group of singers. The singers were called the Manhattan Brothers. The Manhattan Brothers were the best singing group in Africa. They were famous allover the world. They sold thousands of records.
The Shantytown Sextet and the Manhattan Brothers played all over the country. “Those were the days’; says Kippie. “Our shows were always full. I always had money in my pocket. We ate well in those days.”
In 1954 the Manhattan Brothers and the Shantytown Sextet went to Cape Town. They needed a piano player. Kippie saw a young man playing the piano in a bioscope. Kippie asked him to play for the Shantytown Sextet. The man’s name was Dollar Brand.
“Dollar knew nothing about music at that time’; says Kippie. “He was just a skollie. He followed me around everywhere. I taught him a lot. Now he is a big man in music.”
Dollar went back to Johannesburg with Kippie. He lived with Kippie at George Goch. They played together at a place called Dorkay House.
At Dorkay House they met other young musicians. They met Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Johnny Getz and Nathaya Njoko. Dollar and Kippie started a new band with these men. They called themselves the Jazz Epistles.
“The Jazz Epistles was the best group I have played with” says Kippie. “We played at four or five nightclubs in a week. Sometimes we played at two nightclubs on the same night. Then the white musicians complained. They stopped us playing at white nightclubs.”
The Jazz Epistles broke up after four years. Kippie got a job with a show called King Kong. He went to London with the show. But Kippie was boozing a lot. He got very sick in London. He went to hospital for two months.
Kippie came back to South Africa. But most of his friends had left. Hugh Masekela and Dollar Brand were in America. Kippie had no work.
Then Dollar Brand came back to South Africa. Kippie played with him again. But again the booze was a problem. Dollar fought with Kippie about the booze.
“That was the end,” says Kippie. “I have not played with a band since then. In 1977 I made a record with Pat Matshikiza. But that is all.”
Kippie never got married. He lived with a woman for 13 years. Her name is Becky. He met her in Sophiatown in 1951. They have two children. Becky left Kippie in 1964. She lives with her two children in Soweto. Kippie often visits them.
“I’m not bitter,” says Kippie. “But I’m angry about one thing. The record companies didn’t give me a fair deal. They made a lot of money from me. The record companies are now very rich. And I have nothing.”
“I am poor now, but I am not crying,” says Kippie. “I’m fighting the booze. I’m going to win. Dolly and me are making a come-back. We are working hard together. Kippie Moeketsi is not dead yet!”