Todd Tozama Matshikiza was the son of Samuel Bokwe Matshikiza and Grace Ngqoyi Matshikiza. They were a family of renowned musicians; his mother was a noted soprano, and his father played the organ in the Anglican Church. Matshikiza was the youngest of seven children. His sisters were Grace (Girlie) and Winifred, and his brothers Gordon, meekly, Sipho and Themba. All the children of the Matshikiza household were taught music from an early age.
Grace had great (but unrealised) potential as a soprano, and Meekly (who was nicknamed Fingertips for his exceptional prowess at the piano) was an influential jazz musician who led various touring bands. Meekly passed on his infectious passion for jazz to his youngest brother, and Todd's earliest experience as a professional musician was in one of Meekly's bands.
Matshikiza received his primary education in Queenstown and Kimberley, and then went on to St Peter's College in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. He took a diploma in music at Adams College in Natal, and a teacher's diploma at Lovedale Institute in Alice (1941/42). He stayed on as a teacher at Lovedale, where he taught English and Mathematics in the high school until 1947. He was often referred to as the 'Pied Piper'in his student and teaching days at Lovedale, as he would entertain friends and colleagues playing various instruments, particularly the piano accordian. He composed various songs and choral works during this time, most notably Hamba Kahle, which has since become a standard work for choral groups throughout South Africa. It was also performed for the arrival of the Queen of England at Bulawayo in 1946, and for the Johannesburg Music Festival in 1950.
In 1947 he accepted a teaching post at Ermelo High School in the Eastern Transvaal, but left after a short spell to establish himself in Johannesburg. In the same year he met his future wife, Esme Sheila Mpama, a student social worker. They were married in 1950. Matshikiza taught for a while at Moroka High School and later established a private music school (the Todd Matshikiza School of Music) to teach the piano. But he was chiefly concerned with Johannesburg's jazz world. In order to survive that precarious existence, he worked for Vanguard Booksellers, and later as a salesman for the Gillette Razor Blade Company.
In 1952 he became, along with Henry Nxumalo, one of the original writers of the new Drum magazine, then edited by Anthony Sampson. He wrote musical criticism and also covered a large range of urban subjects, making piercing social commentary in such regular columns as With the lid off. His journalistic career continued when he left Drum for the Golden City Post.
His main creative energies always went into his music. His passion for classical music (particularly Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin) was reflected in his choral compositions - most notably Uxolo ('peace'), which was commissioned for the 70th anniversary celebrations of the city of Johannesburg in 1956. In an earlier choral piece, Makhaliphile (1953), dedicated to the late father Huddlestone, he merged classical, jazz and traditional influences to masterful effect. The lyrics for his songs were written in a witty combination of Xhosa and English. As a jazz musician his most notable work was as a pianist with the Manhattan Brothers and the Harlem Swingsters. He toured South Africa with both these groups, and also travelled to Lorenzo Marques (now Maputo) in neighbouring Mozambique.
In 1958 Matshikiza composed the music (and wrote some of the lyrics) for King Kong, the all-black musical that became a nation-wide hit in 1959. He applied all his jazz and choral experience, as well as his intimate understanding of Sophiatown and black Johannesburg, to produce a compelling musical portrayal of the life and death of the heavyweight boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, known to his fans as 'King Kong'. In 1959 he worked closely with Alan Paton in Durban to create Mkhumbane, an a capella musical play about the forced removals of black people from Cato Manor. King Kong was the major success of his career, however, and was bought for a transfer to the West End of London in 1961.
Matshikiza took the opportunity to leave South Africa with his family in 1960 and to make a new life for himself in England. Although King Kong was a success there, no great musical opportunities opened up for him. He occasionally played the piano in London nightclubs and resumed his career in journalism. He freelanced for various British journals, writing a series called 'Todd in London' for Drum readers back home and broadcasting for the African Service of the BBC. In 1961 he published an autobiographical book, Chocolates for my wife.
In the sparkling prose style he had developed on Drum, he recounted his early years in the Eastern Cape, his musical and other ventures in Johannesburg and the daunting process of the making of King Kong. Interspersed with these anecdotes was an account of his family's struggle to find their feet in the alien environment of England. In 1964 he took up an offer from the fledgling Zambian government to be a newscaster and producer for the Zambian Broadcasting Corporation. He was relieved to be able to take his family back to the African continent.
He was a very popular personality on the airwaves, but he was frustrated by the lack of a creative musical environment. He also missed his native land. He left broadcasting to become music archivist for the Zambian Information Service in 1967, travelling extensively to collect traditional Zambian music. However, he was dispirited by the fact that he could see no early prospects of being able to return to South Africa (where he had become a 'banned' person). He died in 1968. Todd and Esme had a daughter, Marian Linda, and a son, John Anthony.
Prepared by John Matshikiza, actor, writer, film and theatre director. The new dictionary of South Africa biography Volume 2, Vista University, Pretoria, 1999.