Today’s Doodle celebrates South African jazz pianist, composer, and journalist Todd Matshikiza and was illustrated by South Africa-based guest artist Keith Vlahakis. On this day in 1956, his commissioned cantata Uxolo (peace) was performed by a seventy-piece orchestra and two hundred-person choir, at the 70th Johannesburg Festival.
Matshikiza was born in Queenstown, South Africa, on March 7th, 1921. His mother, a singer, and his father, an organist, taught Matshikiza and his six siblings piano while they grew up. He attended St Peter’s College in Johannesburg and went on to earn his music and teaching diplomas. Putting these degrees to work, he taught high school English and math and composed choral works and songs such as Hamba Kahle.
In 1947, Matshikiza moved back to Johannesburg, where he taught and eventually established his own private school, the Todd Matshikiza School of Music. He taught piano, his forte being jazz music. During much of this time, he was in the Syndicate of African Artists, which aimed to spread music and concerts to the whole country.
Matshikiza’s passion for jazz music and journalism came together when he became one of the first writers at Drum magazine. He wrote a column about the artistry and evolution of jazz and one on township life called With the Lid Off. Several of his articles from the latter column are immortalized in the book With the Lid Off: South African Insights from Home and Abroad 1959-2000.
As a composer, he is most famous for his work on the song Quickly in Love, which plays in the 2013 film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and the score for two theatrical productions, King King and Mkhumbane. The all-Black jazz musical King Kong premiered in 1958 and was a smash hit, spreading as far as London. The musical Mkhumbane (1960) with compositions by Matshikiza and script by Alan Paton was equally powerful, but the political and satirical commentary about the Black experience in Cato Manor in the 1950s limited its popularity.
He composed, played piano, was a freelance journalist, and presented BBC radio programs in London for a few years before moving to Zambia, where he worked as a broadcaster and a music archivist. His story lives on through his autobiography Chocolates for My Wife (1961), which describes apartheid in South Africa and his move to London.
Thank you for sharing your compositions, piano skills, music critiques, and story with the world, Todd Matshikiza.
Special thanks to Todd Matshikiza’s estate for their collaboration on this project. Below his daughter, Marian, shares her thoughts on her father’s legacy.
Tribute to my father: A compassionate heart
In thinking about Dad, his gentle, generous and loving nature springs to mind. His humour and broad smile would light up an entire room.
Yet alongside his light-heartedness was a serious and sensitive side. Despite the harsh political context of the time, he endeavoured to shield us from the rough world into which we were born, and instilled in his two children the notion that all people are equal. In answer to one of our questions, he would respond by saying that “A coloured is a person who wears coloured clothes”, fully knowing that we understood the social realities of the time. His language abounded with poetic and imaginative references such as “banana blue” and “sky-blue pink”. Word play came easily to him.
Living as we did in Orlando West, now part of Soweto, we would tune in to the local radio station called “uMsakazo”, designated for the Black listening public and would hear some of his popular titles being played.
As children, we frequently woke to the early-morning sound of the piano as Dad worked on a composition he’d heard in a dream. While in Zambia, the sight of birds perched on a telephone wire might inspire in him a melody, while many of his later compositions comprised snatches of Zambian traditional songs.
Despite a heavy work schedule, including being on the road at times for musical performances and working as a journalist on Drum magazine, he was rarely absent from home for long, and for him, family always came first.
Guest Artist Q&A with Keith Vlahakis
Today’s Doodle was illustrated by South Africa-based guest artist Keith Vlahakis. Below, they share their thoughts behind the making of this Doodle:
Q: Why was this topic meaningful to you personally?
A: This topic means a great deal to me. It means the world. It’s an incredible honour to work on a Google Doodle, a design and art dream come true.
The very last major design project I worked on while I was in university studying design was about South African Jazz History. I had to research the history of the country's greatest Jazz musicians and how their legacy, music and life stories enriched so many people's lives and how "stories of struggle were told through song". I remember sneaking into university on weekends to work on my Jazz brief because I didn't own my own computer at the time.I vividly remember all the late nights playing Jazz albums in the computer lab while dreaming of my future in design. When the topic was announced to me, that I was going to be making a Google Doodle all about celebrating a South African Jazz Legend, I had flashbacks to my final years in university. I had been preparing for this opportunity to happen without even knowing it. I didn't get to research Todd Matshikiza's legacy back in university, so getting into Todd's music catalog and learning about his life story was an amazing journey. I discovered so much about his legacy and his contributions to SA Jazz. The journey of creating the Google Doodle was an amazing full circle dream moment.
Q: Did you draw inspiration from anything in particular for this Doodle?
A: I drew most of my inspiration for the Google Doodle from Todd's Music and especially from the music he composed for the legendary South African musical "King Kong" — the theater production based on the life of Ezekiel Dlamini. I was heavily influenced by the album cover design for King Kong. The typography and colour palette of the album actually shared stylistic qualities to my own work. I'm a pop artist, and I use bright magenta and yellow in my typographic designs and street art mural styles, so the bright pinks and yellows on the album spoke directly to my own design story. I then fused all these ideas together to create a design that paid homage to these design elements and celebrated the life and work of Todd Matshikiza.
Q: What message do you hope people take away from your Doodle?
A: That anything is possible. Dreams come true if we work hard, pray, and have faith. I hope that this Google Doodle educates people about the amazing story of Todd Matshikiza, that it brings honour to his legacy and contributions, and I hope people realise that the continent of Africa has an amazing amount of creativity, love, resilience, warmth, and radiant power and that our stories matter.