The year was 1989, it was either late Saturday night, or early Sunday morning and the music inside Kippies was deafening. The cigarette smoke was hanging thick and at some tables patrons still managed to have some sort of a conversation by shouting at the top of their voices. Sitting alone at a table opposite ours was Allen Kwela, the legendary jazz guitarist, hurling abuse at the Kippies House Band that everyone else seem to be enjoying so much.
I started going to Kippies, or to be more precise, the Market Theatre precinct, when I was still a student at the Vanderbijlpark campus of Potchefstroom University. The powers that be at the university decided that us engineering students needed to be closer to the smoking chimney stacks of Sasolburg, Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging, and moved the engineering faculty there. I do not know if they factored into the equation the fact that students may have the occasional need for libraries, theatres or other cultural activities. Perhaps they thought that since we only paid for theoretical and technical instruction, that was all we were entitled to.
When hanging out at the Shakespeare Inn to play pool and hustle the Iscor employees with their pockets full of hard cash - their weekly wages - got boring, I would drive to Johannesburg on a Saturday afternoon. I would browse around the flea market and catch a show at the Market Theatre, but all of that was just warming up for the real show: the entrance to Kippies was just a sharp left as you exit the Market Theatre building, around ten in the evening. Quite often it was the Kippies House band playing - Rashid Lanie and Vusi Khumalo are two of the names I remember. One evening I was fortunate to see Allen Kwela play with them. Allen's face really expressed his love for the music he was playing. To try and describe it here would not do it justice, suffice to say it was a pleasure to watch. As always I stayed right until the end and drove back to Vanderbijlpark in the early hours of Sunday morning.
I was so impressed by Allen Kwela's music that I started pestering the record shops, but I learned that no one had actually recorded him up to that point. Eventually I spotted an ad in the Vrye Weekblad: a French couple residing in Johannesburg had made a private recording and was selling copies. I telephoned and managed to buy a cassette. It was one of my favourites as long as I still had a cassette player.
A year later I was working at the CSIR and was still driving through to Johannesburg some Saturday evenings. This particular evening I decided to take my brother, Wikus, as a special treat since he started listening to jazz recently. Also in our party was a colleague and longtime friend, Dirk. The fourth person was a college friend of Wikus, a young fellow hailing from the north-east of what was then the Transvaal and, I learned later, from right-wing stock.
I found it strange to see Allen sitting alone at the table, not on stage, and clearly unhappy with the band's performance. Not lacking any courage after consuming so many beers, I walked over, sat down at his table and asked him why he was so unhappy with the band. He shouted that Vusi's drumming was too loud, and that he has often told him so. We had some beers and after the band packed up I challenged him to go on stage and show us how it is done. Allen was apologetic, saying that the management - the oafs - have banned him from playing there again. He would not go into the details. In a sudden bout of clarity, he said that we should come to his place where he would show us.
As Kippies was closing anyway - it was around one in the morning - I rounded up our little group and we stumbled to our car. Allen got into a car with another couple. Allen had explained that the chap was an Italian drummer and his girlfriend, a local lass. We followed them to Allen's flat somewhere in Braamfontein.
Allen's hospitality knew no end. He had very little to drink, but poured us all a mix of Tia Maria and Coke. He also offered us a puff of the huge cob that he rolled. Only the Italian accepted. While Allen and the drummer puffed away, we studied the walls of his lounge. Posters of Mandela and the ANC was stuck on the walls. It was the first likeness of Mandela we ever saw. The pictures were faded grey and white and one could make out very little of the young Mandela's features. The eyes of Wikus's friend was popping out of his head. He was probably already seeing himself calling his parents to come and bail him from goal...
Eventually Allen took out his guitar and a small amplifier the size of a shoebox. My friends stopped tugging at my shirt sleeves to get the hell out of there and settled down on the coach. After some tuning, Allen started playing and entertained this small, impromptu gathering for over an hour. By now the Italian was getting restless as his flight back to Rome was leaving by six and he had to get to the airport by five. (Remember when an hour was sufficient for international travel?)
We finally thanked Allen and said our goodbyes. As we headed up Jan Smuts avenue we could see the glimmer of the rising sun in the east. Would the Italian make his flight, we wondered.
Years later I saw Allen at a Guinness Jazz festival at the Market Precinct. I walked over and said: 'Hello, do you remember the boy from the Free State?', but he had no recollection of that evening. I later read that he was recovering after being mugged and having his guitar stolen. Someone had lend him the money to replace it.
It was only in 1998 when Sheer Sound published Allen's CD 'The Broken Strings of Allen Kwela', with well known artists such as Sibongile Khumalo, Barney Rachabane and Vusi Khumalo, who I guess had learned since not to drum so loudly.
Allen Kwela died of asthma in July 2003, at the age of 64 - still relatively unknown and poor. He enriched many lives with his music - I still cherish the good memory of that evening in Braamfontein.
Hamba kahle, Allen.