“I see myself as a link between the past and the future. I passionately believe in training the youth in the finer details of the craft. My aim is to keep the music alive. As long as I nurture the music by grooming youngsters I believe my mission will be accomplished.” – Sipho Mabuse
In June 1966 a fourteen-year-old schoolboy and two classmates launched their music careers. The event was a bursary fundraising performance and the place was Orlando West High School in Soweto. Fifty years later Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse has been celebrating his golden jubilee with a remarkable sense of achievement and contentment. And as the curtain falls on 2016, he looks back with joy and gratitude for the support he has enjoyed from South Africa and the world. “Thank you everyone,” he says. “It has been a remarkable year with some amazing shows and events – all made amazing by the fans in attendance.”
The celebrations started in April with a pop up performance in Cape Town alongside poet Siphokazi Jonas. Then followed shows in Botswana and Swaziland with the likes of Johnny Clegg. In September he was celebrated as the keynote speaker at Music Exchange #MEX16. His topic? Triumphs and Tragedies Celebrating Fifty Years in the SA Music Industry. He also performed at the annual music indaba, Moshito and the Standard Bank International Joy of Jazz. He was guest of honour at the More Jazz series in Maputo, Mozambique.
The multi-instrumentalist’s five decades in the industry were defined by unwavering commitment and pioneering contribution to South African music. Among his numerous milestones he lists producing Miriam Makeba’s platinum-achieving album, Welela (1989) as well as performing alongside Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Baaba Maal at the 46664 concert for Nelson Mandela in New York.
Born Sipho Cecil Peter Mabuse on 2 November 1951 in Masakeng (Shantytown), Orlando West, he has since distinguished himself as a versatile musician and multi-instrumentalist who had played anything from township disco to jazz. He pioneered the Afro funk and Soweto soul era in the late 1960s and spearheaded the golden decade of township pop in the 1980s.
The son of a coal merchant who played harmonica, his grandfather and uncles were musical. He was taught to play drums by Baba Manuel, a neighbour and a traditional healer. His greatest influences were Early Mabuza, David Ramogase, Gordon Mfandu and Gerald Khoza of the Flaming Souls – all of them top drummers in South African jazz. “One of my fondest memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life was when I was 14 and Early Mabuza walked into the studio and asked to sit on my drum kit to practise,” he recalled. Mabuse was playing drums as a member of his school’s cadet band when he was spotted by fellow pupil, Selby Ntuli.
Together with another schoolmate and bass player, Alec ‘Om’ Khaoli, they formed The Beaters. Guitarist and keyboard player, Ntuli was the bandleader until his untimely death in 1978. Their creative and original music became the soundtrack of the black consciousness movement. It was called Soweto soul. “There was a void our music filled,” he observes. “It served a much higher purpose, which was to mentally emancipate black people from a feeling of passive helplessness into a world of strength through song.”
“We were all the sons and daughters of Africa, working on our strengths to take what we did to another level. As scary as those dark days were, through the 1970s, I remember them oddly fondly,” he recalls. The Beaters listened to a wide variety of styles – which included The Manhattan Brothers, Miriam Makeba, The Ink Spots and foreign artists such as Nat ‘King’ Cole, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix.
Mabuse also listened to American jazz drummers Elvin Jones and Billy Cobham. The Beaters’ first album, Soul-A-Go-Go was released in 1969, a year after the band’s formation. Bacon and Eggs (1970) and Mumsy Hips (1971) followed later. In 1975 Mabuse and Khaoli joined pianist Pat Matshikiza and the great Kippie Moeketsi in a studio as members of the rhythm section for a recording of Tshona, an album that became one of the greatest classics of South African jazz.
“As a young musician I had a high regard for Bra Kippie because he was an incredibly talented musician who has raised the profile of South African jazz. We met at a time when he was a very angry and disgruntled musician who felt that his talents had gone unappreciated by South African society. During the Tshona sessions his mastery of the alto sax was clear and we decided to feature him on our next album, Rufaro (1978).”
In 1976 they toured Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). What was intended as a three-week visit became a hugely successful three-month tour. On their return they released an album Harari, as a tribute to the people of the township of the same name outside Salisbury, the capital. The title track became a massive hit and inspired the name change to Harari. The band attracted some of the country’s hottest guitarists, Funky Masike Mohapi, Monty ‘Saitana’ Ndimande, Robert ‘Doc’ Mthalane, Condry Ziqubu and Zimbabwean-born Louis Mhlanga.
Its other exceptional talents were Thelma ‘Neo’ Segona (keyboards), Oupa Segoai (percussion), Lionel Petersen (vocals), Charlie Ndlovu (keyboards), Sello Chico Twala (keyboards), Branny Ledwaba (percussion) and multi-instrumentalist Eddie Manda. Seasoned jazzmen like Kippie Moeketsi, Themba Mokoena, Barney Rachabane, Dennis Mpale and Stompie Manana also featured on Harari albums. In 1978 Hugh Masekela invited Harari to the US. But Selby Ntuli’s death robbed them of the opportunity to do so.
Mabuse effectively became the band’s new leader. Highlights of those years included supporting and backing Percy Sledge, Timmy Thomas, Brook Benton and Wilson Pickett during their South African tours. They were all impressed by Harari’s incredible musicianship. In 1979 they became the first black pop group to appear on SABC TV. The following year they became the first black group to headline their own show at the Colosseum, a landmark music venue in Johannesburg.
In the same year they were featured in a BBC documentary. They were the aristocrats of South African pop. Their 1980 album, Heatwave, was released in the US by A&M Records. Their 1982 single, Party, entered the American Disco Hot 100 charts. At the pinnacle of their career in 1982, Harari disbanded – its members pursuing solo careers or forming new bands. Mabuse retained the name and used it to nurture young talent. Future stars like Sello ‘Chico’ Twala, Danny ‘Kamazu’ Malewa and Ashante became part of the new look, youthful Harari. His other project at the time was the Soweto Soul Orchestra, which involved forty musicians who recorded symphonic music – something which was unheard of among black artists.
In 1983 he launched a groundbreaking solo career as Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse – the nickname he was given by fellow musician Condry Ziqubu because of his hot style of drumming. His debut album, Rise (1983) sold an incredible 132 000 copies. “The break-up of Harari on the threshold of an international breakthrough was the most heartbreaking experience for me, second to Selby’s passing. I needed an emotional lift. Rise became that lift,” he explains.
Its successor, Burn Out (1984) made recording history with half a million units and perched on top of the charts of every radio station for weeks. It was a crossover hit that captured every South African across the racial and cultural spectrum. It changed the face and shape of Afro pop and township jive like no other song or artist in local pop history. Burn Out also became an international multi-platinum phenomenon. The artist signed a R1.5 million deal with Virgin Records to have the album released in the UK. It was also released in Germany, Japan and the United States.
The CBS deal in the States placed him in an elite stable of international superstars like Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones. The success of Burn Out made him one of the most sought after performers at concerts and festivals in Europe. His next album, Afrodizzia (1986) underscored his newfound status as a world class performer with global acclaim. Produced by Virgin Records, it reached platinum status within three weeks of its release. The album’s single, Shikisha, became such a monster hit the album was sold as Shikisha for the European market. It is a soundtrack on Throw Momma from the Train (1987) the American action comedy film starring Danny De Vito, Billy Crystal and saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
Chant of the Marching (1989) features Miriam Makeba on Mama and its songs Khulula uMandela (Free Mandela), Refugee and Chant of the Marching were banned from the SABC airwaves presumably because of their anti-apartheid content. He says the authorities never told him why the songs were banned. What About Tomorrow (1991) and Township Child (1996) have wonderful dance tracks and beautiful songs with socially conscious lyrics. Tracks like Rumba Mama, Thaba Bosiu, Township Child and Nelson Mandela are classic examples.
He wrote the latter after he was commissioned by the African National Congress to compose a song for the historic 1994 elections. An artist of many parts, Mabuse has also produced albums for other top South African artists including Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Ray Phiri and Sibongile Khumalo. Goodbye Poverty, the song he co-wrote with Selby Ntuli and Alec Khaoli, appears in Makeba’s Country Girl album. In the early 1990s he made his mark in radio broadcasting when he presented Radio 702’s Guinness Jazz programme and the Benson & Hedges Jazz programme on Metro FM.
In the mid-1990s he took over Kippies as the popular jazz venue’s manager. During his tenure he hosted international superstars like Stevie Wonder, Jonathan Butler, Al Jarreau and Thelonius Monk Jr. In 1998 he showcased local talent as presenter of Thula Mabota, an SABC2 music programme. In 2011 he celebrated his 60th birthday in style when he finally obtained his matric certificate – having attained pop stardom as a schoolboy, making it impossible for him to finish his studies.
“There are so many more wonderful stories, through my 50-year-long pilgrimage, that have made this extraordinary ride truly extraordinary,” Mabuse says. At 65 he is convinced that he still has a critical role to play in the South African music scene. “I’m not about to stop walking on my road. I’m a voice in a space that speaks truth to power,” he concludes. One thing is for sure. Mabuse has already created an outstanding legacy in South African music.
Discography (selected pics )
• Harari – Greatest Hits: Volume 1 & 2 (Gallo, 1991/1998). This African Classics collection consists of some of Harari’s best music from the earlier period including Harari, Give, Kalahari Rock, Party and Soul Fire.
• The Best of Sipho Mabuse (Gallo, 2000). Fifteen of Hotstix’s greatest hits of his solo years including Burn Out, Shikisha, Chant Of The Marching, Jive Soweto, Mama, Rumba Mama and more.
BY SAM MATHE
[tags, Sipho Mabuse ,Music Exchange ,Soweto ,Gallo Records ]