Sipho ‘Hotsix’ Mabuse is a legend. As the driving force behind pioneering Afro-rock combos like The Beaters and Harrai back in the 70s he paved the way for Proudly Pan African acts like Juluka, Stimela, and Sakhile to come. In the 80s he pretty much patented the Rainbow Nation pop path to come with his all-time classic crossover party starter “Burn Out”. And in the 90s he pushed the African jazz envelope on genre-free fusion workouts like Township Child. He also represented South Africa alongside Kurt Darren at Madiba’s 90th Birthday Bash in London earlier this year. Hell, he once even got our president Thabo Mbeki to play flute for him! So how come so few people under 30 know who ‘Hotstix’ is?
“Every generation has its own heroes,” smiles Sipho modestly. “I still love The Beatles, but if you ask someone from a younger generation, they’ll go ‘Who?’ There’s been a generation who loved Michael Jackson and you have the hip-hop generation today whose heroes are the Jay-Zs. So in all fairness to the young people one wouldn’t want the young generation to be beholden to you.”
Point taken, so who are some of his heroes? “Drummers like Elvin Jones, Ginger Baker, Billy Cobham…and of course, in South Africa Gilbert Matthews and Early Mabuza,” says Mabuse. “When Early walked into a rehearsal room and sat behind my drum kit that did it for me. Here was this man who was a hero, you know? He won the South African Jazz Festival with his band in 1964.
And he walks in with Gilbert – they were probably attracted by the sound they heard – and I froze for a moment. I thought to myself, ‘would I be doing the right thing if I went on practicing?’ I had my shirt off because I was a rock drummer then! And Early said ‘can I sit on your kit?’ It was almost like if Nelson walked into your house and asked ‘can I sit where you are sitting?’ you wouldn’t know what to do.”
Wait up. Rock drummer? What was a black man doing playing rock music in the 60s? “We listened to mostly white radio stations, the influences were The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zep, Deep Purple, and the Woodstock festivals,” explains Mabuse. “We had always considered white music as superior then because of the level of consciousness at the time. But everything changed when we toured [the then] Rhodesia, Botswana and Mozambique and became Harari. The question arose: ‘why all those overseas influences, when there’s all these other influences just across the border?'”
We were ahead of everybody. You know we had a song on the Billboard Top 100? Why indeed. Why model yourself on Ginger Baker when Cream’s drummer was rushing off to Nigeria to check out the revolution of Afrobeat king firebrand Fela Kuti? “Absolutely, yeah!” exclaims Hotstix. “Fela was king. But you never heard Fela on the radio. In accordance with the SA laws at the time he was just blasphemous, not the kind of music that people should be exposed to. We could not even hear Hugh Masekela. But there was always information coming through. Miriam did a song called “Pasop Verwoerd” which was banned. But somehow it was still big in the country because most of the records were sneaked into the country by activists.”
Ah yes, those infamously dark apartheid days. A black consciousness-raising time for an ambitious young Afro-rock band like The Beaters who, in the aftermath of the Soweto student uprising of 1976, actually helped smuggle young activists into exile hidden in their amp cases and drum kits! “The struggle was intensified back home,” recalls Mabuse. “We were influenced by the black consciousness movement and the necessity for African musicians to find a clear identity. In Rhodesia we fell in love with [the Salisbury township] Harari. We composed a song dedicated to the people. When we came home it was a massive hit! Everybody started calling us Harari.”
1980’s Heatwave scored Harari an American release shifting some 250 000 units. Back at home they were also revolutionaries, becoming the first black group to appear on SATV in 1979 and stage their own show at Joburg’s Colosseum in 1980. “We were recording some of the hottest music,” remembers Hotstix. “Harari had a very big influence on creating an identity for Stimela, Sakhile and all these bands with African names who modelled themselves on us. We were ahead of everybody. You know we had a song on the Billboard Top 100? That in itself was a milestone for an African band, an achievement.”
Indeed. So with their 1982 single “Party” on the American Disco Hot 100 why did Harari split up? Had Mabuse really – as you sometimes read – become a bit of an ‘arrogant dictator’? “I’m glad someone has brought that up,” he chuckles. “There could be several reasons: maybe my own little world of ambitiousness, pushing people beyond their limitations. But I was young, full of energy, and I wanted Harari to be the best. In a way I did become a dictator.
I just found that at the time South African musicians were caught up in this apathy. The guys here were quite happy to remain a township band. But for me the world was bigger than that. If I listened to The Beatles then I wanted to be like The Beatles. I wanted us to be focused. There was a whole world out there and nobody was going to do us any favours. Mentally I don’t think we were ready for that big stage. But history is always a better judge. I’m the last man standing, and history has vindicated me.”
He’s not kidding. In 1985 he wrote one of the all-time South African classics, “Burn Out”. Released the year PW declared a state of emergency, this impeccably funky township disco jive jam became the first major crossover hit in South Africa selling over 500 000 copies. Yet while his name became synonymous with ‘township jive’, as his live performances over the past two decades have shown it’s never been easy to label Hotstix.
“I don’t like to be pigeonholed,” he confirms. “For me this country needs to start hearing more of who we are. Where are our heroes? We limit our heroes to the same people. What about some of the Afrikaans musicians who changed the whole mindset. You know that Voelvry generation? Why don’t we hear more of their music? That whole generation of Afrikaans musicians who said ‘no, not in our name’. Why can’t we honour them? Why can’t we say they were responsible for changing the mindset of the Afrikaner? Through the young people we were able to get through to their parents.”
Oppikoppi is the one festival that is broadly representative of who we are – in all genres.
This isn’t just some utopian Rainbow Nation rhetoric either. Hotstix is walking the talk. “When I came back from 46664 with Kurt Darren I told him I wanted to do a jazz album and fuse in a lot of Afrikaans old folk songs like “Jan Pirreiwiet”. And he said, ‘how do you know this song?’ ” smiles Sipho. “I said, ‘I’m a musician, I’m not boxed in.’ I studied classical music as a flautist. I listen to serious jazz. When I did “Burn Out” it was at the time when Manenberg was really happening, and I heard piano all the time. You know why John Coltrane became the influence he became? Because he went beyond, he went beyond. When I play the piano, I play different, a lateral approach. I have my left hand, and right hand, and those should complement what I’m playing. And I learn from interacting with all sorts of music, it broadens my mind.
Indeed, are there any up and coming musicians broadening his mind? “Frankly, most of the music I hear in the townships now gets to me,” sighs Mabuse. “If you hear the groove, the rhythm it’s basically all the same. If you go to a wedding on Sunday or a funeral you’ll hear everything you’re hearing on South African radio today. It’s driven by wanting to buy a Mercedes Benz. People don’t compose music in this country anymore. The last people who composed music were the older musicians.”
Don’t be fooled. Mabuse isn’t some bitter old timer who’s lost touch with the youth. He’s just as uncompromising as ever, advising young South African musicians to respect their creative impulse, rather than sell out to the lure of big bucks. “I’m very fond of the Kwani Experience” he confesses. “They’re fantastic musicians. They reminded me of when I was young in Harari, experimenting with things,” he adds animatedly recounting his collaboration with them for SABC TV’s Jam Sandwich. “Kwani Experience has made me hopeful. They push themselves beyond the normal boundaries. We’re discussing collaborating at Oppikoppi, so maybe I’ll walk on stage during their set.”
Speaking of which, what else can audiences expect from Hotstix’s set on the James Phillips Main stage on Saturday? “Oppikoppi is the one festival that is broadly representative of who we are – in all genres,” smiles Mabuse. “The only way we can begin to deal with the scourge of racism in this country is by interacting in the arts and music. Then we’ll begin to see the African renaissance movement. I’m so pleased that I’m part of this movement to ensure that South Africans listen to each other.”
Noble words, but how exactly is Hotstix going to get drunken Tuks students, Sandton buppies and arty Melville hippies to listen to each other? Well, irie renditions of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and uplifting Afro-jazz overhauls of Pharaoh Sanders’ spiritual “The Creator Has A Master Plan” is a good place to start. And let’s not forget “Burn Out”. “Trust me, before the show ends you’ll hear people shouting ‘Burn Out! Burn Out!’ he chuckles. “In a way the song has become a nemesis for me. But when I do it with my band it’s different, we go even rockier. White people sometimes get taken aback and go, wow, these guys are playing rock! But I’ve got a killer, killer guitarist, so it becomes a real festival rocker!”
– Miles Keylock