by Struan Douglas

In 1985, a hot new single was pumping in most clubs, house parties and cars. Whenever Burn Out played, people would stomp to the dance floor. Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse became known as the hottest musician in South Africa.

The music, which fused township pop, traditional mbaqanga groove and the disco of the era, was a powerful step in bringing young white people to African popular music.

Mabuse regards the 1985 Concert in the Park at Ellis Park to be a significant highlight of his career. This event brought 22 of the most popular bands of all genres and races around South Africa to Ellis Park and packed the venue out with 125 000 people of all races. Juluka was the headline act and the only mixed race band to perform. Mabuse performed with Harari – a pioneering afro-rock band.

From the Beaters to Harari

Mabuse was born on 2 November 1951 in Masakeng (Shantytown), Orlando West, a bedrock of political resistance. A traditional healer from Lesotho lived opposite his home where he first heard the drums. Mabuse said, “This is where I got the feel of the drum. It was more of a spiritual influence than an academic influence.”

In high school in Orlando West, Mabuse became a drummer for the cadets. Guitar player Selby Ntuli spotted his talent and invited him to form a band with his fellow scholars, bass player Alec Khaoli and guitarist Monty Ndimande (Saitana.) In June 1966 The Beaters were formed, the name inspired by The Beatles. They performed all over Soweto at high-schools and matric dances.

“The media picked up on that.” Mabuse fondly recalls, “the brat pack of the era – Aggrey Klaaste, Percy Khoza – were fascinated that these youngsters were coming out of high-school and playing pop music.” The soul sound of the Beaters travelled widely. By 1969, at the height of apartheid, The Beaters were the first black South Africans to fly domestically, when they toured Durban. In 1976 they performed for three months in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Outside SA, The Beaters were exposed to and strongly influenced by modern African sounds in the form of Zairian (Congolese) music. The Beaters transformed into a pan-African rock-funk ensemble with a strong concept of Black Consciousness. They changed their name to Harari, after a township near Salisbury, Rhodesia.

Harari founder and band leader Selby Ntuli died in 1978 during a failed tour in America undertaken on the invitation of Hugh Masekela. Mabuse took over and transformed the band into a registered business and collaborative ensemble. He was given his moniker “Hotstix” at this time, after a particularly inspired drum solo. Harari was the first black pop group on SA TV and they entered the American Disco Charts in 1982 with the single Party. However, despite the commercial success, conflict over money and leadership sent the band members in separate, solo directions.

Some of the highlights Mabuse recalls from his more than 50 years in the music industry, include the 46664 concerts in London and New York, and the Southern African tour with Eric Clapton that took them to Swaziland and Namibia for Independence celebrations and Mozambique for the peace accord.

He says: “The most important part is being able to do what I do and bring joy to people who come to support and watch me perform.”

Education vocation

In 2012, just before his 62nd birthday, Mabuse went to Thaba Jabula High School in Klipspruit to study and complete his matric examinations, a move that earned praise from President Jacob Zuma. Mabuse has since enrolled at Unisa to study anthropology.

In October 2016, two weeks short of his 65th birthday, Mabuse travelled to the Maputo Morejazz festival to receive recognition for his 50 years of performing and recording achievements in the South African music industry. He performed Burn Out alongside Judith Sephuma and Moreira Chonguica.

Mabuse met with students at the University Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo and emphasised the importance of reading. “Let us all begin to go back to books. Forget about your economics subjects that you think are going to make money for you, there is education beyond that. And then you begin to understand how important the cultural values and the music you listen to, plays in what you do,” he said.

Outspoken on the issues of leadership and the wisdom economy, Mabuse said: “I have always considered artists as creators of the wisdom economy. Arts and music speak to the soul and heartbeat of the country.”

Mabuse is committed to upliftment through music. He’s received extended recognition in South Africa, has sat on the boards of The National Arts Council and the South African Musicians Rights Organisation and received a SAMA lifetime achievement award. He is also chairperson of the annual Music Exchange Conference in Cape Town. Music Exchange brings presenters from the music industry together with young musicians to share their knowledge and experience. “It is simple,” says Mabuse. “Success is a product of hard work and dedication. And don’t believe the hype because when the phone stops ringing, what next?”

Today he’s in the early stages of writing his memoir with his manager Martin Myers. They’re working on concepts to piece together this legendary story and promote it. Their plans include touring the smaller South Africa towns, such as Queenstown, Caledon and Franschoek – places Mabuse’s never played in. They’re also planning a free show for the people of Soweto, where Mabuse has lived all his life, to thank them for their support.

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