Apr 27, 2012

Still playing with fire

Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse has been at the forefront of so many musical movements since the formation of his first band, The Beaters, in the late Sixties that he is ill at ease with the term "jazz" as a descriptor for his musical expression.

"I don't even think we are booked as jazz musicians," says Mabuse, as he readies for yet another appearance in what is increasingly becoming a generically curated Joy of Jazz Festival. "It's not that I can't play jazz; I can," he says from a plush couch at his Kippies Jazz Club International in Newtown.

"Even when I started playing my earliest influences were people like Early Mabuza, Elvin Jones, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and Stompie Manana. Unfortunately there wasn't that much jazz in this country then, but those were a great influence to us. I guess because of the dilution that has pervaded the South African music industry, people are finding it difficult to define what jazz is, so we are all getting lumped up as performing in a 'jazz' festival."

But one would be misled in assuming that Mabuse uses the word "dilution" derogatorily. The Beaters, which were formed in Orlando High School in 1968, became the eventual torchbearers of a localised soul-rock-funk sound dubbed Soweto soul. In their case it was a sound influenced as much by the Memphis-based Stax Records (whose popularity peaked in the Sixties and Seventies) as by their own brand of elitist smugness.

"Our leader Selby Ntuli came from quite an affluent family and the fact that we were high school students, that put us in a different class of musical appreciation," proffers Mabuse. "We were listening to essentially white music, or Western music, and then, of course, you had jazz, which we embraced very strongly because we felt that for us to be able to perform better, we needed to underpin our performances with an understanding of jazz."

The upstart Beaters, who musically, at least, considered themselves credits to their race, kept indigenous music pretty much at arm's length until a fateful tour of erstwhile Rhodesia in 1973 added another dimension to their musical palate.

"We had intended to go to Zim for three weeks," recounts Mabuse. "The struggle there was intensifying but most of the musicians were still influenced by Western rock. But then there was a [Congolese rhumba] group called OK Success, which was made up of exiled musicians from Zaire, playing in hotels. When we heard this music from them, we started thinking of people back at home. You know, there was this groundswell of black consciousness that was saying: 'Black man, this is who you are, find your own identity, make your own music …'"

In honour of what became a three-month epiphany, the band composed a song called Harari, which became the title track of their fourth album and eventually their moniker.

As funk gave in to disco, Harari's sound mutated accordingly, with flamboyant space-cadet outfits to match. "The earlier music was too deep, people were not dancing to it," recalls Mabuse. "When Selby [Ntuli, the group's founder] died in 1978, I took over leadership and I was more of a relaxed type dance person."

After the success of the 1980 album, Heatwave, with its runaway single Party, which eventually sold in excess of 250 000 copies, the group inked a two-album deal with the United States-based A&M Records.

But as Mabuse tells it, the band was already on its last legs. His overzealous leadership style, which he says was borne of trying to circumvent the dangers of unanticipated success, hampered ties in the band. When the time came to record in the States, two members of the seven-piece outfit opted out. The band eventually disbanded in 1982, but Mabuse was far from done.

Burn Out (1983), which Chimurenga magazine editor Ntone Edjabe described as the perfect synthesis of mbaqanga, pop and soul, was a logical progression for an artist adept at appropriating and localising international aesthetics. The title track became the signature tune of what became known as bubblegum. "I wouldn't call it that," says Mabuse, balking at that catch-all tag that came to describe township dance music in the Eighties. "People call music all sorts of things. It's of no significance to me. If it comes in at that time and creates influence, for me that's important. That I have made a contribution to how people define South African music."

In July last year a commercial showing a throwback Chicken Licken brand, using the song as a soundtrack, was voted the best-liked ad among its target market and netted the founder and CEO of Chicken Licken, George Sombonos, the Creative Circle's Marketer of the Year award at this year's Financial Mail Adfocus Awards. You can be sure that Hotstix is still jiving all the way to the bank.

Since then Mabuse has released four studio albums, the last, Township Child, in 1996. None of them equaled the commercial and critical impact of Burn Out, which went on to sell in excess of 500 000 albums. Perhaps the queasy euphoria of the post-apartheid dispensation didn't provide enough static to stimulate his creativity.

As he puts it, though, he has committed himself to too many NGOs, many -- such as the Johannesburg Aids Council, the Soweto Cancer Association and the Soweto Home for the Aged -- that have nothing to do with music. He does, however, sit on the board of trustees for the Southern African Music Rights Organisation (Samro) endowment for the national arts, which administers Samro's sponsorship policies and grants and funds bursaries and a number of music education projects.

While he does not harbour any grudges against the local music industry, he feels that the city of Johannesburg has not committed itself to developing the arts. Part of his reasoning is because, since Kippies was forced to relocate the club has suffered commercially. This, in the face of a rapidly gentrifying cultural precinct. "My view is that it was the intention of the city to move Kippies away from that area," he argues. "They're moving Chivava and Horror Café. All the music venues are being moved for the mining conglomerates and the science [companies].

"I'm not at that level where I can continuously fund the club's activities from my back pocket, but unfortunately a lot of sponsors are putting money into sports and not into music. Is culture not going to be a part of 2010? Are people going to be watching soccer 24 hours?"

South Africa’s Mail & Guardian

Written by Kwanele Sosibo, published August 2007

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