The Interview – Sipho 'Hotstix' Mabuse: A disco man's jazz tribute

2013-07-28 14:00

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As celebrities brush shoulders in a Joburg hotel lobby, Percy Mabandu speaks to Sipho Mabuse about his forthcoming tribute to his two favourite jazz giants

To attempt a sit-down with Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, the iconic producer and multi-instrumentalist whose genius helped shape South Africa’s musical identity since the 1970s, is to mimic a day at the proverbial lekgotla.

Each piece of insight gleaned from his chatter and every second sip of tea shared are punctuated by a notable well-wisher wanting to declare their admiration.

Mabuse is billed to headline this year’s Standard Bank Joy of Jazz in Newtown, Joburg, next month. He has chosen to dedicate his set at the festival to the memory of two late South African greats, Zim Ngqawana and Bheki Mseleku.

We meet at the Hyatt Hotel in Rosebank, which easily becomes a hive of activity and a site of what appears to be a day of important encounters.

First in line is radio presenter and CEO of Business Arts SA, Michelle Constant. Her departure is followed by a spell of focused conversation. It involves Mabuse explaining the thinking behind his chosen theme.

“For me, it’s more than just about profiling jazz or Zim Ngqawana. It’s actually about raising the consciousness and the psyche of our society about our musical wealth. I felt that this country has not yet paid homage to many of our musicians who’ve made tremendous contributions to who we are: the likes of Allen Kwela and Mackay Davashe, to mention a few,” says Mabuse.

He indicates that he chose Ngqawana and Mseleku because of his personal closeness to them and he felt strongly about them.

But the choice comes with a touch of controversy among the jazz police. Mabuse’s career as a musician places him outside of the popular perceptions of people who qualify to honour these two modern jazz masters.

Mabuse launched his walk along the musical path with an African soul group called The Beaters in the mid-70s. The group toured Zimbabwe and returned so inspired by the land and its people that the trio – Mabuse, Om Alec Khaoli and Selby Ntuli – renamed themselves Harari.

Mabuse and his band drew on funk, soul and pop musical styles, which they delivered in Sesotho and isiZulu. As far as his credentials as a producer go, the 62-year-old maestro counts the likes of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Ray Phiri of Stimela and Sibongile Khumalo among some of his those he’s worked with.

As a performer, his name resonates more with the jive experience of party music than the spiritual lift of Ngqawana’s songbook or the intellectual rigour of Mseleku’s repertoire.

1980s superhits like Burn Out and Shikisha are only two examples. But Mabuse understands where the chips are stacked. “I don’t consider myself a jazz musician, but I’m a lover of jazz music. I’m transcending section barriers,” he says.

Mabuse further offers a framework built around his understanding of Ngqawana’s.

He begins by describing the late composer’s music as being about building a consciousness of who we are as a people.

Further, he offers: “What was special for me about Ngqawana was that there were no boundaries to who he spoke to. He was gracious and open. He was kind and encouraging.”

Then we are interrupted by his phone. It belts out a ringtone of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder singing Ebony And Ivory. It’s a call from home, which he cuts short on account of our chat.

But it is only followed by another welcome interruption. This time it is Mamphela Ramphele, the academic and businesswoman turned leader of the newly launched political party, Agang.

She manages a steady stride towards our table, extends a hug and a set of warm platitudes about how we have a great country that we all need to work hard to build. She leaves and we take off on the subject of Mabuse’s credentials.

How will he answer the jazz police and those who make controversy of him climbing the jazz bandstand, with the legacy of two exceptional jazzmen in tow?

He shoots back: “The basis of my music is classical. I was trained as a classical flute player. I studied under Professor Khabi Mngoma when he was still at Dorkay House. I dropped out because I wanted to be a performer. I was impatient with it. Classical music is rigid. You can’t be studying and gigging at the same time.”

Mabuse is banking on the sincerity of his efforts and the importance of his project to carry the day.

He is yet to finalise his personnel, but is looking at working with people who can share his sentiment about honouring Ngqawana and Mseleku. The gig acquires an even more sacrosanct theme when one considers Mseleku’s tortured experience.

“He came back home ecstatic after independence (the 1994 elections), eager to plough back into the land of his birth. The country had no space for him. So he went back to exile to die,” says Mabuse, with measured emotion in his voice.

Mseleku died in London in 2008 after a struggle with diabetes, financial difficulties, politics and insufficient recognition of his prodigious gift.

Ngqawana passed away in 2011 after suffering a stroke during a rehearsal in Joburg. He, too, was notably appreciated more overseas than in South Africa.

This is part of the burning motivation for Mabuse’s tribute performance.

“I felt we owe it to them,” he says. It is with this sentiment that Mabuse hopes his disco fans will not expect to hear him play regular hits.

Hunching on to the table with his eyes slightly squinted, he says: “I wanted them to understand I’m going to be there paying tribute. I don’t want people coming there, screaming: ‘Come on, play Burn Out!’”

» Mabuse will perform on the Bassline stage on August 24 at 11.30pm

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