a South African legend whose music spans several generations

Drummer, saxophonist, composer, activist – and anthropology student – Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse celebrated his 70th birthday. If you wanted a guide to the uniqueness of the South African jazz scene, Mabuse’s 50-year career offers one.

South African jazz occupies a rarely elitist landscape, never haughtily isolated from popular and traditional sounds. Professional survival requires a multiplicity of roles and identities from its artists. And music has always had something to say about the politics of its day, yesterday and today.

Mabuse’s remarkable life shows us all of this and more.

Sipho Cecil Peter Mabuse was born in Orlando West, a township in the heart of Soweto, Johannesburg’s historically black urban settlement. His father ran a small corner store selling household items, including charcoal, although he was never, the drummer recalls, really committed to entrepreneurial life.

But, like many of his neighbors, he was determined to resist the oppressions of apartheid. During the anti-pass campaign of 1960, the young Sipho holds his father’s hand

marching alongside Nelson Mandela, Henry Makgothi, other leaders, in Orlando West. I was just an impressionable little kid, but I carry these memories with me …

Part of Soweto’s thirst for change was an appreciation for music, and especially jazz and more conscious American soul artists. “Nina Simone blew me away,” recalls Mabuse.

Playing the drums in a group of young people was a great pastime. But music as a career? It was unthinkable at the start in the Mabuse house: the young Sipho must study for the university.


Things changed when boys from another school joined Orlando West High for their final exams. Guitarists Selby Ntuli and Alec Khaoli were already creating original music and aspired to emulate what were called the ‘township soul’ groups of the late 1960s, who borrowed their dress style from Stax and Motown, identified their own experiences of oppression with the mood of the United States. Black Power, and lyrics designed in all the African languages ​​spoken on the street.

Township soul was highly political in its proud assertion of identity, even when its songs ranged from adolescent love to community hopes and fears.

Mabuse in 2017.
Richard Heathcote / Getty Images

The school principal encourages his students to perform to collect scholarships and the young Mabuse offers his services as a drummer. Another teenage musician, Monty Ndimande, joined us. Their first forays into more professional arenas such as community halls were disastrous. But a solid rehearsal and sponsorship from a successful local boxer meant that the group (which called themselves The Beaters in a deliberate echo of four youngsters from Liverpool who were equally musical as The Beatles) soon had a dedicated following.

We didn’t know there would be such a demand. Some of the other groups were older, but because we were a high school group, students from all high schools identified with us. The money has just started to flow …

This led to recordings and ultimately a decision to drop out of school and become professional musicians.

Identity change

Young people began to tour neighboring African states and open for visiting foreign artists. As fast as the money came, they were spending it. Mabuse reflected:

We were well dressed… We bought some of the more expensive clothes… If I had known about money what I know now, things would have been different.

A stay in neighboring Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1975 as the struggle for independence intensified was instrumental in reshaping the group’s identity and discourse. Mabuse recalled:

A wave of black consciousness influence was pervasive. In Harari, we rediscovered our Africanness, the contagious rhythms and music of the continent. We came home inspired! We were turning into dashiki-clad musicians waving to Black Power and so on.

On their return to South Africa:

Whether you play mbaqanga or not, everyone has become proud of who they are: {believing} that the type of music we make has to be tied to the politics of the day… the music has to come from our environment.

Their next album, Harari, recorded for the country’s only independent black label, As-Shams, quickly gave its title to a renowned group. The studio team puts them in contact with older and more serious jazzmen.

Hornmen like trumpeter Dennis Mpale performed on Harari; South African top saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi used Mabuse and Khaoli on his own cross recording: Tshona.

Kippie looked at us suspiciously at first. After all, we were just laymen – children – from a pop group. We were also very impressed. But after we had all played, he came over to congratulate us with a smile… The only way to prove ourselves was to play jazz – although on most stages we played pop music.

Harari became a hit, followed by the next LP, Rufaro (Joy). In 1976, Harari was voted the best instrumental group in South Africa. But in the political turmoil that followed the Soweto uprising on June 16, the group also contributed to the struggle, smuggling fleeing rebels to neighboring states on their tours.

Harari in 1985.

After the sudden death of Selby Ntuli in 1978, Mabuse became the leader of a group whose members now change often.

By 1980, Harari had won more awards, topped more charts, and became the first black group to headliner at the Colosseum Theater in Johannesburg. But the tensions within the outfit were growing. In 1982, Harari broke up.

Go solo

Mabuse became a solo artist, continuing to set impressive records such as Burnout and Jive Soweto. He has increasingly used his travels and his identity in showbiz to hide communications and intelligence work inside and outside the country for the underground struggle of the banned African National Congress.

A success in 1987.
Gallo Record Company

At the dawn of change in South Africa, his 1989 Song of the Walk commemorated the heady and tragic events of June 1976.

By this time, Mabuse was using her income more wisely, supporting her older family and buying a house for her mother.

In the 1990s, at the end of apartheid, he was active in organizing artists and advising on cultural issues, while avoiding formal political roles.

Then another ambition – put on hold since the Beaters made it big – was revived. Mabuse returned to high school, passed her exams, and enrolled for an undergraduate degree in anthropology.

He still performs – in cover shows featuring his pop hits and in jazz settings. In 2018, he was one of the founding artists of The Liberation Project, featuring percussionist Dan Chiorboli, singer Roger Lucey, guitarist and producer Phil Manzanera and a transnational cast of dozens.

This revised resistance music of South African, Italian, Cuban and other struggles anti-fascist resistance is released on a double album and is touring the world.

Former statesman

Now an elderly statesman of South African music, regularly invited to industry panels, Mabuse has not abandoned the political convictions that motivated him in the 1970s. Music, he knows it , still counts as well on stage as on stage.

Speaking about The Liberation Project in 2018, he reflected:

Most of what we have done since 1994 has been done badly. There is poverty, corruption and the leaders do not listen. But if we remain fearful, we will remain submissive to those in power. We have strength in numbers and in our convictions, and music can remind us and wake us up.

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