Music legend Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse .Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

I have realised that the word “iconic” tends to be used far too lightly. Everything and everyone with a little bit of pomp and celebration behind them hijacks the word. 

A moment of silence for that tragedy.

Chatting to Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse is something of an education: it’s being given tutorials to show you how to be a living legend 101. 

He is as humble and as gracious as ever, even though he was part of a generation of artists who created music that gave birth to some of the genres we have today. 

Bra Hotstix has been in this game for over 50 years, yet he retains the respect and reverence for his craft that I imagine he first had when he began his journey all those years ago. 

Being the consummate professional that he is, when we begin our conversation he does not mention the fact that he is on his way to a routine medical check-up. Once he reveals this fact to me, I detect in his voice a little fatigue and I am instantly torn between hanging up the phone and grasping with both hands this chance to talk to him. 

At the sound of hesitance on my part, he gently assures me that we can have our chat. 

Lovers of music, class is officially in session. 

The first thing I pick his mind about is what music, which has been his career for 50 years now, means to him. “Music is almost like a religion now. It’s become a way of life. I couldn’t imagine doing anything other than music until the ancestors decide they want me to go make music elsewhere,” he says. 
These few lines to describe half a century of work denote something that he notes is sadly missing in the jazz scene today: a strong connection between the consumers of jazz and the creators. 

It could be the economic situation in the country and, to a broader extent, the world that makes buying into and adamantly supporting music, whether through album sales (digital or physical) or going to concerts, but the passion of the artists seems to be met with a damp response by music lovers. 

Music is a religion

Mabuse brings in another element to this equation: the digital space. It’s made the sharing of content and information easier, but Mabuse feels the footprint of jazz in the digital and electronic mediums is not big enough, apart from a couple of television, radio and online portals that cater specifically for jazz. 

I can think of five or so big platforms off the top of my head. He describes this disconnect as a state of flux: “Jazz is in a state of flux at the moment. Electronic media in particular has not played a critical role in advancing and educating people about jazz. 

“So jazz is not supported as it should be, except for your occasional mega festival like the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz, and those are probably the only two high-profile festivals that really profile jazz as it should be,” he explains. 

The remedy? Mabuse suggests returning back to basics. “Print media could play a role in influencing how people consume music. Even though electronic media has a bigger and wider space today, I know it can influence the thinking because it can broadly be read by people in high places. Once this form of media comes along, then electronic will follow suit,” he says. 

We mourned the news of the potential shutting down of the Gauteng Opera and the final curtain call of the Dance Umbrella showcase this week, both due to financial constraints, so it seems jazz is not the only art form that’s suffering. 

While most of us wonder why it feels like the role of the Department of Arts and Culture is slowly shrinking and appears only when icons die, Mabuse warns against depending on government too much.

“I’m always adverse to actually relying on government in playing a role in pursuing the arts. We know that politicians are not keen or interested in how to advance the arts. If the Arts and Culture Department decides its core function is to help the arts, then they must do it. 

They must put money in it. There’s always talk about doing things, but it never translates into action. (When artists die) politicians will be there to make their speeches, but whether they support the arts is the big question.”


Burnt Out

Another effective way of keeping jazz current is by seeing collaborations of artists across mediums and genres. Sampling and covers are an aspect of this. We’ve seen examples of this through Reason and sampling Anita Baker’s Caught up in the Rapture of Love for his latest single Top 7, or Aka giving Caiphus Semenya’s Matswale a hip hop spin in Caiphus Song or even King Tha covering the classics in her latest album Belede. 

These artists have undoubtedly managed to get many youngsters listening to this old school music again, but also searching for new material from some of these iconic artists.

Bra Hotstix is a little lukewarm on the idea though. And considering that Burn Out has been sampled, I’m fascinated to hear his thoughts. 

“Sometimes I’m a bit frustrated by it because I do believe young people need to create their own music. While we appreciate what they do with our music, it creates a sense of apathy. People don’t end up being challenged for their own music. 

“When you create music and you put it out there, you allow the public to determine whether it’s something they can relate to; you’re challenged. But when you rely on a successful song and you retouch it, it’s easy. People know the song, they’re attached to it. It also brings in a sense of laziness in creativity. It’s an honour and it’s flattering that people love our music, but composers must create new music.”

This year, Mabuse is billed to appear at the CTIJF with the The Liberation Project, led by Dan Chiorbolli. 

“The Liberation Project is music that people have asked me to participate in. There are, in the project, some songs that have been written, and new material from all over the world, and we have started recording it. 

“You see, Liberation is not only in South Africa – it’s been all over, freedom fighters have been everywhere, and music was at the centre of it. When I was asked to participate, I jumped at the chance,” he said. 

The group intends to do some music in its CTIJF set as a tribute to fallen music heroes Ray Phiri and Hugh Masekela. 

“Ray and I have a history, a tight history together. We’d been friends in the music industry for years. And I think it’s fitting that a portion of the set be dedicated to his memory. Also because of the impact that Ray’s music had on the liberation struggle, which is something many people don’t know, particularly during the Black Consciousness era,” Mabuse said. 

If it weren’t for the constraints of time and his doctor’s appointment, our chat would have continued further.

I am gradually understanding the importance of harvesting information from legends while they live, and giving them the necessary platform to celebrate their contributions to the arts – instead of that one week of mourning that has become standard procedure. 

In the meantime, we still get to enjoy the sounds of Hotstix and other Liberators through song, next week at the CTIJF

And what a jump it’ll be.