Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse at New York City’s Mandela Day

Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse, 46664-veteran and the music-mind behind ‘Burn Out’, passed through Cape Town as a Red Bull Music Academy guest lecturer en route to the United States, where he co-headlines the prestigious line-up of New York City’s Mandela Day celebrations.
Sipho 'Hotstix' Mabuse at New York City's Mandela Day
This interview by Evan Milton originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 17/18 July 2009. Find out more on
Sipho Mabuse started playing the drums at fifteen and earned his nickname, “Hotstix” when the power went out at a concert and he entertained the capacity crowd on his drumkit – by the inflationary power of hearsay, the succession of solos is now rumoured to have lasted hours. As a fresh-faced teen he left South Africa for a short tour to the newly independent Zimbabwe, only to be so invigorated by thoughts of liberation that he stayed on and, upon returning, the band was renamed Harari. He composes, arranges and writes songs; he sings, works behind the scenes in music administration and still thumps the heck out of the skins. When he picks up his saxophone or flute, music dances through his veins and fingers and through the instrument and, even when he guests as another band’s backline, the crowd will bay for “Burn Out” until he accedes. All this, and Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse confesses that he is a little nervous…“Mandela Day,” he says just days after impressing a new generation of music-makers at the Red Bull Music Academy’s Cape Town studios. “It doesn’t get any bigger, or any better.” He stops, as though taking stock, and then resumes. “I guess last year (where he wowed the crowd at an already impressive line-up at the London 46664 celebrations) was something that everybody enjoyed and, I suppose, there were people there who recognised what one does. Also, I guess for New York I probably represent something of the legacy of where Mandela comes from by coming form where he does. For an American audience, I guess there is a musical identity that says, ‘South Africa’, and I guess that I represent that feeling.”Mabuse shares the New York City stage with a star-studded gala that includes Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Baaba Maal, Alicia Keys,, Gloria Gaynor and, taking time off from being the French First Lady to return to the stage, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Also on the bill are South Africans Thandiswa Mazwai, Freshlyground, The Soweto Gospel Choir, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Jesse Clegg, The Soweto Gospel Choir, Chris Chameleon and Loyiso, amongst others.

Seldom does Mabuse get mentioned without mention of “the song”. “Burn Out” was a jive-driven explosion of energy that soared up charts as quickly within apartheid South Africa as flew onto high rotation within the country’s exile community across the globe. “I guess it’s flattering,” says Mabuse. “In most cases, songs come and go, and that one stayed. At some stage, most musicians will write a song that will always be a mark of their careers, and ‘Burn Out’ was obviously that for me. I’m actually pleasantly surprised that the song still draws so much attention in terms of its effect, and that this draws attention indirectly to me.” He laughs a warm rumble of infectious mirth and adds, “It keeps me in contention for the number of year’s that I’ve been in circulation!”With his years in the business, and his position representing the interest of composers and musicians on the board of the South African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO), Mabuse is perfectly placed to comment on the state of South African music. This was a key feature of his lecture to the young musicians attending Red Bull’s Music Academy taster, where he characterised the current milieu as being one where musicians are guilty of what he calls “the wedding song syndrome”.”The current music coming out of South Africa is not as challenging as during apartheid, especially when you consider the extent to which music is no longer confined to this country,” Mabuse told the twenty participants, who ranged from DJs like Erefaan Pearce and Niskerone, through musicians like Joao Orrechia and Black Porcelain to singer-songwriters like Fifi and Deep Fried Man. “There is a lot of interest in South African music, and there is more South African music being released than ever before. But, now, too many people fall into this ‘wedding song syndrome’. If someone writes a hit, then everybody wants to write a song like that. And when an artist gets a hit, something that people will sing at a wedding, he or she falls into a comfort zone, They become guilty of not extending themselves. They are not applying their mind to things, and that is a problem. The body should be comfortable, but the mind should not. if the mind is not being exercised, then it just becomes a brain.”

His comments are not confined to those directly involved in the making of music. “The media – especially electronic and broadcast media – are partly to blame here. The problem is how South African music is viewed, and how interest is generated. I am sure there are many creative people who are out there who are very frustrated because their new music, their good music, does not get the kind of exposure that it should. It is the ‘wedding song syndrome’ again. I can only hear what I hear and, because media is not playing the part of promoting creativity in people, I do not hear music where creativity has been pursued. If their music is not being played, then musicians are not inspired to do work that is beyond wedding songs, and that is a big problem; a national problem.”

Mabuse, who constantly embraces new instruments and new technologies, is optimistic about the future. His page on the Twitter internet feed service brims with enthusiasm and he clearly relished the chance to lecture to a new generation.  “Things like this Red Bull Music Academy are very important,” he says. “People who challenge themselves through creating differences is something that we should strive for. Young people should strive to become better and better musicians and a forum where the older musicians can contribute to do that – whether it is in a lecture environment, or through playing with them – this should be applauded. If we foster creativity in young musicians, then they will not just be in pursuit of hits, they will be thinking always about where the music is, and where it comes from,”

More interviews with Sipho Mabuse:

Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse plays Mandela Day at Radio City in New York City today (Sat 18 July) – see more on In Cape Town, the “Ubuntu Festival” celebrates Madiba’s birthday today and tomorrow (18 and 19 July)the Amarula Spirit of Jazz Jam featuring the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra, Steve Newman, Jimmy Dludlu, Robbie Jansen, Claire Phillips, Emily Bruce, Coda, Errol Dyers, Hilton Schilder, Spencer Mbadu and more (Rainbow Room, Mandela Rhodes Place, 2 to 6pm, R75). A free outdoor stage hosts Jimmy Dludlu, Yolanda Yawa, Chad Saaiman, Coda, Gugulethu Tenors, Frankie and The Rabbits, Khoi Konnexion and more (10am to 6pm, details 021 4814000 and  Follow Hotstix at

This interview by Evan Milton originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 17/18 July 2009. Find out more on