Hotstixed in Soweto!

We had been invited for an evening of artistic engagement and cocktails and just so as not to abruptly leave the occasion prematurely on account of the unavailability of taxis after hours, and given that he happened to be a Pimville neighbour – I had excused myself and him from said ladies rendezvous to request (aside and away from earshot) if I could hitch a lift in his jalopy back home.

Suitably dressed for the occasion in a two-piece Viyella suit – the sort which an admirer would be none the wiser as to its wearer’s converse predicament – imagine my outrage, upon re-joining the fairer-looking ones, when the musician decided there and then to tell on what was meant to be a gentlemen’s agreement supposed to had been kept on the hush-hush: “he called me aside just to ask that I give him a lift back home and didn’t want you ladies to know regarding his impoverished bind,” he announced with partly a naughty and exacting streak.

The moment wasn’t to be the only memorable juncture of the evening among the Skomplaas (as Pimville is fondly referred to by old-timers) residents. 

Taking leave of the Americans later, my hitched ride back home with the ‘Burn Out’ hit maker only turned out into an exhilarating one as, upon approaching our Soweto neighbourhood, Metro Police turned us around at a roadblock and suggested alternative routes to take, as Pimville streets were burning with barricades from protesters disgruntled about service delivery issues!  

Elsewhere, another association with the man known in households as “Hotstix” takes the form of an acquaintance (a barrister in the Department of International Relations and Co-operation) once intimating that the musician has made such a profound impression on him that when his first child was born, he named him after Mabuse’s daughter, Naledi!

That I consider him a homeboy, in spite of the age gap, is also testament to his genuineness and pride in continuing to identify with a location which has been a vital part of his development as a person and assertion of his lifestyle’s own template – despite the clamour of migration to formerly Whites-only suburbia expressed by affluent contemporaries of his!  

After more than half a century as both a recording and performing artist, Mabuse – in spite of those who like poking their noses in others’ affairs, enquiring regarding when is he going to follow the trek to the north of the city of gold – still prefers to identify with what the Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes could had described as the “dusky sash”, known as the Southern Western Townships!

Now there was I at the Soweto Theatre on the last day of May on a winter Friday night armed with a camera – his daughter, Palesa having arranged VIP credentials for me – and raring to document what was effectively his venturing into his hometown after what has seemed like donkey’s years, to make yet some more music, along with an impressive cast of friends armed with an array of instrumentation and voices!  

These included, Gloria Bosman (vocalist), Neo Motsatse (violinist), Jude Harpster (harp), Poorvi Bhana (Sitar), Ashish Joshi (Tabla), Billy Monama (guitarist), multi-instrumentalist & vocalist, Tony Cedras, as well as the familiar faces of Faith Kekana and Stella Khumalo as backup singers.

Introducing the two nights show titled, The Journey with Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, the Soweto Theatre’s young manager, Nomsa Mazwai informed an audience which included former president, Kgalema Motlanthe, former minister, Siyabonga Cwele and former footballer, Marks Maponyane, occupying the double-tiered arena, that she found out that Mabuse had dropped out of school as a young boy but returned at the age of 60 to complete his matric, adding, “I wasn’t surprised. Ubabu ‘Hotstix’ taught a master class to young people at our theatre last weekend and he had a genuine interest and passion for the teaching and learning experience. 

Inspired and energized, he gave of his time and knowledge to the generations of tomorrow.  He is passionate about education and we are grateful, because as young people, we are hungry to learn.”

Mazwai having invited him onto the stage, Mabuse started out from a centrally-positioned mike: “all these musicians that you see on the stage, I’ve had the privilege of working with, especially Jude on a harp, you’ve never seen a harp (drawing laughter from the audience) – pop music never plays a harp, pop music never plays a sitar, now you’ve never heard a sitar, a niyi yazi nina la eSoweto (you aren’t familiar with the instrument here in Soweto).” 

Also mentioning the inclusion of the sound of the Tabla instrument, the veteran multi-instrumentalist & vocalist intimated that the show was about bringing together all the elements to ensure that people understood what South African music is.

Preambling by invoking the memory of The Beaters (the African soul group he started out on his musical journey with, back in the 70’s) band members such as Selby Ntuli, Oom Alec Khaoli and Monty Ndimande as having influenced the choice of the opening song, Mabuse – to the roaring approval of an audience evenly interspersed with old-timers au fait with the band’s hits – then delved into the business of the evening with yesteryear favourites such as ‘Give’ and a slew of others drawn, as accurately pointed out by a Wikipedia statement, ‘almost exclusively on American-style funk, soul, and pop music, sung in Zulu and Sotho as well as English’ which ultimately came to be  synonymous as the sonic catalogue of Harare (the name his band renamed itself for after a tour of Zimbabwe).

The afternoon before the show, Mabuse had, along with long-time collaborator and the great Paul Simon’s acquaintance, Cedras, given music lovers an inkling of the calibre of sounds to expect at the evening’s show, on home girl, Azania Mosaka’s show’s unplugged segment on Talk Radio 702.  

And personally, the evening before at a Thursday night live jam session at Tavern restaurant juxtaposed to the cinema complex located at Maponya Mall’s upper tier, I had had the privilege of learning and subsequently appreciating the brand of sound Cedras was capable of wreaking on an aficionado’s hammer-anvil-and-stirrup, when he rendered an impromptu appearance pending the playing of a featured band’s set! 

The jolly audience egging the band on and simultaneously up on its feet whilst a stompin’ with abandon, the sound segued into that party hit immediately reminiscent of the late Masike “Funky” Mohapi’s contribution – accompanied by sporting sing-alongs from around the double-tiered arena.

A short while later, the enduring workaholic who has also dabbled in producing for the country’s iconic pivots such as Ray ‘Chikapa’ Phiri and Miriam ‘Mazee’ Makeba, then paused long enough to explain to the audience why he had never felt any compulsion to relocate from his beloved Soweto. “You want to come to my house?  My house is open to everybody to come and visit – it’s a home and not a house.  A lot of people look at me and ask, but why are you still living in Soweto – and I said to them you know what, that’s where I belong!”  That, after a giddied up concertgoer had dared him that he’d like to pay him a courtesy visit.

Then abruptly he blew into his favourite accessory, his ever shiningly polished saxophone, giving life to yet another familiar township socialite fave, ‘Shikisha’. 

The effect was one of delirium as it whipped the ladies in the house into a tailspin extending from the front rowers to the backbenchers – with raucous whoopee’s going up to the elaborate ceiling’s reaches!

“This is my favourite!” I eavesdropped, in between clicking away at my Canon’s shutter, on the excited voice of Mabuse’s once sister-in-law, Bonnie, confiding to an accomplice, immediately behind me. 

“Yeah I am a pop musician, Afropop musician, but at the same time I listen to everything, I’m a classically-trained flute player but I also love playing jazz – I just play jazz when I feel like it!” Stated the virtuoso with designs on anthropology and whose resolve to complete his schooling elicited the plaudits of then president, Jacob Zuma.   

Testament to Mabuse’s ownership of the homecoming gig, as well (commendably) as the energetic and industriousness of the amassed crew,  the concert structure was such that almost every artist on stage had a fair share of the limelight as they delved into repertoires  comprising jazz, rock, pop, inter alia!  I’m alluding to usual suspects such as Gloria Bosman (another Pimville homegirl, along with Mazwai, of Mabuse’s) contributing their own will-‘o-the-wisp performances on the momentous night. 

Riff-raffs and boogie-woogies aplenty, Bosman wowed the crowd even more with items such as, aMaswiti (inspired by delicacies a romantically-inclined dude would woo his subject of affection with) and her renown and seminal tribute to her dear mother’s clan, aMaqwati.

It was precisely a solid two-hours, sweat-inducing performance before the announcement of a ten minute break – by which time, I mused as to where they drew such a tremendous amount of verve from and incredibly still, Mabuse and his friends endured on for another 90 minutes or so after the re-start! 

Pending the brief interlude, the theatre’s foyer and bar area swarmed with Mabuse’s acquaintances from Dube – the neighbourhood the immediate neighbour of the Orlando West of his formative years.  ‘Ouens’ en ‘Ousies’ nursing spirit warming tipple such as Peter Vundla (one of the famous Vundla brothers along with Mfundi of Generations-fame) gathered around various sharp and warmly dressed circles to catch-up on the latest state-of-being developments.  ‘Hotstix’ se mense – ek se!

Fledgling Neo Motsatse, spotting blond flowing dreadlocks and donning an equally flowing bright yellow and multi-coloured prints dress, grabbed and optimized her allotted slot on the violin. 

Pretty poppie, Jude Harpster was a picture of grace strumming strings on an instrument bearing an identity part similar to her surname and so grandiose it appeared at home on the stage as part of the furniture. 

Bespectacled Mokopane ma-boy, Billy Monama is hands down (or jealous down, as they are wont to exclaiming eKasie) a world-class guitarist of note Jimi Hendrix could had approved of.  The Mahwelereng composer and bandleader – who taught himself how to play the guitar – surely can make a guitar moan with melody and tune propelled by his natural talent.   

Introduced to Mabuse by Pops Mohammed, Poorvi Bhana, a globetrotting artist-musician-dancer with biological links to one of the Mahatma Gandhi’s activists in the Satygraha movement at Tolstoy Farm in the initial parts of the 20th Century, cut a figure of dignity seated on the stage’s floor whilst communicating whichever message her sitar seek of the listener to hear. 

And having known Stella Khumalo and Faith Kekana as regular backing fixtures at concert venues such as the Five Roses Bowl at Mofolo Park from my curious youth years, ‘twas heartening and affirming to note that – in the words of Aretha Franklin – “sisters are doing it for themselves” still!  A trio known as Amazing Voices on the night, Khuliwe Sithole completed their numbers.

‘Hotstix’ rolls with big hitters!  That I’ll cede to him gratis!  And his buddy-o, Elsies’ River’s Tony Cedras, certainly has sufficiently earned the envious status of being regarded as Graceland hit maker, Paul Simon’s companion.  What with a, we’ve-been-jamming-together span stretching from 1987 to 2012!  On this particular eventide in the heart of Soweto, the Love Letter to Cape Town hit maker was given laissez faire to intoxicate any ear which could hear with offerings of his versatile gifts – I mean, unto others is certainly given! 

Gliding effortlessly across different instruments such as the accordion, flugelhorn, guitar and a rather equally grandiose piano juxtaposed to Harpster’s harp pending slots structured for him – the sought-after session player described as “the Bob Marley in Simon’s band” delivered sheer spellbinding of the stand-alone variety!

With the tribute invariably following a music and pauses for conversational engagement with the audience, Mabuse also dedicated a moment in explaining former president, Kgalema Motlanthe’s presence at the show – albeit concerned regarding security logistics tied to the movements of his esteemed guest’s likes.  Referring to Motlanthe amidst loud applause from the crowd, he announced, “When he called me, I said, are you sure you wanna come to the show?  You know how we speak in the townships – he said, outie yaka kea zwakala!”

In between, the host also acknowledged the presence of an eSwatini artist positioned on a side of the stage – throughout the lengthy performance – and busy splashing paint away on a canvas with the objective of accomplishing his portrait in real-time! 

Other performers Mabuse acknowledged were vocalist, Thabiya; a young drummer he exposed as having travelled all the way to Russia with carrying a light wardrobe and a man he described as having been behind The Big Dudes’ music, David Mabaso, the composer and arranger of Brenda Fassie’s biggest song, ‘Weekend Special’.

“Now, I am privileged to have him as Sipho Mabuse’s bass player!” Mabuse declared part cheekily and triumphantly whilst individually acknowledging the performers before they did a curtain call on the epilogue to proceedings.  Mabaso reciprocated the regard by teasingly obliging with a refrain of the evergreen and chart-bursting 80’s humdinger, from his guitar – to the attendees insatiable gusto!

The nostalgic beat was the cue for the large crowd to file out of the arena – whilst singing along like schoolgirls and boys with nought a care in the world, “You don’t come around, to see me in the week …” – enroute to the VIP area on the complex’ third floor, for refreshments and banter. 

Glancing at the time, ‘twas the cinema-esque Ten to Midnight when the razzmatazz which had integrated Mabuse’s 1980’s half a million copies-selling ‘Burn Out’ and the Xitsonga disco hit of the same era, ‘Jive Soweto’.

As a welcome relief from the energy just expended from the showbiz antics below on the ground floor, restaurateur, Anthony Mandishona (of Tavern, where Mabuse and Cedras had staged an impromptu performance the Thursday evening before) had laid out a veritable feast which included vetkoeks and dumplings stuffed with delicious meats, inter alia!  Over the bar, the drinks flowed as acquaintances, musicians and concertgoers ate, drank and indulged in irrepressible banter well past midnight.

The sense of occasion not lost upon me and ensuring that I milked the moment for what it was worth, I worked the space from one table to the next, establishing new contacts with the performers and other interesting figures worth the while in the networking realm.

Seated around Mabuse’s table, armed with a goodie bag containing a CD+DVD collection of his, as well as a CD of Cedras’ Love Letter to Cape Town (some of whose pieces he played on the night) – I was once again faced with the conundrum I, back in 2015 at the US Consular General’s residency, I tried mitigating through seeking out of his generosity! 

Only this time, I managed to hitch on an Uber ride (one of the manifestation of Mabuse’s daughter, Palesa’s excellent organisational skills) meant for Cedras and his companion, back home. 

As it so happened, the situation turned out in favour of my intrepid ways.  Cedras happened to be shacking up at Mabuse’s Pimville residence and coupled with there being room on the ride and with the driver pleading to be shown directions – since, by his admission, he was “from Benoni” – it became a no-brainer for me to oblige the situation suitably enough to get my impoverished ass home in the early hours on a gratis ride!

Image Jacob MAWELA (Saxophone and Strings. Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse gave a resounding performance, fit for Presidents at the Soweto Theatre).

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