In praise of the masters: Sipho Hotstix Mabuse is concerned about getting audiences to appreciate the work of jazz musician Bheki Mseleku, who failed to find recognition on his return to SA and died in London in 2008. Picture: SUPPLIED
In praise of the masters: Sipho Hotstix Mabuse is concerned about getting audiences to appreciate the work of jazz musician Bheki Mseleku, who failed to find recognition on his return to SA and died in London in 2008. Picture: SUPPLIED

Sipho Hotstix Mabuse’s Selmer horn is worth a king’s ransom, and it shows in the way he holds it — as though his life completely depends on the instrument.

In the four hours I spend with him at his Soweto home, he plays at whim. He’s transcribing Kenny Garret, a renowned alto technician from the venerated bebop tradition, a type of jazz originating in the 1940s and characterised by complex harmony and rhythms.

Mabuse switches between alto sax and flute, sussing out more exacting pieces by English reedman and flautist Ian Anderson from British rock band Jethro Tull.

"For the most part I play by ear. It’s just out of habit. Khaya is a stickler for notation and charts," he says, referring to esteemed jazz saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu.

"I guess his sight-reading abilities enable him to handle a lot of exacting material."

During the interview Mabuse also riffs on works by his contemporaries, getting particularly worked up about the late jazz pianist Bheki Mseleku. "He had incredibly huge ears, you know, the way he heard music. He had an ear for intricate progressions. It’s amazing the way he assimilated theory," he says.

This year Mabuse was conferred with the national Order of Ikhamanga, which he says came out of left field but was a real shot in the arm.

"Only a few people get those orders," he says. "One of the things Ikhamanga expresses is that my music contributed to social cohesion. It means South Africans acknowledge and appreciate what I’m doing. And I appreciate it. I’m grateful."

Firing up his stereo, he plays a track from one of Mseleku’s early albums and considers his words quietly before explaining its import. "For some reason, I find myself in this space in which I’m still appreciated, I don’t know how and I don’t know why.

"I’m able to do certain things because of my love for what I do. A lot of musicians fall through the cracks.

"I think there are other people who probably could have deserved it [the national order]. Bheki was a very gifted and special musician the country should have honoured."

Born in Durban, Mseleku started his musical career in Johannesburg in 1975, playing keys and electric organ for R&B band Spirits Rejoice. He moved to London in the late 1970s and released his acclaimed debut album Celebration in 1991.

By the mid-1990s, Mseleku had conquered the jazz scene in most of Europe and parts of the US. He signed with a major label, Verve, and collaborated on projects with US icons including Abbey Lincoln, Joe Henderson and Elvin Jones.

But he was afflicted by illnesses, including depression. Mseleku died in his London flat, having spent most of his last years back in SA but without finding an outlet for his skills.

"As a SA exile, Bheki did exceptionally well," Mabuse says. "A lot of people all over the world appreciated his skill and his ability to make great music. Unfortunately, this country could not see that. The country short-changed him."

By the mid-1990s, Mseleku had conquered the jazz scene in most of Europe and parts of the US. He signed with a major label, Verve, and collaborated on projects with US icons including Abbey Lincoln, Joe Henderson and Elvin Jones.

Mabuse speaks for many musicians, including late pianist Hotep Idris Galeta, remembered most for writing the SABC 2 Morning Live programme’s theme song. Galeta also felt stifled by the environment in the SA music industry in the 1990s.

"It’s him and many others," Mabuse says. "The sadness of it all is that South Africans don’t even realise that they had such great gems in a musician like Tony Cedras. Man, you must hear his album! This country is not ready to acknowledge the greatness of its own people."

It is hard to get Mabuse to talk about himself because he is fired up about SA’s neglect of its great artists. He is on a mission to turn his recognition through a national order into a campaign for the remembrance of other great talents — particularly Mseleku, who died in 2008. "People were not ready for him."

When he performs a Mseleku song onstage he always mentions that when Mseleku came home "he was euphoric, he was so happy that all he had learned elsewhere, he was bringing to share with this country. But … Bheki had to go back into exile to die. Because he suddenly hit, again, a brick wall.

"He could not bring himself down to this level which people felt was comfortable for him. Because he believed he had done so much more. If he had done as they asked, he would have had to go elsewhere where he was appreciated. And, sadly, he did that."

Mabuse says every time he visits or performs at the BAT Centre in Durban, he reminds the audience that he believes a statue of Mseleku should be erected there.

"Besides recognising his genius in music, the monument will be in remembrance of his humility. He was one of the most humble musicians, who appreciated and worked with some young musicians.

"Keke Phoofolo was discovered by Mseleku."

KwaZulu-Natal department of arts and culture spokesperson Mthobisi Makhathini says the department is aware of Mseleku’s contribution to the arts. "As is usually the practice, I’m sure the department will ensure that his memory is preserved," he added.

On September 14 the Wits Theatre, in association with PEGS Music Project, will present Rediscovering the Genius of Bheki Mseleku, featuring performances by Nduduzo Makhathini, Andre Petersen, Eugene Skeef and Salim Washington. It begins at 7pm and tickets will be available at the door.

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