Burnout is more than just a song by Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse. It is a singular signifier of what it meant to be South African in the 80s. The slow-building, passionate delivery and the unforgettable keyboard riff resonated with pretty much everyone who heard it.
Kids in the township reclaimed it, throwing their own nonsensical lyrics to its keyboard melody and passing them down to the next emerging set of latch key kids. It was urban folklore long before it was legendary.
In the song, its author pines for a love lost, but there is a nagging subtext; he is singing about a country he’s about to set on fire. In real terms, though, it was simply love in the time of revolution.
Although Hotstix had already recorded a solo album after the dissolution of Harari, a successful band he founded with his high school mates, it was Burnout that properly announced his arrival as a solo act.
“While many groups would play mbaqanga then, we wanted to play what we called Afro-rock. We became the first black group to appear on national television, which was only for whites. We were defiant of the system because of the black consciousness influence,” says Hotstix of his former band. “Groups like Dashiki, Malombo … these were groups that were very politically inclined. So we belonged in that era.”
As Hotstix explains, the band Harari went through various stages conceptually. “[We were] the first group that went to Zimbabwe, which was influenced by a very strong period of black consciousness. Then we had Selby [Ntuli], myself, Oom Alec [Khaoli] and Monty [Ndimande]. After we came from Harare, we changed from The Beaters to Harari. Then Selby died. We had to regroup and introduce the concept of pure Afro-rock with ‘Funky’ Masike Mohapi, Alec and I, and Charles [Ndlovu] and Thelma [Segonah]. Commercially, that was the more successful group. After that, Masike left the group and Condry Ziqubu joined, and there was a continuous changing of concepts as and when people came into the group at that particular time. Obviously, understanding what the concept would be was quite a challenge to a number of people who came in.”
In 1982, things were looking promising for the group, having signed a deal with Herb Alpert’s A&M Records. “I guess you reach a stage where one’s success becomes overwhelming. Once we were invited to the US to go and perform at the invitation of the record company, some of the members decided they weren’t going. That was the most heartbreaking period for me − because here we were on the brink of international success − especially with Masike, because he was the lead singer of the band and he decided he was not going to go overseas. And when we got there, there were all these acrimonious relationships. So when we came back, there was this split.
“Two people stayed behind. I guess at that period we saw success differently. In our eagerness to achieve success, with hindsight, maybe I became dictatorial in my leadership style. I felt strongly that we should be a clean-living group − no alcohol. I used to be physically fit and I used to work out and do all sorts of things, but my colleagues were different and we’d always fight about these things. They felt that I was too controlling in my leadership style, to such [an extent] that they felt they didn’t want to go overseas to support my cause, as they put it. When we got to the States, even the two founding members, Oom Alec and I, were not on good terms because of my style of leadership. He said to me, ‘Listen, I no longer want to be part of this group.’”
Hotstix remembers that time as the most depressing period of his career − like realising a marriage you had tried to make work was doomed.
“You become angry at yourself and bitter towards the people you feel have let you down,” he says. “For about a year or two I was at sea, lost as to what to do. Johnny [Clegg] called me, because their drummer had just left, and asked me whether I wanted to play drums for Juluka. For me it was a very difficult period to make a decision on that because I had been a band leader. Selby had been the leader and I became the leader after he died, so I couldn’t see myself going to join another band. I decided to go to the studio and start working on a few things.
“The first album I recorded was called Set Me Free, which, frankly, I attributed to Harari, and it became successful. I guess in a way I was still attached. There was still that sentimental attachment to the group because of the success. Then I realised I was alone, because all the other members of the band had gone solo, doing things individually. I was a drummer, so it was going to be difficult to become a frontman. Then I realised that many of the frontmen had been drummers. I got my solace from that consideration and I went on to record other albums – Burnout, Rise…”
Hotstix says he recorded Set Me Free on his own. He hadn’t even picked up the saxophone at that stage, but he was an adept drummer, pianist and flautist. “I didn’t consider myself an exceptional pianist; I could get by, just to enable me to compose things. As a drummer it would have been difficult to compose, especially as I wasn’t good in notation.”
Set Me Free, a four-track EP, sold about 200 000 copies at the time. “It was almost like I was making statements, because I went on to record Rise, which became another big seller, moving 150 000 units. Then one day while preparing to record an album, we got into the studio around 12 midnight. I was travelling with a pianist, but I decided to play piano while the sound engineer was doing something. For some reason I was feeling this riff in my head. I started playing it. I was looking at the pianist and he was really bobbing, you know. And I felt the same way. I said to the recording engineer, ‘Listen, can we put this thing down before I forget it?’ We stopped everything we were doing. We put this track down and I started writing things. Lyrically, what you’re hearing. It literally took me 10, 15 minutes, and the whole track was done. The whole song was recorded in 20 minutes.”
Hotstix says he was capturing a happy mood, but at the same time his mind was reflecting on past relationships. Did he know he had made something magical when he laid it down?
“There’s hardly any musician who will tell you they’ve captured the magic. When you’re a creative person, it’s always hit and miss. If you’re an honest writer, you don’t write because you want to write hits, because there’s no formula. But there’s that moment of creativity that just happens. That’s why as a writer there’s what you call writer’s block, but once you capture that moment of writing things, you find things happening. If you find all the hit songs written by people, they have never been able to repeat that magic, because it happens at a particular time. I mean,Thriller was probably [Michael Jackson’s] most successful album, but however much Michael tried to sustain and retain the formula, it just did not happen the same way. The Beatles were songwriters of note, but there are certain songs they wrote that you still think are better than the others. A lot of people will point to certain songs and say these are the hits. There’s absolutely no formula, whatsoever.”
Check out this video of The Con’s interview with Hotstix by Tseliso Monaheng
Main Pic by Tseliso Monaheng