“Despite falling in love with drums as early as at the age of 2 and playing them unsupervised in church when he was 14, he never saw himself playing music as a profession.  Because of his participation in science expos, he always pictured himself studying towards electrical engineering. Although he comes from a music loving family, he was the first person to enroll for a music qualification”

Sphelelo Mazibuko is one of the most sought-after drummers in South Africa having played and recorded with musicians who cover different genres such as jazz, gospel, R&B, Afro Pop, Pop and many others.  The 30-year-old was born in Newscastle in northern KwaZulu-Natal.  His grandmother was a singer, his father was a singer and guitarist.  This also influenced his siblings to be singers which made the musical heritage second nature to this drummer also known as Lelo.  His father was a conductor for multiple groups and choirs.

Drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko. Picture by Siphiwe Mhlambi

The Mazibuko household that raised him is all about laughing and spending time together.  He recalls going to the local restaurant as a family on Sundays after church and spending quality time laughing together.  At school he played cricket and hockey and was part of the science expo.  “Strange enough I never did music in primary or high school and always pictured myself doing electrical engineering in the future”, he told Jazz It Out.  When he was 2, they would put him in a drum chair where he imitated the drummer that used to work with his dad.

At the age of 14 he began playing drums unsupervised which surprised most of his church congregants.  This motivated the young Lelo to keep going.  His inspiration also came from drummers Kwazi Shange and Isaac “Mnca” Mtshali who have passed away.  Their memory lives forever in Lelo’s mind.  Coming from a family where music was a hobby, his parents were surprised when he told them he wanted to enroll for a degree in music upon completing high school.  “It was not an easy conversation, but I am happy they believed in me and supported my dream”, he recalls.

He headed to the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) where he enrolled for a BA Degree in Music and Media Studies.  Sphelelo made friends with fellow students Linda Sikhakhane, Lungelo Ngcobo, Prince Bulo and Ndabo Zulu. He joined a band called The New Sound while at UKZN where they played their own compositions while learning how to navigate the music business. Lelo studied under the guidance of Neil Gonsalves and Bruce Baker.  Africa Plus is a band that he joined after graduating which included Prince Bulo and Lungelo Ngcobo.  This band which used to rehearse at UKZN gave birth to a lot of beautiful music.

Lelo is a hardworking drummer. Picture by Siphiwe Mhlambi

Media was his second major subject after jazz.  Sphelelo is happy with his choice of studies because in this industry one needs to understand music and also know how the media works as a tool to grow the industry.  “I studied Public Relations and I have learnt how to do personal PR campaigns from time to time after I started working in the industry.  Good PR gives you association with bigger brands and artists”, he said. He also specialized in electro acoustics (studio production) in his final year.  This would help him years later as he is also a studio engineer who finds that environment very fascinating.

Sphelelo’s transition from student to professional musician began around 2011 when he was doing third year of his studies.  He started getting calls to do small gigs and some studio recordings. More calls came which required more of his participation.  This also taught him the importance of time management, being organized and how to work with people which did wonders for his interpersonal interaction with those in the know.  His versatility saw him working with musicians who perform different genres which improved his musical language, and made him build a new sound and uniqueness from those experiences.  Lelo’s peers know he can push boundaries and do more musically.

It was through Prince Bulo in 2012 that Sphelelo met pianist Bokani Dyer.  The pianist needed a drummer and was impressed with his skill.  “We started working together on his quintet shows in Johannesburg”, he recalls.  He found himself a permanent member of the acclaimed Bokani Dyer Trio which is completed by double bassist Romy Brauteseth.  Some of the highlights that come to Lelo’s mind include doing great tours in Europe and playing at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in England twice as a trio.  The trio has also done remarkable studio recording which has won them awards.

Lelo New Age IncX Promo

Artists that Siphelelo has worked with include Lloyd Cele, Dorothy Masuka, Steve Dyer, Mthunzi Namba, Sifiso Ncwane, Shane Cooper, Benjamin Jephta, Siya Makuzeni, Concord Nkabinde, Musa Manzini, Sibongile Khumalo, Judith Sephuma, Nomfundo Xaluva, Tutu Puoane, Lindiwe Maxolo, Dr Mageshen Naidoo, Nduduzo Makhathini and Kyle Shepherd. His freelance work has taken him to the many parts of the African continent, UK and the US.  Some of the events he has performed at include Cape Town International Jazz Festival, Macufe Music Festival, Durban Jazz Festival (SA), Ronnie Scott’s Trio Festival (England), Midem Festival (France), Jazz Ahead (Germany) and Musique En Ete (Switzerland).

He regards gospel legend Mthunzi Namba a great music genius and a wonderful human being.  Lelo has learnt a lot from Mthunzi through the tours he did with him.  Another musician he holds in high regard is pianist Thandi Ntuli whom he describes as one of his favourite composers and arrangers. “Her style of writing attracted me from the time I first heard her music and being part of her records has been great.  She gives space for us to give into the music and it always translates into a great project when we work together”, he told Jazz It Out.  Travelling and meeting different musicians has made Lelo a better musician and creative.  He has seen amazing shows that inspired him to think differently about music and the concepts developed within jazz.

Working as a freelance studio engineer and technician has always been Sphelelo’s biggest love.  He has been very fascinated by gear and technology around advancing instruments and found himself learning how to fix and perform maintenance on drum kits.  “Besides performing I enjoy teaching and being a technician, I take private students, and hopefully in the future I will teach in a higher education institution” he said.  He is currently working on his own debut album as Lelo & New Age entitled “Africentral”.  This is not a jazz project, but has influences of jazz, pop, gospel, soul and world music at large.  This album seeks to express the mind of a young Black man in Africa travelling the world and share how he sees Africa. It carries the theme of Love, Peace, African pride and fighting against violence.  The futuristic project is scheduled to be released in 2021.

Thando – Viwe Mkizwana Ensemble

Sphelelo does not understand why some music fans get surprised when drummers release their own solo projects.  “Drummers have always had a strong band and leading traits.  More projects are coming from so many amazing drummers around the world”, he said with optimism.  He also asserts that jazz has its own market and the focus should be on building more festivals and projects that give light to what jazz education and jazz performance is.  “The world is evolving and we need to evolve in jazz”, he added.  The mindset needs to change because jazz is no longer Sunday afternoon music.

From his overseas travelling where he interacts with jazz musicians and enthusiasts, the names of Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and Feya constantly get mention by those people he comes into contact with.  Lelo’s future plans include releasing more music, teaching and travelling more. “I also want to build a fashion line and move into radio and television”, he said.  He lists Ayanda Sikade, Kevin Gibson, Bruce Baker, Leagan Starchild, Chris Coleman, Justice Brown, Kendrick Scott, Steve Smith, Calvin Rogers and Chris Dave as some of his favourite drummers.

Lelo’s hobbies are reading books, watching movies, series and documentaries.  He also enjoys hanging out with his wife, cooking, and sharing meals with friends and family.  His Facebook Account is Sphelelo Mazibuko.  Follows him on Twitter @Sphelelo and Instagram @sphelelomazibuko