Saving  the Lesiba

Saving the Lesiba

MASERU – DO cows respond to music? That sounds like an inane question until you ask children who will swear those four-legged beasts can dance to a beat.
Persist on foisting them on your adult knowledge and they will point you to the numerous cartoon shows in which cows dance.
Take Barnyard, the hilarious 2006 animation movie in which Otis, the main character, spends his time dancing and singing.

Right there is your evidence that cows can hear and respond to music, according to the little souls.
But if you think children live in their own imaginary world where animals are capable of human actions then you can ask the herd boys in Lesotho.
Like children, they too will swear that cows can hear music.
It’s only that in the world of a herd boy cows only have ears for lesiba, a traditional musical instrument played by shepherds in the veldt. For centuries cattle herders in Lesotho have been known to play the lesiba as they tend their flocks.

Lesiba songs are called linong (birds) and the players say the birds are singing for the flocks.
Herd boys believe that their cattle respond to the linong.
They say the cattle follow them loyally as if they feel soothed by the melodious sounds of lesiba.
A lesiba player has a specific song for each activity with his cattle.
When he takes them to the mokhoabong (wet place or marsh) he plays a song called mokhoabong.
He plays mokebe (a water snake believed to be following cows because it eats their fresh dung) when he leads the flock to the pastures.
When he is in a hurry he plays mokholelo to make them trot.
When they leave the kraal in the morning he plays maholosiane (cattle egrets) – the birds that follow cows wherever they go because they feed on ticks which are usually found stuck on their skin.

There are other linong such as phakoe (hawk) which the herders just play for amusement.
In his book, An Introduction to the Music of the Basotho, Dr Robin Wells says “the linong are conceptualized as a type of a bird-song – many lesiba players say they imitate the songs of birds with their instrument”.
The lesiba itself strongly identified with birds through the quill.
The lesiba is one of the truly authentic Basotho instruments yet it’s highly possible that in the not so distant future its sound might never be heard.
It has gradually muffled over the last decades.
Unlike in the past when nearly every Mosotho herd boy tending cattle could play lesiba (feather), today a lot of boys have not even seen it or, let alone, enjoyed its melodies.
The reason: fewer and fewer people are playing lesiba and those who should be promoting it seem to have lost interest.
Those who know how to play it are even fewer.

Part of the reason is that it has never entered the mainstream music like other instruments.
While other instruments have found use in what can be called modern music, the lesiba has remained on the fringes. Rarely is it heard on radio. Finding it in commercial recording form is rare.
You don’t walk into a music shop looking for a lesiba record unless you have real interest in it.
Unable to break into the commercial recording industry, the lesiba has been consigned to the pastures among herd boys who play it for their animals.
That, of course, doesn’t mean that the lesiba makes songs for animals alone. It’s a melodious instrument good for the soul like any other.

Skilfully played, it can sound like a piano and give a rich rhythm to a song.
In fact, your correspondents’ stroll survey among colleagues who heard it revealed that most think it’s a piano.
For herd boys the veldt is a lonely place. By day the silence is broken only by the sound of birds and by night it is the crickets’ turn to punctuate the quietness.
Away from ‘civilization’, the herd boys use anything to keep themselves amused.
The lesiba used to do that and still does in some circumstances.

“If there’s any object in human experience that’s a precedent for what a computer should be like, it’s a musical instrument: a device where you can explore a huge range of possibilities through an interface that connects your mind and your body, allowing you to be emotionally authentic and expressive,” said Jaron Lanier, an American computer philosophy writer and classical music composer.
That is what lesiba is to herd boys who cannot afford a radio or phone and cannot read.
But the value of the lesiba goes beyond just keeping boredom at bay and helping the shepherds to be “emotionally authentic and expressive”, as Lanier says.

Out in the remote pastures a lesiba player is like an artiste performing to a gallery.
Only in this case the gallery is full of cows, not people. Herd boys will tell you, without flinching, that they have a deep and emotional, if not spiritual, connection with the cattle. There is an understanding, they say, that those who have never spent months with animals would not fully comprehend.
In the pastures the lesiba is what a radio is to most people.
That it’s dying should astound all who value the role of music in our culture.
To let it die would be to allow a part of Basotho culture to die.

It matters as much as initiation schools, the rituals when burying the dead and how we celebrate our marriages.
It’s not just an instrument but an important part of Lesotho’s tradition.
To preserve it some have started pushing the lesiba into the mainstream music industry, although the market remains largely aloof.

Mpho Molikeng is a traditional music artiste who recently launched a lesiba CD.
He says the CD titled Lesiba “is meant to redirect Basotho’s attention to the music of their forefathers and its meaning in instilling the spirit of nationalism in young minds”.
“It is worrying that lesiba is not played in any celebrations marking our historical achievements”.
“This part of our culture is dying,” said Molikeng to thepost at a launch whose poor attendance is a reflection of the attitude towards the instrument.
thepost was the only media house that attended the event.
But the sound of lesiba should not be very far from Basotho’s ears.
Seven times a day its sound of lesiba that introduces the news time on the state-owned Radio Lesotho. It has been like that for decades.
Still, most people don’t know the instrument.

Molikeng’s album, recorded in 2017, consists of 24 tracks. Molikeng recorded the tracks with three other artists: Molahlehi Matima, Sootho Sello and Molefi Khoele.
“Maybe when people hear the tracks they will be interested in playing this instrument,” Molikeng said.
“Our country has more than two million people but only a few can play this instrument.”
He said he fell in love with the instrument when he was only seven years old, after seeing his grandfather playing it.
He said he only mastered it when he was 26 years old, which was 10 years ago.
Molikeng said before he learned how to play Lesiba, he was already making a living out of traditional drums of the West Africa called Majembe.

“So I thought it was fair to learn how to play Lesotho instruments. Now I can play over 100 traditional instruments from across the continent.”
Molikeng is unlike your typical lesiba player: that is to say he doesn’t fit the mold that society had cast for lesiba players. He is well educated and immaculately groomed.

The stereotype is that lesiba is played by illiterate herd boys.
Molahlehi Matima, one of his collaborators on the album, can neither read nor write. He doesn’t know when he was born.
Matima, who is from Mafeteng, said he learned to play the instrument in 1975 when he was a herd boy for a cattle farmer.

Matima said he did not always live with his parents because he was looking after livestock of other people as a domestic worker.
“I did not even get the opportunity to go to school like other children,” he said.
He said when he was ill-treated by the families he worked for he would find solace in playing lesiba.
Matima said sometimes he would start tearing while playing lesiba “because I will be playing songs that reminded me of the difficult situations I faced”.

Matima said apart from playing lesiba in the veldt sometimes he played it in the village for older people.
“They always gathered and listened to my music,” Matima said.
Matima said he lost passion for the instrument in 2006 when a white man from Holland tricked local lesiba artistes into believing that he was going to make money for them.
He said the man announced on Radio Lesotho that he was looking for people who play lesiba and 17 of them responded to his call.

Matima said after recording the man said he would be back 2007 when the album would be released.
Matima said they did not get a cent from that but heard that the album was being sold in Holland.
“Most lesiba artists are uneducated so people take advantage of that and use them for free,” he said.
“I decided not to help anyone for free at all.”
Matima played lesiba in different schools in an attempt to introduce it to children.
He is worried that as he gets older he will not be able to play lesiba because he is losing teeth.
“I am planning to buy false teeth so that I can continue playing lesiba.”
Molefi Khoele, who contributed to some songs on the album, said he learned to play lesiba at 14.
He said he fell in love with the instrument when he heard it on Radio Lesotho. Khoele said they would play it while herding animals.

Dr Lehlohonolo Phafoli, a National University of Lesotho (NUL) lecturer in the faculty of humanities who is also the author of The Evolution of Sotho Accordion Music in Lesotho, said what separates lesiba from other musical instruments is that “its string is not plucked, bowed or struck in any way, but rather resonated by the player’s mouth”.

“The player holds his hands around the quill and inhales or exhales against it, the string vibrates against the wood and creates the instrument’s distinctive sound,” Phafoli said.
Phafoli said in order to prevent this instrument from dying, its music competitions needs to be held.
He said this will promote the spirit of competition so many people will want to learn to play lesiba.

Caswell Tlali & Makhotso Rakotsoane

 

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