Tsepo Tshola: a life well lived

Tsepo Tshola: a life well lived

MASERU-SONGS are like windows into the souls of musicians. But as you peep into those windows you see your soul as well. Perhaps that’s because the song is meant for you as much as it is for the musician.
When musicians claim to be singing for society, they mean you, me, others and themselves. They are speaking of you and to you. Of themselves and to themselves.

This is why your favourite song is most likely to be one you wish you had written.
It sounds as if it was penned for you by you. Or for others by you. It is at that moment you realise what distinguishes you from the musician is that they possess a rare gift of putting your thoughts and theirs into song. Sankomota’s Exploration – Another Phase, released in 1991, is one of those songs for me.

One more bridge
One more dream
I search the horizon
I must keep moving

It must have been in 2000 or somewhere thereabouts when I first heard that verse from a shrieking radio on a chicken bus whose driver seemed to deliberately drive into the ditches that punctuated the treacherous and torturous road to my rural home in Zimbabwe.
Ten years later I would discover it was written by Frank Leepa, Sankomota’s leader and guitarist. Then last week, after another ten, there was an epiphany of sorts.

It came with the numbing news of Tšepo Mobu Tshola’s death at 68.
As we hurriedly tried to cobble the anecdotes of Tšepo’s life into an obituary, I realised that this song was for Leepa as much as it was for Tšepo, who provided the backing vocals on it.
It aptly epitomises Tšepo’s career. Always looking for new frontiers to conquer. Unafraid of change. Forever on the move. Never bound by the world or time.

Even as he lay on his bed in the Covid-19 ward, Tšepo was thinking of the next phase.
“He said we should meet as soon as he recovers because he had an exciting project for us,” says Budhaza Mapefane, his protégé with whom he briefly played in Sankomota and then recorded his first two solo albums in the 1990s. That was a few days before he died.
He oozed the same confidence and optimism when he spoke to Bonner Seakhoa, his friend of more than six decades.

“I could hear he was not well but he was already talking about meeting soon to talk about some new projects,” Seakhoa recalls of their last phone call a few days before the tragedy.
There is no remarkable story about how the two met.
They were together from the start, introduced to each other by geography, church and age. Their fathers were ordained on the same day as ministers of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Teyateyaneng, a small but vibrant town that bred them and to which Tšepo would ‘return’ to die after a musical career of more than half a century.

Tšepo, his parents, three brothers and two sisters were the church’s jukebox on Sundays, during prayer meetings, weddings and funerals.
Away from church, which was rarely missed, they would get up to ‘boy things’.
“He was my friend who later became my brother,” Seakhoa says.
That’s not a riddle but an apt way to describe a lifelong friendship.
Theirs was an ordinary childhood in which boys do “naughty but harmless things”.

They once called a ‘crisis meeting’ after bumping heads over a girl. When the girl could not decide who she liked, they reached a pact to both leave her.
There was also the day they got drunk stupid at Blue Mountain Hotel in Teyateyaneng. Sozzled in both limbs and head, they staggered out of the hotel and tried dragging each other home until Tšepo said he could go no further. As if on cue a man on a bicycle passed them.

They stopped the man, Seakhoa pulled ten cents from his pocket and hired him to take Tšepo home. Tšepo arrived in one piece but slept under a tree in front of his house because he couldn’t face his father and chorister mother in that state.
“In the morning we swore never to do it again,” Seakhoa says, “but it happened a few more times because we were just boys”.

One day Tsepo announced that he was moving to Maseru for a carpentry course at Lerotholi Polytechnic College. Seakhoa wasn’t surprised because he knew it was his friend’s nature “to no not only move but move fast and frequently”.
For him, this was just another phase for Tšepo.

What bothered him slightly, though, was his friend’s next destination: carpentry.
“I knew his passion for music and was sure it would not be long before he returned to it.”
Seakhoa was right because the music would however occasionally steal Tšepo from his studies.

But being a stubborn man, Tšepo thought he could work the wood and still entertain with his baritone voice. He was wrong and it was Mokoenya Chele, who later became a friend and a business partner, who made Tsepo realise he was delaying the inevitable.
Chele says he had just formed the Blue Diamonds Bband and was looking “for a voice to shore up our vocals”.
“I had heard that Tsepo used to sing in a church choir with his family and looked for him”.

Tšepo would sing for the Blue Diamonds for a year, during which he dropped out of college to become a full-time musician. And thus, began an illustrious career full of twists, calamity, betrayal, stumbling and joy. The twist is how he frequently moved both bands and countries.
Lesotho, South Africa, Botswana and the United Kingdom played host to his musical career. He also spent a few months as a DJ in Swaziland. Calamity was when he lost his wife in 1984 (he never remarried, instead devoting his life to music and his two boys).

Betrayal is how he was repeatedly cheated by producers, record companies and promoters. He called them sharks who promised so much but gave very little.
He stumbled when he struggled with a drug addiction that almost upended his career.
And joy….well, that is for the thrills of making music and performing.
“He would sometimes tell me that he is not a musician but a presenter of songs,” says Budhaza.
Whatever that meant.

When the Blue Diamonds collapsed due to what Chele says were “managerial issues”, Tšepo did not stick. He simply said his goodbyes and opened another chapter.
That episode came in the form of the Anti-Antiques, a band Leepa had started while in high school. Tšepo spoke of how he met Leepa by chance.
“It was God’s thing. I was looking for a match, so one of us had a match and the other had a cigarette: sure, man, let’s share,” Tsepo said in a TV interview several years ago.

That was the beginning of a collaboration that sustained the Anti-Antiques for a year before it collapsed to be replaced by Uhuru which toured South Africa in 1979 but was quickly banned for its political songs. Back home, the group changed its name to Sankomota to avoid confusion with the Caribbean-based band Black Uhuru which was already established.
Sankomota’s first album debut, Sankomota, was released to much acclaim in 1983.

With songs like Vukani, Uhuru, House on Fire and Mad House, it was the first LP album recorded in Lesotho.
But by then Tšepo was breaking new frontiers. Never satisfied to do one thing at a time, he was already stirring several musical pots. It was as if Lesotho was too small for him.
“He had that spontaneity of a creative person. Always eager to break walls and conquer the next horizon,” says Budhaza.
Hugh Masekela hints at the same character in his biography, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela when he describes how Tšepo showed up on his door with a suitcase.

“Very surprised, I greeted him with a welcoming embrace and asked: “Are you guys playing in town this weekend?” “Tšepo replied with a big smile on his beaming face, “I have come to you, Bra Hugh.” Just like that, Tšepo had left a band in Lesotho to play with Kalahari, which Masekela had founded when he briefly moved to Botswana from the United States where he had been in exile.
The next phase was the United Kingdom whose doors he would later open for Sankomota.

The keyboardist Sebabatso ‘Sunshine’ Mokoena, who toured South Africa with Uhuru, says it was Tšepo who persuaded Julian Bahula, South African composer and bandleader and drummer, to bring Sankomota to the UK.
“I know Bahula bought tickets for just a few members of Sankomota and the rest had to find their way. Others had to sell their cars to buy the tickets,” says Mokoena, whose career fizzled after Uhuru’s tour in South Africa.
In a way, one could say it was Tšepo’s rolling nature that gave the group its big break.

But first there were several years of lean cows when the group toured Europe largely as the musical voice of the African National Congress (ANC).
“We were paid with bread and salami,” Tšepo said.
It was a struggle on several fronts. They were trying to prick the world’s conscience about the evils of South Africa’s apartheid regime, chasing a record deal and trying to eke a living some 10 000km from home.
In the end, they achieved all with their tours and politically conscious music that produced three successful albums. The apartheid regime would fall much later when Sankomota had made it big but it was largely the fight against it that thrust them into the international limelight.

The Dreams come true album was released in the UK in 1987, with the hit song Now or Never which warned that Africa would wait forever if she folded her arms and waited for free things.
It was a general clarion call to Africa to take its rightful place in the world but given Sankomota’s reputation for politically themed songs many saw it as a warning to black South Africans that freedom would not be handed to them on a silver platter.

Indeed, the title itself seemed to tacitly remind South Africans that their dream for freedom would eventually come true.
Writing on the wall came in 1989 with songs like Bakubeletsa, Disposable hero, Papa, Greed and Tough Talk. It did not go unnoticed that the album was released when the Apartheid regime was on its last legs due to immense international pressure and internal strife.

In Sekunjalo, a son tells his parents he is going to fight to reclaim the throne because ‘Batho bana ba re tlolisa khati’.
Sankomota’s Exploration – A New Phase might just as well have been telling the regime that the wheels of freedom are turning fast. In Stop the War, Tšepo pleads for peace:

I cannot draw a line
To any man that rules
I can only plead
For the life of men
The generosity of God is unchangeable
He gave us life
So let us live
Sing along

To the heads of State (Stop the war)
Diplomatic cause
Pope and deacons
Presiding elders
Hey we got to stop the war
Stop the war
Political leaders
The list is endless

“There is no way you can keep quiet when you feel pain. We had to be vocal because we were driven by pain,” said Tšepo when asked about Sankomota’s political songs about South Africa.
What was going on in your heart when you sang Stop the war, asked the young interviewer.
“It goes to the pain. If you don’t do it (speak out), nobody will,” he said.
And he understood that as a musician he had the privilege to speak against injustices.

“I was given the opportunity to be vocal because I had a stage to say whatever I felt.”
Exploration-A New Phase was also somewhat prophetic on Sankomota’s future. Tšepo opened a new phase by going solo.
How he described the separation speaks to his refusal to be restrained.
“It just happened,” he said, adding that there comes a time when they “outgrow the imprisonment”.
Calling it a “natural transformation”, Tšepo said: “It wasn’t our choice. We got to a point where we say ‘Hey man, I am going this way’”.
Whether it was an acrimonious or amicable separation we might never know.

Tšepo however continued to revere Leepa, once describing him as the greatest guitarist and composer he had ever known. We cannot only speculate about Sankomota’s fortunes if Tšepo and Leepa had remained together.
Tšepo’s success as a solo artist however indicates that he could have indeed outgrown the band.
This could justify him describing it as a prison of sorts and possibly why The Village Pope, his first album, was successful.
Budhaza says “it was in Tšepo’s nature to try new things’ ‘.
He however says both Leepa and Tsepo “lost something in the divorce”.
“Frank (Leepa) was an amazing guitarist and composer while Tšepo was a brilliant vocalist. It was a great combination.”

Budhaza briefly stayed with Sankomota before joining Tšepo to record The Village Pope and later Let’s hold hands, the second album that Budhaza says he gave the title “because I always thought there was a chance for Tšepo and Frank to reconcile”.
Tšepo would go on to record including Rivers and Waterfalls, Leseli, New Dawn and Ask Me.
His later songs would gravitate towards his religion as if he was returning to his roots where he sang with his parents, brothers and sisters. He transformed regular hymns into hit songs.
In between, he found time for a stint in management as well as singing with Brenda Fassie, Rebecca Malope, Oliver Mtukudzi, Sands, Musa and Casper Nyovest.

Five minutes. That’s about how much I spent with Tšepo. We were driving from Maputsoe with a friend when a Sankomota song nudged the chit-chat towards Tšepo.
The friend said he had known Tšepo for years and we could meet him. And so, at my instance, a call was made. An hour later I was sitting next to a potbellied man in shorts, morning shoes and a vest.
Here was the legend in his simplest form, basking in what remained of that day’s sun.

I broached the idea of a biography, which had always been my agenda, and his face lit. He pondered for a moment as he caressed his rice-like beard.
“That would be good. I have a lot of stories to tell. A lot of them,” he said. But then Covid-19 intensified and ‘sabotaged’ the project.
At least that’s how I consoled myself when I heard of his death last week.
The truth is however more nuanced. It was procrastination that swallowed the project. That, and the nervousness at the thought of telling the story of a musical giant like Tšepo.

There was going to be a time when I would summon the courage to do it but his death was swifter. Now here I am, labouring to gather sketches from his friends and fans when I could have let him tell his story.
Yet this is pointless regret for Tšepo has already eloquently told his story through music.
Which is why many will swear they knew Tšepo. They don’t mean the man but his music, which is precisely what Tšepo had wanted for years until age started creeping up on him and he became open to the idea of documenting the life story of the man behind the music.
“I want to tell the young ones what it means to be an artist,” he told me in our brief encounter.

Now that he is no more, having succumbed to Covid last Thursday, the colossal task of telling the story of the Bra Tšepo behind the music is left to his music and those who knew him. Seakhoa doubts there is a way to separate Tšepo the man and Tšepo the musician.
“He was his music and his music was him,” he says.
“The frankness and abhorrence for injustice you heard in his music were exactly what he was as a man.”
Tšepo died just as the ambers of the fires that ravaged South Africa in recent weeks were still glowing.

What would he have said were he to have been interviewed?
His answer could likely be similar to the one he gave when he was asked what freedom means to him during a TV interview several years ago.
“I think freedom is difficult. It is too demanding. It needs discipline. It needs focus. So, unless you learn freedom, freedom will destroy you,” he said.
Tšepo will be buried in Thaba Bosiu as a national hero on July 30.
That is a well-deserved honour but one that pales in comparison to the tribute Basotho would have paid him if they were to cherish his message of peace, love, hard work and respect.
There will never be another Tšepo Mobu Tshola.

Shakeman Mugari

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