A Shared Heritage Icon

sunflowerSeptember is the beginning of my favourite season: spring! It also happens to be heritage month in South Africa, where I currently reside. For me, the two add up to a month of musical appreciation—or at least, this is also why I believe the birds sing in spring time.

To join the birds in their singing, I think it is only fitting to show my appreciation by singing praises to my musical icon: Frank Mooki Leepa.

Frankly speaking, when it comes to heritage icons to be celebrated in South Africa—and indeed in Lesotho, but this goes without saying—Frank Leepa’s name should come up. This is an opinion, however, one that I hope to (continuously) defend with fervour.

My age says I more likely to have experienced in a tangible manner Bhudaza in his early days than I could have Frank Leepa. This being the case, perhaps a good place to begin my defence (in this blog piece) is to throw Bhudaza in the mix—for indeed, I experienced his blossoming into a celebrated musician from his days in Talima, a band with his late brother Mochoko, which also featured his late nephew Lekoane on bass guitar at a tender age of about ten, playing better than many adult guitarists.

The Talima days I remember very vividly. They were the prime days of my youth, beauty and free expression of my opinions about all and sundry. In those days, as a budding artist, Bhudaza was more recognisable by the soil that nurtured and allowed him to flourish. Here, I am referring directly to the influence of his brother Mochoko, who died in August 2001.

It took Google to get the year, but the month was etched in my mind. When the sad news reached many in Lesotho, I was actually with ‘mangoane Mpotla celebrating her birthday. The weather that evening was particularly nasty for mid August—it was cold, windy and sleeting—yet after our dining at Lancers Inn, we remained undeterred about ending our night at Victoria hotel with Bhudaza’s performance, alas…the night didn’t end as we planned!

That September, I called it the spring of Bhudaza’s career. He performed like I had never seen before. He was like a man possessed, a thorn bird even, playing each note to levels of unbelievable perfection. And we, the fans, loyal to the memory of Mochoko, allowed those notes to spring us to a level where spirits and beings commune with each other. We were mourning but also celebrating. And yes, while this may sound warped, it really was rooted in knowing Mochoko, who, for the record, I never did call ntate. A mere 10 minute conversation with Mochoko, when he talked music and/or the need for a music school for Basotho children, was to know him at some intimate level. A level that was inspiring and full of what some may refer to as ‘radical hope’ for the industry and the role it can play in transforming society. In a nutshell, you would understand why the show must always go on!

I have digressed; but not long the summer of Bhudaza’s career followed. He was in the studio recording his first album, which was super explosive.

Can we guess who was the man in the background assisting with production and arrangement of this album? It was none other than Frank Mooki Leepa. Sadly he died a few months before its release, but, in my opinion, his touch remained. For me, that touch was in how the spirit of Mochoko was infused into the album—I can’t really explain it, but I had this sense that the album had the same feel as one that Talima had hoped to record with the Germans, if life’s complexities and death had not gotten in the way.

Yes, life does suck and things never go according to plan, but again I digress. This post is about why I celebrate Frank Mooki Leepa and why I believe it is important to remember that his name deservedly should be counted among the heritage icons in South Africa during heritage month.

For me, it is worth mentioning that it is ultimately the words or lyrics that determine whether my connection to a song is superficial or not—unless, of course, we are talking about a pure instrumental. I can happily dance, for example, to Bhudaza’s song khera—a name for a potent Sesotho brew—but it doesn’t mean the song connects with my being. Contained in the broad message to caution us all of the dangers of alcohol (khera) is a gendered part that sits uneasily with me, captured by the following two lines:

Hey brother, life is yours, you better look after it.
Hey sister, come on let me change your life.

At first listen (or even read), the two lines can easily be dismissed, particularly because towards the end of the song, both sexes are called on with the same offer to be lead on to a path that will change their lives. Yeah … exalt to an end that recognises equality. But wait! What of the existence of the above seemingly innocent lines found in the beginning of the song? Surely they cannot be ignored. They perpetuate the notion that women lack their own agency: they need a man (like Bhudaza) to walk them to a path of redemption. In contrast, men simply need to be reminded of their own agency.

These two lines, without even getting into the politics of their positioning, sever any emotional connection I could have to the song. The idea that Bhudaza and Frank Leepa can be at the same conscience levels immediately becomes unimaginable to me. To just ward off the idea, my first urge is to listen to vukani— wake up. I am not talking about Sipho Hotstix Mabuse’s version, for his immediately turns the hot in his name to lukewarm. I am talking about Sankomota’s version with Frank Leepa leading the vocals (and, of course, involved in other background activities).

Vukani is a must listen to song for all who may have doubts about counting Frank Leepa among the heritage icons in South Africa. Every line in that song is conscience-raising and modelled around the necessity to end apartheid and all other forms of oppression.

My favourite lines, by far, are the ones that point out the contradictions of the struggle, which unfortunately, continue to exist to this day, almost 30 years of the recording of the song. We have people that talk about freedom yet have no problems killing their own brothers. Just as we have people ready to shout “right on” but later refuse to move on with the agenda of building a just society.

The one line that absolutely takes the cake for me, which I shall not dare paraphrase is:

you go around screaming equality, but you paddle your own sister and destroy morality….no no no no no no no … vukani madoda …

For me, a proud feminist, this enhances by leaps and bounds Frank Leepa’s call for intersectionality. A call to recognise all forms of oppression. There is no denying or sweeping under the carpet the problem of patriarchal violence. A direct question is posed to the men fighting for a supposed life of dignity: how do you fight for freedom and equality when you see nothing wrong with beating or oppressing your women?

This question, I imagine, is asked in the spirit of “monna o tentsoa ts’ea ke bang”, a man is helped into his loin garment by other men. As such, I believe the intention was to actively initiate a dialogue that reminds and will continue to remind the men that equality is not a one narrow dimensional concept—otherwise why, for example, were the women willing to pledge their solidarity and support in the “struggle”?

For me, there is no doubt, therefore, that vukani embodies the kind of activism/politics that we should all align ourselves to. Singing or performing this song in the 80s was an obvious punishable political act. More so, because it was inevitably accompanied by a repertoire that included songs like woza, uhuru and house on fire.

Let’s pause for a moment. Can you possibly see why ordinary people would want to spring into action to bring about (positive) change in their lives from such a repertoire? If you can, then I hope you can also see why Frank Leepa qualifies as a musical heritage icon. With music as his medium, he made an effort to inspire people to blossom into being extraordinary: his lyrics encouraged them to act and deal with the contradictions that exist in their everyday struggles so that ours can begin to be a better world.

What is more, beyond the grave his work continues to inspire. It springs one from the doldrums when winter makes a sudden appearance in the emotional side of life. Or, at least, it does for me. Hence, my willingness to spring in celebration of his memory, heritage and the vukani or awakening season itself, where singing comes all so naturally to creation!

2013 — A year of tribute

I awake from my slumber. Awaken by an article in the entertainment section of the last edition of City Press. A well deserved tribute paid to one of “Lesotho’s finest music export”, Tsepo Tshola.

The tribute in the traditional paper version starts with the “quintessence of Tsepo Tshola” captured through the lens of the photographer – a very gifted photographer, may I add. So gifted that I really had to pause and immerse myself in the sectional cover before I could proceed to page 6 and 7 for the written tribute by Lesley Mofokeng.

For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed the tribute. The only thing that actually didn’t sit well with me was having Frank Leepa parenthesised. My reaction was: “really Lesley? You are that guy?!” (The guy who puts in parenthesis Frank Mooki Leepa – the man who has written some of the most beautiful lyrics that speak to the core of my being.)

But I have digressed, so let me quickly get to the point I truly want to make. In paying tribute to Tsepo Mobu Tsola — a tribute he rightfully deserves — Lesley allowed me to think deeply (or differently) about 2013.

For me, 2013 was but going to be a do-or-die year. And in terms of what to do, all I could do is work, work and work at finishing my thesis. But what’s work without taking a little time to pay tribute to people, things, and ideas that are dear?

I mean, how could I have allowed myself to have such narrow view of 2013? The year in which a movie that pays tribute to King Moshoeshoe I will be premiered. The year of celebrating 50 years of the coming together of African states (under OAU) and the birth of His Majesty King Letsie III. The year which, as I see it, provides an opportunity to celebrate both death and life – and other binaries that may exist — for if, say, you look through the prism of Sankomota, this is the year that marks 10 years of the passing of Frank and 60 years of living for Tsepo. How profound is that? Again, I ask: how could I have possibly had such a narrow view of 2013, when it clearly seems to be a year of tribute?!

Race Matter in Disposable Hero

Not so long ago I wrote a post on Disposable Hero. However, in reviewing the song, I avoided entering the ‘race dimension’. On the one hand, even though I love the song so much, it really does a number on me emotionally. On the other hand, because articulating the ‘thinking’ employed by Frank Leepa in crafting this dimension is not necessarily an easy task.

Notwithstanding the above, I shall dare myself into entering this dimension. But before I start, perhaps I should mention that a play by David Mamet titled Race is to ‘blame’ for this self-daring exercise. Race was one of those productions that I recommended to all (and sundry) during the past Grahamstown National Arts Festival. It is an intricate piece that deals intelligently with prejudice and bigotry that stem (in as far as the storyline is concerned) from a potentially racially-charged criminal case: a rape of a black woman — possibly involved in the trick turning business — by a rich white married man.

In my opinion, both the play and the song carry the message: ‘race matters are not simple matters’ and/or ‘race is a nest of prejudice’. The only difference, again in my opinion, is that David Mamet in his writing was overt while Frank Leepa was subtle to the point that one may be forgiven for assuming that his composition lacks the message. In fact, I would argue that the only clue to the existence of this message lies with how Tšepo Tšola sings the line “they must be mad”: he is deep, emphatic and very purposeful in his delivery. (You really get a sense that he wants you, the listener, to appreciate that his powerful voice is a mere instrument or medium that shouldn’t distract one from engaging with what is being communicated.)

Basically, as Tšepo Tšola sings that line, curiosity builds up about the identity of the mad men. But as something to expect from Frank Leepa’s compositions, the ‘riddle’ is left for the listener to decode. My decoding led me to the conclusion that Frank Leepa was referring to a category of people that deserve the label racist. This deduction was made by tracking back to the part:

On the morning news, on television;
The big shots down split — split down in the middle.
[The Messiah-healer …]
So, who is going to be first on the plane?
They must be mad!

Aside, of course, from making note of the fact that television was still a novelty, I realised that a few things can be said in unpacking the above quoted lyrics. Fundamentally, we are reminded that we cannot make sweeping statements about a group of people. There was a split: the big shots — who happened to be all white men — didn’t all agree with the idea that, after fighting as brothers with black men, it was fair for them to be transported last. These few good men understood deeply what made the war, which had just ended, respectable. They understood that domination, of any kind, of one being by another is not fair or morally acceptable.

Unfortunately, because the good men in the big shots league were few, the outcome of the split favoured the wishes of the majority. Frank Leepa makes no direct mention of this fact; but very skillfully, he does put into perspective why an honourable man, a disposable hero (like his father), was disillusioned by the outcome. Disillusioned by the blindness of the majority to see injustice when it is directed to others. After a bloody war, how could they possibly fail to see the inherent injustice perpetuated by their ‘vote‘?!

Disposable Hero

Disposable hero is one of my favourite Sankomota’s songs, albeit I try not to listen to it a lot. It is melancholic yet very enjoyable. Like a pendulum, it causes my emotions to swing from one extreme end to another: from wanting to seriously weep for days for humanity to deliriously wanting to jump up and down with no care in the world.

The song is a special tribute to a soldier who fought in World War II — a relation of Frank Leepa. Of course, this fact is not explicit in the song. I imagine because the grand idea in telling the story of this one soldier, is to acknowledge all other soldiers including those who fought other wars and/or belong(ed) to liberation armies.

The song, as aptly captured by its title, is about the dispensability of soldiers when it comes to fighting any war. As bravely suggested in the song, soldiers go to war as disposable heroes or mere pawns that may or may not be crowned. Thus, whether driven by patriotism or conviction, soldiers go to war ready to make the ultimate sacrifice: to die fighting. Unfortunately, as also suggested in the song, this doesn’t preclude the possibility of “silly jokes” being made at their expense by superiors who attend “parties with fat English ladies” or “drink whiskey all day long”.

Listening to some of these statements from the powerful and magnificent voice of Tšepo Tšola has an extremely sobering effect: the very kind that makes me want to weep for humanity. More so, when I get reminded in the song that there is a mother (or a loved one) who is staring at “faded photographs on the wall”; presumably waiting and praying for one of two things: the war to end or their beloved to return home safely.

Despite the apparent undertones of melancholy, I still find the song to be enjoyable. In my opinion, what makes it enjoyable is the gentle tempo that holds one’s feet more or less rooted to the floor until towards the end when Tšepo Tšola commands to be listened to; completely and totally unaware of how captivating and powerful his voice is. This very unawareness drives me into a frenzy that forces me to euphorically chant the chorus to the very last beat.

Alas, once the chanting ends, I wonder about my own morality as I will myself to swing to a restful place emotionally. And shameful as this may sound, this takes pushing away thoughts of disposable heroes in our midst, living “disillusioned” lives as “broken souls … with backs turned against the wall”!

Frankly in Awe

When I desire a downtime with some hint of enjoyable intellectual stimulation I listen to Sankomota. I started this ritual not so long ago while feeling a bit homesick. And I continue with it because I am on a very private quest to truly appreciate and/or understand Frank Leepa.

Baholoane (elders) have always declared that he was a (musical) genius, but the ‘ageist’ in me took the declaration with a pinch of salt. I believed he was good but thought the use of genius was a stretch; precisely because baholoane, true to their nature, weren’t keen to explain/justify/defend their declaration.

Now, here I am; ready to read from the same page as baholoane – or rather, sing the same tune with them! How and when did I get to this place? This is rhetorical; destiny has beckoned me to where I am. The question is: can I differentiate myself from baholoane and provide an explanation, however flawed, of why I think Frank Leepa is a genius?

For me, his genius lies in how he imbues latent messages into his (or more accurately Sankomota’s) songs. I think it is absolutely awe-inspiring. Listening to a song like Obe you find melody and lyrical depth encapsulated by humour, wit, sarcasm, irony and whatever else you can think of. Of course, this all depends on interpretation!

Obe: Ode of note

Obe for those who may not know is based partly on J.P. Mohapeloa’s literary works. Obe is a beast that a girl meets for the first time after entering married life. The first part of the song is about describing this beast from the girl’s perspective. It is also about her reaction and the response of the knowing adults. The second part of the song is a plea to humanity, requesting a change for the better. This plea is very powerful, in part because of the wonderfully heavy voice making it: Tšepo Tšola’s voice!

Distinguishing the parts is trivial: the first part is in Sesotho while the second is in English. The triviality, in a small way, contributes to Frank’s genius. What spells it for me (in a big way) is how he fused the two parts together. I personally give him credit on two main counts:

  1. For the instrumentals that transition the listener from one part to the next. For me, these instrumentals create an exceptional bridge that allows me to pause and soak in the sounds from different musical instruments, float with each note, but still remain grounded in the harmony of sounds created in concert of each other.
  2. For the crafting of the overall message, which can simply and elegantly be reduced to: “Make love not war”! Once you understand what each part is about, the clue for making the reduction (or rather deduction) lies in the second part of the song. Specifically, it is embedded in the following words (or at least based on my interpretation): “You are robbing each other. You are killing each other. […]. There must be some way to bring this change. Why don’t you reach out and touch somebody’s hand?

Malala Pipe: Dream of hope

In Obe, Frank is a force in the background. To appreciate his genius/talent both in the background and foreground, I believe no song does it better than Malala Pipe. Beyond writing and working on the arrangement of the song, in its performance he leads in every sense of the word. The guitar, his instrument of choice, dominates and he, not Tšepo Tšola, leads the vocals.

What makes Malala Pipe an absolute work of art is its simplicity. The message of the song is simple yet profound. Hearing the unmistakable voice of Tšepo trail behind gently and powerfully in the background enhances the message even further. Conviction as a word and emotion get personified through Frank’s voice. In my mind, this allows one to see Frank Mooki Leepa in a whole new light that also cements his calling in life.

Apart from getting to enjoy the authentic voice of Frank in Malala Pipe, there is a layer of depth for those of us who expect a little hidden treasure from his songs. For me, the treasure is buried in the chorus: “Umalala, Malala pipe; Umalala, Malala pipe no more”. This roughly translates to “you sleep in the trenches; you sleep in the trenches no more”. An in-context translation yields an interpretation suitable to satisfy two kinds of people: those whose luck has run out entirely and those with lady luck still on their side but have not yet self-actualised.

I certainly admit that for those in the latter group, to get an appropriate interpretation, the chorus may need to be unpacked a bit. Mainly in that every individual has to be connected to a pipe laid down as a conduit to channel God’s love and purpose for each one of us. But unlike ordinary pipes, we need to self-actualise, hence the statement “Malala Pipe no more“. I could attempt to justify how I got to this interpretation, but I think the lyrics of the song say it all – and perhaps, in a small way, also reflect why I am frankly in awe of the late Frank Mooki Leepa:

I believe
you were born for greatness
the light in your eyes
is a spark of God
I believe oh, oh,
a child is born with a heart of gold

Umalala, Malala pipe
Umalala, Malala pipe no more

I believe
man was born for greatness
and the light in his eye is a spark of God
I believe oh, oh,
Oh oh, a child is born,
with a heart,
a heart of gold

Umalala, Malala pipe
Umalala, Malala pipe no more

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