I regret to start this way. No sooner had I struggled to find a way to say goodbye to Mabi Thobejane and Steve Kekana, when South African music lost singer and songwriter Tsepo Tshola.
These three masters of the nation’s musical soul were famous, but not celebrities. Because they never acted like that. Complex personalities and talents, they all had that earthly joviality that always made them accessible and “simple” in the respectful way South Africans use the adjective.
I remember in 1978, during one of my many research tours in Lesotho, a mountainous kingdom surrounded by South Africa, I hung out with the brilliant guitarist and composer Frank Leepa, the drummers Moss Nkofo and the one and only Black Jesus (walking around the grass) and Tsepo, in an old dilapidated storefront opposite Maseru Market.
They were Uhuru Band at the time, and washed away by the success of their first hit, soberly titled Africa. The song only praises and celebrates the mother continent, but South Africa’s apartheid regime was so repressive that the group was banned from performing there. Their manager, Peter Schneider, thought about what to do. Mix up the staff a bit and change their names, I shrugged. And that’s how they finally reappeared as Sankomota – Lesotho’s most famous afro-fusion pop ensemble.
Tsepo would continue to bridge the gap between Lesotho and South Africa at a time of political turmoil. What guided his life and his music would be his fierce sense of belonging to the two nations as one.
He was born in 1953 in the Berea district of western Lesotho, in the quaint “one-street” town of Teyateyaneng or TY. Tsepo, however, had other inspirations for his musical vocation than the night dances at TY’s famous Blue Mountain Inn.
His father Mokoteli was a pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Reverend Tshola and his wife MaLimpho were mainstays of the Vertical 8 double vocal quartet. Tsepo has always highlighted this church as his musical alma mater, with its liturgical roots in Africa. -American hymnody (singing or composing hymns).
By 1970 he had already joined Leepa, and they would form Uhuru in 1975. By the late 1970s, now under the name Sankomota, they formed the house group of the Victoria Hotel in Maseru, entertaining luminaries such as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, exiled from South Africa by their politics.
1983 was their defining year, with South African producer Lloyd Ross of Shifty Records recording their debut album, Sankomota, and the release of the successful Leepa composition It is raining. With Masekela, Tsepo toured southern Africa and ventured to London, where the rest of Sankomota joined him in 1985.
Returning from London with the approach of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of the white minority regime, Tsepo then joined Masekela on his return to his epoch. Sekunjalo toured South Africa in 1991. Masekela was stunned by the massive adulation with which he was greeted by an audience (including me) that they feared they had forgotten.
Read more: The Village Pope is dead: memory of Tsepo Tshola, the musical giant of Lesotho
Tsepo seized the opportunity to begin what would be his legendary solo career, one that would last until his heartbreaking departure on July 15, 2021. Collaborating and directing vocals to countless leading artists and ensembles, his gritty baritone “Louis Armstrong ”would bring gospel, traditional and pop songs to Sesotho and under the name The Village Pope.
The interweaving of inner spirit, life and art in Tsepo Tshola’s odyssey cannot be overemphasized. Let me illustrate this through the songs.
Tsepo was surprisingly prolific and continued to compose, record and perform almost until his death. From this monumental catalog, however, a few will certainly be played out as long as the turbulent and bubbling decades that preceded and followed the turn of the 21st century are remembered. These include one of the earlier works, Dad, from Sankomota’s album Write on the wall (1989).
In a religious tone, as ultimately with all of Tsepo’s music, the song includes a solo verse as much intoned in prayer as sung in his hoarse voice:
You’re waiting for your name to be called (What do you say?) Your body is shaking in disbelief (Tell us more)…
In 1994, a newly democratic South Africa saw the release of Tsepo’s signature album, The village pope, the one who gave him forever his name of iconic pastor of South African pop.
Most of the tributes that have poured in in the press and on social media have included this flippant and iconoclastic alias. However, this is not at all an attempt at self-congratulation or promotion, nor a reference to his sometimes harshly paternalistic remonstrances of his musicians in rehearsal and recording. Rather, it is an honorary title proclaiming his unwavering commitment to his loved ones; his home in Lesotho, his close friends and family, his binational identity.
Avoiding the traps of fame and superficial, transactional relationships, Tsepo was a devoted husband who never recovered from his wife’s death in 1984. He never remarried, but stayed, as many will sigh. Patriarchs Mosotho, “the father of everyone”. He was back in Teyateyaneng for a family funeral when he fell ill with COVID-19 and died.
Other songs of particular importance include Holokile (Very good) from 1994, based on a hymn and practically a hymn in itself. Indeed, Tsepo’s style has often been referred to as “traditional gospel,” but it is certainly not the right music store trash can.
Tsepo’s style comes from a blend of the afro-pop fusion of “black consciousness” groups such as Sakhile, Stimela, and of course Frank Leepa’s Sankomota in the 1980s, and his own hymnodic upbringing. This is why his songs are more inspiring than festive, and more “step and sway” than dancing. These are ballads to uplift an African nation.
Stop the war, from 1995, is not at all religious tune, but an optimistic pop injunction to South Africans not to fight one another for the spoils of victory over apartheid. During the looting and insurrection that took place on the very day of his death, Stop the war was the song heard on radio stations nationwide.
Finally, there is his catchy and most urban song (no gospel here), Akubutle (Don’t Ask), from 2003, one that never fails to get listeners to their feet in a restaurant, club or party.
BT, as Bra Tsepo was popularly known, we can’t blame you for leaving us, but how are we going to get through all of this without you? Akubutle.