The Village Pope hits a high note
Lesley Mofokeng travels to Lesotho to shoot the breeze with Tsepo Tshola, the Mountain Kingdom’s finest music export
‘I’m too f**ked up to be serious!” Tsepo Tshola roars with his signature boisterous laugh as he tucks into his pea soup.
He has just got off the phone with a government aide and the Lesotho prime minister’s name came up.
I eavesdrop that the two will be meeting for a chill session later in the day.
We are sitting in the posh surrounds of Lesotho Sun, an exquisite collection of West African masks painted white above our heads.
It’s lunchtime and the restaurant is buzzing.
This is Tshola’s back yard.
The Village Pope is in his village.
And it soon becomes clear that the political bourgeoise of Lesotho are his friends, hence my question about running for political office and the answer that opens our conversation.
Tshola is a rock star.
He swears like a sailor, laughs heartily and doesn’t give a f**k.
When you turn 60 in eight months and have a music career that spans over four decades, you can take such liberties.
Somehow he lives up to the words of English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton that “the vulgar man is always the most distinguished, for the very desire to be distinguished is vulgar”.
He is a raconteur and has time to regale an eager ear with tall tales and, boy, was I enthralled.
Tshola is like the family’s favourite uncle. He’s alive with energy.
Even his gait tells of a man with a lot of get-up-and-go. Even when he feigns modesty, he doesn’t lose his appeal.
We sit, sunken in the comfort of the hotel’s suede chairs, over our plates.
He settles for pea soup and, later, carrots, spinach, roast potatoes and some pasta.
Staying away from meat and already feeling lighter, he says.
He is Lesotho’s finest music export.
As the front man of Sankomota (along with the late Frank Leepa), his gravelly voice is a soundtrack of many generations who sang along and danced to their tunes.
Their playlist features classics such as Now or Never, Bakubeletsa, Papa, Confusion and Pain, Stop The War, Fruits of Your Toil and the Sesotho folk song Obe.
Their take of hymns such as When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder and Ho Lokile stamped them as great exponents of Afro-jazz and Afro-pop.
Tshola as a solo act recorded several duets.
But upper most is his studio time with Brenda Fassie.
In the aftermath of the Boipatong Massacre of 1992, where 40 people were killed and many more maimed in what was reportedly clashes between the ANC and IFP, the duo released a tribute song called Boipatong.
Tshola suddenly jumps into animation. Eyes pop and he frowns. “I remember that moment vividly,” he leaps in the air.
“I got a call driving from Midrand and she said ‘Godfather where are you?’ and I said, ‘MaBrrr what the hell is going on’.
‘I’m in the studio, please come’, she said. ‘Where?’ ‘Downtown’. I was on the road there.
“I got in there. Brenda was going crazy. I listened to the music. ‘Give me pen and paper’, I asked.
And then I started writing. What a session! Memorable.
It is one of the greatest, spontaneous duets that came out more perfect than perfect can ever be in my career after 43 years.
“That special moment … The joy on that baby’s face? The fulfilment listening to this song after we sing it? The tears in our eyes can never ever be captured again, but will stick in my mind for as long as I live.
“Oh Brenda Fassie! Go and listen to that song again. Listen to the interjection, the interludes, the harmony. Ahhh, Brenda Fassie. She was magic.”
He still makes this magic of music. We’re here in the Mountain Kingdom to talk about his latest album, titled The Quintessence of Tsepo Tshola.
He says it took some convincing for him to accept the name of the album.
“I fought against the title like a motherf**ker. I thought these boys were being ridiculous. But I had to slow down and try to see what they are talking about.
“It’s the kind of album that is global. The most calm Tsepo Tshola, at times too calm for comfort. For me it’s Tsepo Tshola through the eyes of the youth, which I believe makes me a better father. It humbled me.”
His favourite track, he admits, is the R&B love song My Everything.
“(Producer) Mpumi Dhlamini said he’d never heard me sing a love song. I said I didn’t know what to say in a love song and he said he’d write me one. I love it. It’s like a fresh thing. Even the voicing is different from the normal Tsepo.”
The previous weekend, Tshola was honoured by the government at the Lesotho Tourism Festival for putting the landlocked country on the world music map.
Beaming with pride, Tshola says it was a special moment.
“Walking around there were T-shirts saying ‘Honouring Our Own, Tsepo Tshola’. T-shirts all over the f**king place, man! I don’t even have one. I don’t know what happened to them. But it was a beautiful thing.
“The gift the government gave me is a tour of England. I have to work out dates in which I will travel. It’s going to be a show, but I want to make it bigger than just one performance.”
With lunch out of the way, the party moves north of the capital to Teyateyaneng.
In his imposing black Range Rover, Tshola leads the way through the meandering and scenic route.
The majestic mountains of Lesotho are a wonder of nature.
The villages and small towns that dot the landscape add a romantic feel to the land of Moshoeshoe, steeped heavily in the beauty of its language, culture and customs.
About 40km later, we find ourselves in the chaos of the town also known as T.Y.
The streets are alive with music blaring from speakers, people hustling and bustling in the town centre.
I spot a shop called Liphenting Tse Kholo (Big Panties). I shudder to think what they sell in there.
We finally get to the yard with two houses.
Tshola’s voice is a notch down and I suspect the swearing that has had me in stitches the whole morning will ease up.
This is holy ground.
“It’s where I grew up as a young man. A place where you marvel at the trees you planted and you see them grown.
The tranquility of home is special.
“Behind the two houses is a two-roomed house where I was born. I have no intention of breaking it down. I want to build it up again.”
The cooing dove and chirping birds punctuate our chatter.
This peace is disturbed by the intrusive and loud roaring construction trucks and hooting taxis on the main road into town.
And then wafting through the air are the melodic voices of the youth choir practising outside the high-roofed Catholic church opposite the Tshola household.
A few metres from where we sit are the graves of Tshola’s grandfather, father, mother, wife and niece.
This is holy ground.
I put cap on my lap as a sign of respect.
I find myself humming his version of the hymn Ho Lokile, which he dedicated to his late wife.
And now here we are looking at her granite tombstone. Surreal.
To the right of the family’s resting place are peaches and plum trees that are heavy with fruit, ripe for the picking.
I want to ask if I can pluck some, but I quickly curb my enthusiasm and focus on the job at hand.
How has life been like since your last album?
“It’s been a roller coaster. There are times when things are really bad and you go and knock on your company’s doors to find out if you have any royalties. If not, you ask for an advance just to get by,” he says seriously.
“It’s my greatest wish to see my legacy while I’m still alive. I’m looking forward to celebrating 60 years of my good life. I’d like to walk on Tsepo Tshola Street, you know what I’m saying?”
Tshola’s battle with addiction has also been well documented. I ask if he’s clean.
“All I can say is that it’s a day-to-day war. It’s not anything you can boldly say ‘I’m out of all of this’. I still touch a glass of wine or whisky.
“The thing you have to fight is going back to being addicted to these hard drugs. It’s an everlasting war.”
His choice of company also helps.
“I try to avoid people who are still using drugs. I guess I have been lucky because most of those people have drifted away. The lifestyle created by time, you may call it old age, keeps you away from unnecessary things.”
He reflects on his life with a smirk on his face.
“I’ve done some amazing things. I was the first person to launch an album at Bop Studios with Jonathan Proctor. There are so many things I pioneered, I may not remember them by their own events.”
Now based in the land of his fathers, Tshola says he’s “hooking up” with young people to explore their talents and instil discipline to protect the industry and its dignity.
“I’m not a teacher, don’t have the skills to teach, but I do the power to edify.”
Finally, after a five-hour drive from Jozi to Maseru and spending six more hours with this giant, we raid the peaches and plum trees for padkos. It’s time to go …
» The Quintessence of Tsepo Tshola is in stores nationwide