For well over five years, Lesotho has harboured a dirty little secret which has gone by largely ignored by mainstream media and music critics worldwide. A war to shame the East/West coast ‘beef’ of the mid-nineties has been raging, claiming more than a hundred lives in its wake. Seakhi and Terene, two factions with humble roots as burial societies dedicated to providing decent and affordable funerals for the country’s traditional music artists, were embroiled in a bitter battle which seemed to have no end. How these well-meaning initiatives devolved into a competitive tour de force (involving disses on traditional music albums), before descending into all-out war and cold-blooded murder is not clear – jealousy perhaps? – but the consequences called for drastic measures.
In some instances, people would get shot at while attending the funeral of one whose life had been claimed in the line of battle; two radio personalities who championed the music (invariably referred to as Famo or ‘mino oa koriana – accordion music) were caught in the cross-fire; many women and children have been left without a father figure because of the violence.
In 2012, Lesotho ushered in a new dispensation in the form of a new coalition government. A peaceful transition it was, yet one that, by and large, managed to escape the radar of the major media outlets (apart from the Daily Maveric, one of which gave the elections their usual in-depth treatment). With the new government came new challenges, and top of the agenda was to tackle the gang violence problem.
As the year drew to a close, a task team which had been set up to mediate between the two factions had managed to engage the leaders in a round-table discussion; first individually, then as a collective. To celebrate the subsequent ceasefire, a concert was organised at the National Stadium in Maseru. On the bill were, among others, Mants’a, Fatere, and Sefako sa Menoaneng. Most notably, however, was a pairing which, merely six months before, would have resulted in an all-out war of not only words, but actual guns that kill. Lekase, de facto leader of the Seakhi camp, and Chakela who heads the Terene camp, would be sharing the stage.
I discovered this while onboard a taxi headed towards Maseru. Adrenaline started sifting through my veins in concert with a visceral desire to break the public decency laws. However, common sense prevailed as I tweeted to my source: “when is it?” The source replied that it was going to be right after Christmas day. The deal was sealed! My holidays would be spent listening to famo songs on cassette tapes in anticipation of the festival!
I arrived late, seven hours late to be precise. This move was planned from the on-set, for among all the things Lesotho may be known for (the only country surrounded by another, people perpetually dressed in blankets even in 30 degree-plus weather conditions – the list goes on), being on time definitely does not feature as our strongest point.
Stadiums, by their very nature, are designed to offer paltry seats whose sole purpose seems to be to offend as opposed to offering any notion of solace and comfort to one’s buttocks. After twenty minutes of feeling like sweetener in a bowl of sishebo, the MC announced that the event was going to start “anytime from now!” He then laid out the program: prayer, government representative’s speech, deputy prime minister’s speech (we are still a monarchy) and finally the performances. I had an inkling of how the first two were going to turn out: stuff about god, stuff about how thankful we are as a nation for this ceasefire, stuff about how hard a bunch of guys had worked – protocol stuff, inoffensive banter uttered mindlessly at an increasingly-restless audience. Not long into the MC’s diatribe, people started hurling insults, and then decided to stop.
By the time Fatere ascended the stage, only a handful of people hung around the periphery; the rest seemed content with being passive participants, some watching his performance through binoculars as though an invisible boundary prohibited active engagement. Three songs into his set, and with no notable increase in the gathering, he decided to call the on-lookers closer – a tried-and-tested trick, yet one that flew over the heads of those people whom he was addressing, bar from a few who came dragging their feet. Two songs later and it was all over. I found his music to be a bit confusing, too much going on at once; fine chord progressions and transitions, yes, but no central lyrical theme to hold the music together.
The legendary famo musician Mahosana a ka Phamong approached the stage like the senior figure he is, accordion comfortably rested on his chest while the audience cheered him on. The band launched into the first song, one which he later told me they “didn’t know the parts to, they just followed my lead.” Hard to tell judging from how well each part gelled into the other, accordion riding on the double-time pattern of the drums while the bassline rumbled beneath the organised chaos. Translated, the lyrics spoke to the warring factions’ prior thirst for blood, and ended up with a rallying call for peace “I heard good news, I heard bad news/ musicians are uniting/ murderers, your work is over.” Poignant words, vestiges of the good and the bad coexisting, wallowing in frictionless motion until good emerged victorious; life, struggle, and survival, all encompassed in a single song.
Famo musicians do not write their words down. Every performance is an exercise in the art of recalling past events, of relating them succinctly to the audience; of mastering narrative to the point where a seamless transition between events results in a coherent tale of whatever message the lyricist may wish to convey.
Lekase best exemplifies this trend of likheleke – wordsmiths. He favours a style of delivery known as masholu, where the lyricist steadily attacks the music without restraint, without a chorus, right until the song ends. And he is excellent at it, so excellent in fact that at different junctures he assumed different body positions – half-crouching like a marathon runner, and even seated down with mic in hand and nothing but the truth spewing forth from his lips.
The audience, now stretching a few rows back, listened attentively to his gospel while a troupe of dancers dressed elegantly in largely maroon-coloured blankets with a section of multi-coloured patterns and black t-shirts with the words “Ha se betsoe Seakhi” emblazoned on them encircled the performance area, raising their fighting sticks in lock-step to the music. Lekase found time in-between songs to address those in attendance; he spoke of nights spent in exile fearing for his life, of calls he received asking his camp to watch out for assassins from ‘the other side’. It felt surreal being in his presence, such a towering figure who clearly commands respect among his followers. He is like a one-man version of a Wu-Tang song, a sputnik firing off endless bars of free-thought to the masses, leading a sermon about peace, love, and forgiveness.
Chakela of the Terene camp arrived during Lekase’s performance. Once-exiled from his country of birth, he is reported to have received somewhat of a hero’s welcome upon his return. Today was just a microcosm of that day’s events, yet it provided insight into his ubiquitous stature in traditional music.
Over the next four hours, each artist transformed the audience into their little mannequins. The alcohol had taken effect, so everyone obliged. Mants’a got ambushed by the crowd, who then hoist him high above their shoulders and lifted him onto the stage; Chakela chanted a refrain from one of his many well-known songs, and the masses chanted it right back with ten times the vigour. At least for tonight, the north and southern districts were united; the two camps’ rallying calls: ‘Ha e tlale terene’ – let the train fill up, and ‘Ha se betsoe Seakhi’, somehow fit perfectly together. However, one could not help but wonder how long a government-mediated truce would last.
For such a momentous occasion, it is no sign of over-eagerness for one to have expected more than the few hundred people who showed up. In a 20, 000-seater venue such as the national stadium, at least three quarters should have been full. But alas, this is Lesotho, where evidently the hardcore fans are either too broke or too self-absorbed to put their money where their mouths are, and the cool kids are too shit-scared to even consider attending a traditional music event. “Letsa koriana eno”, they say, “play that accordion.” And so it goes, ‘til dawn sets and the birds start singing.
*All images © Hlompho Letsielo.