Best of 2012 | Solid Steelby Ts'eliso Monaheng / 04.01.2013
Originally published 05 July 2012
Sea Point is not only a sea-side Cape Town residential area known for its high concentration of Jewish and Nigerian residents, but also a riverside township in Maseru, Lesotho made infamous by knife gangs and rampant crime in the 80s and 90s. It is a ‘final frontier’ of sorts, barricaded to the West by the Caledon river which separates Lesotho from South Africa.
I am here to meet Kommanda Obbs in his four-roomed-flat-cum-recording-studio-cum-office. Upon entry, one is met with the sight of posters pasted on the right hand side of the wall, while two sofas facing each other, and covered by Lesotho’s flag, from the military rule era. An office desk, positioned to the right such that anyone who sits on it has their back to the posters, lends a sense of vastness to the space. Kommanda Obbs later tells me that it is to impress potential sponsors, adding that they should, “not think that all we do ke ho tsuba lizolo all day.”
We then head to his studio, a tiny space which nonetheless meets his sound-recording requirements. This is where he spends most of his days, working on projects for his Lithua-majoe accomplices, or running through a set-list for any of the numerous shows for which he is constantly getting booked.
I ask Obbs to explain to me the concept of ‘Lithua-majoe’.
From what I know, there is Sledge, the Maputsoe-based, ragga-influenced Sesotho toaster; Ntate Ntota Leraba, Mafeteng-based, and influenced a lot by (the traditional Sesotho music) Famo. Long-term collaborator Majuka also hails from Maputsoe, and is responsible for organising the Mokota-koti music festival, an annual event held on open ground on the outskirts of his hometown. It occurs the day after Christmas, and is reputed to be the only day when Maputsoe’s tsotsis put down their knives and attempt to get on with each other. Last year, despite incessant summer rains, Basotho from distant reaches of the country made their annual pilgrimage to witness musical performances by the likes of Kommanda Obbs, Ifani Himani and Red Button.
Underlying the Lithua-majoe crew is a concept called Ts’epe, which is, as Obbs puts it, “a movement which consists of emcees, producers, sound engineers, and people who share a similar vision.” Much like mineworkers travelling to the belly of the earth and shattering rocks using solid steel machinery in the quest for pure gold, Lithua-majoe (stone-breakers) use their own Ts’epe (steel) tools – music and art – to forge a new identity for themselves and their countrymen; an identity rooted in strong cultural aspects of Basotho, as well as a pan-African outlook on life.
I first met Obbs in 2005, and have watched with sustained interest as he went from a struggling artist to becoming one of Lesotho’s foremost hip hop musicians. This is due in large part to his debut offering, “Ts’epe”, a heavyweight compendium with beats and rhymes to match. By his own admission, the album has “really opened a lot of doors for me, and it’s really taking its time. As much as I was in a hurry initially, I have now got used to the pace. With patience, things do happen.”
The album covers themes ranging from jealousy, love, loss of cultural values, and the all-too-necessary braggadocio every now and then. Dense vocal arrangements interspersed with powerful metaphorical undertones and proverbs hint at a strong cultural awareness throughout its fourteen songs.
Lesotho does not have a ‘recording industry’ to speak of. This, and the long-standing issue of there being no musician’s rights organisation responsible for tasks such as collecting royalties from broadcasters (in the same vein as SAMRO), has been a thorny issue amongst Lesotho musicians. Kommanda Obbs is part of the new school of business-savvy musos paving the way for such inanities to be rectified. As he tells me: “no matter how many times your songs receive spins on local radio stations, you are not going to get compensated monetarily.” He reckons that his and others’ efforts are not in vain, adding “we might not be the guys who benefit the most, but I’m sure the next generation of musicians is going to reap the rewards. So we’re getting somewhere.”
Kommanda Obbs’ strategy to sustain himself – and his crew in the long-run, hopefully– is simple: “I’m business-minded, and do not expect to live off of performances alone. I’ve teamed up with people who share a common vision, and we are now on the verge of establishing a record label. That’s where our money’s at: organising events, promoting artists, and getting endorsements.” And on those endorsements they’ve just landed a three-month deal with a Lesotho-based mobile phone operator. Obbs tails off the discussion by observing that, “artists need to be business-minded about the entertainment industry at large, not just the ‘performance’ part of it.”
Ts’epe, the concept, seems to be centred around a singular vision, and Kommanda Obbs serves as the poster-child as well as chief architect of that vision in Lesotho. Entire civilizations have crumbled due to their leaders’ insistence on sticking to the ultimate goal, regardless of challenges that may ensue. So I ask him about how he manages to keep the ship from sinking. “I share a lot, and really believe in the power of sharing. I believe in such things as karma – as far-fetched as that may sound. I also read books to check for which strategies work, and which ones don’t. Theoretically, they are fairly simple concepts, but it gets really tough when putting them into practice with an entire team of people,” he says, before adding: “to be a team player is not easy!”
The general elections held in Lesotho this year heralded a new political dispensation, a unity government, as well as a palpable sense of vigour amongst its citizens. The previous administration had all but drained the sense of pride in most Basotho through rampant corruption, cronyism, and blatant nepotism. But Lesotho is also a country deeply troubled by wide-ranging domestic issues – dropping rates of mortality and a slow rate of economic growth, notwithstanding. In a sense, the country provides the perfect backdrop to carve a new sense of self which everyone can be proud of. Kommanda Obbs, and those of his ilk, are achieving just that. These are people who reference Sankara and Fela Kuti. This is the type which sees in hip hop a kinship with their own traditional music, Famo. And as Obbs puts it: “Heads know that the greatest artist, according to me, is Famole. I have learnt a lot from predecessors such as him, Ts’epo Ts’ola, and others.”
Then there is the small matter of Tumi Molekane picking him as part of his pan-African collaborative project entitled Afrique. “He saw one of my videos on Youtube, and decided to reach out,” explains Obbs, clearly still elated from the experience. What followed was a back-and-forth process which finally led to Tumi and his film crew coming over to Maseru in order to meet up. “They arrived during one of my performances, and captured that. From there, we went to my folks’ house in Maputsoe, and the following day we went to Bela-bela (where the ‘Ts’epe’ video was shot).”The activities culminated in a visit to the village of Ha Mashapa where lihoba (the traditional dancers featured in the same video) provided company as well as entertainment for the entire crew.
There is no doubt that Kommanda Obbs is the staunchest of hip hop heads. His commitment to the craft, coupled with a sharp eye for what is possible through art, places him miles ahead of his contemporaries. Whether or not his vision shall transcend borders, both physical and cultural, is a question best left to time. On my way out, he offers offers this nugget: “It’s time the world knows about Kommanda Obbs and the crew!”