The iconic, rasping voice of Tšepo Tshola is silent, forever. This unmistakable and imposing voice of Tshola has joined the choir of his ancestors. While there will be no poems, songs and street processions in honour of one of Lesotho’s iconic figures, Tshola’s music remains a testament of his legend. He has gone the way of his ancestors and the sound of his voice mute.
Tšepo Tshola – the leading voice of Sankomota was an imposing, confident figure who always presented himself with pomp and circumstance that matched his voice and credentials in the show business. After a rapture from Sankomota, there was no doubt that Tšepo Tshola will re-fashion himself as a solo artist with a unique and outstanding voice that left an indelible mark on the musical landscape of the sub-continent.
Son of a preacher, Tšepo Tshola’s career was shaped by his involvement in church music. Those who know his father, say that Tšepo Tshola was a minnow in comparison to his father. This is not surprising because Basotho are a nation of lyricists and singers. The imagination of many Basotho is lyrical – from ditshomo, to dithoko and ditsamaya-naha. Tšepo Tshola borrowed liberally from this tradition of Basotho lyricism.
He started his career with Leribe Blue Diamonds. Blue Diamonds covered music of the well-known Motown musicians. Gradually they started composing their own work. Then fate took over. Frank Leepa – founder of Uhuru/Sankomota and the towering musical figure in music – had matches, but no cigarette. Tšepo Tshola had cigarette but no matches. Right there outside one of the cafes in Maseru, they sparked more than their cigarettes. They started talking about working together as Tšepo Tshola had always wanted to join Frank Leepa’s Uhuru (later Sankomota). And so the legend of Tšepo Tshola as the leading voice of Sankomota was born. Frank Leepa’s AntiAntiques/Uhuru/Sankomota was already an established outfit in Lesotho at this time and every musician worth their salt in Lesotho and South Africa wanted to sing or play for Uhuru/Sankomota. It was in Sankomota that Tšepo Tshola raised the star of the young, but important band to new heights.
The hymnal cadence of Tšepo Tshola is clear, and it is perhaps his signature. His approach to music was not coy, but he sang as if it was his second nature. It was this incomparable voice and performative exhibitionism of Tšepo Tshola that made him synonymous with Sankomota – so much so that people thought he was Sankomota himself – completely overshadowing the brilliant writing of Sankomota founder and leader, Frank Leepa. But it was his combination with the equally indefatigable Nana ‘Coyote’ Motijoane that brought the sound of Tšepo Tshola and Sankomota full circle. They complimented each other in ways that very few musicians of their epoch did. And this was a fulfilment of Frank Leepa’s life-long dream of building ‘the best band ever’. And Tšepo Tshola brought this dream full circle.
When Sankomota recorded its first self-titled album, Sankomota, Tšepo Tshola was touring with Hugh Masekela, ending up in London, singing Frank Leepa’s composition of Sekunjalo. When he eventually got hold of the tape of this self-titled album, Tšepo Tshola must have been excited and regretful that he was not present for this unprecedent album – apparently the first commercial album recorded in Lesotho. Tshola took this tape to yet another legendary musician, Julian Bahula (formerly with Philip Tabane’s Malombo) who was then based in the UK. In no time, Sankomota was touring Europe, playing cafes, stadia and private gigs on the invitation of Julian Bahula. They recorded no less than two albums in the UK, Germany and some mastering in Belgium if memory serves.
While Tšepo Tshola had never started a band himself, he made every band that he joined shine beyond imagination. He brought his showmanship and star quality to every band, every performance and every song. He had a natural ability to take even the most mundane song and make it sound heavenly. His singing was effortless, yet meteorically impressive with every rendition.
After their acrimonious split as Sankomota, Tšepo Tshola fashioned himself anew and the legend of The Village Pope emerged. It was in the album (that also became his unofficial stage name), The Village Pope (CCP, 2001) that Tšepo Tshola became his own man – in complete control of the vision and sound of his music. In 2001, Tšepo Tshola recorded his The Village Pope and the name stuck. In his Madambadamba, he laments the loss of cattle, the broken family structure, and the lack of peace in the country. Ho Lokile is perhaps one of Tshola’s most popular songs; the one that established him as a soloist of impeccable stature. It is one of those songs that will remain etched in the memory of many South Africans – not only because it is a popular solemn song that resides in the public domain, but because Tšepo Tshola signed it with his emblematic voice, style and the haunting melody of the accompanying music. It also happened at a crucial time in Tšepo Tshola’s life – after the passing of his wife. Shine your Light is an upbeat tune that lightens the whole album and brings color to the album. It is a ballad for ‘the love of my life’ – and it is a love song sang from the heart and written with such poetry that rises above the ordinary.
As a solo artist, his music was written by Sankomota’s Frank Leepa, Hugh Masekela, Kabomo Vilakazi, Ezbie Moilwa, Zwai bala and Khaya Mahlangu among others. And he did justice to all of these compositions ensuring that his flair is applied to every song. Outside of this, Tšepo Tshola collaborated with many artists – young and old. His collaboration with the talented Thandiswa Mazwai in Ndilinde is memorable. In a typical Sankomotaesque scheme, Mazwai brings isiXhosa to the song and Tshola brings Sesotho traditional cadence and hymnalism to the song – and the song is stratospheric.
In Ask Me (CCP, 2010), Tšepo Tshola explores spirituality and a bit of gospel music. He goes back to his Christian, choral origins of a preacher’s son. He re-does popular African spirituals – Lekunutu le Morena, Oa Nkalosa, Moloki Oa Ka and others. This is an important album because it reconnects Tšepo Tshola to his original source of church inspired song-making.
It is New Dawn (Icon Group/CCA, 2003) that stands as a testament to Tshola’s brilliance as a vocalist. His rendition of the popular Basotho traditional song Nonyana (sung when women are till the fields) brings a new vitality and a certain vivacity that can only be carried by a voice such as that of Tšepo Tshola. Kithi Githi is written by Frank Leepa and it has signature all over it – it is a mix of musical styles and languages. It is also laden with metaphor, symbolism and meaning:
You gonna die/
They gonna stir fry your brain/
You gonna die/
They gonna blow dry your face/
Indlala is a typical Hugh Masekela song, and it also brings the vocal mastery of Tšepo Tshola to its full brightness. While Joala uses Sesotho instrumentation, cadence, and rhythm. It is another popular mokorotlo song that is in the public domain that is given a new, fresh energy by the brilliance of Tšepo Tshola.
Tšepo Tshola was born under a bright star, on August 15, 1953 in TY, or Teyateyaneng in Lesotho. Death – that terrible transition to the world of our ancestors – visited him at only 68 years old. It has been nearly half a century of music-making for the son of a preacher man who became a musical icon of his nation and a superstar on every stage that he performed on. When I last spoke to him, he was prepared and willing to have his biography written; but that project is now for posterity.
In the end, it is clear that Tšepo Tshola was the gold standard of his musical age. His voice is a reminder of the brilliance of an epoch that just ended. His energetic performances are unforgettable. His personal pomp and musical circumstance are also unparalleled. The golden age of outstanding music that originates from Lesotho has come to a sad end with the eternal silence of Tšepo Tshola’s voice. Despite his faults and vices – for all men have theirs – Tšepo Tshola deserves to be remembered for his music and his indelible contribution to the history of his nation and the body of music in southern Africa. So how shall we remember Tšepo Tshola? I think he must be remembered as a musician-poet who fused his Sesotho poetics with his incredible, unforgettable rasping voice and music that will stand the test of time.