NewsDay (Zimbabwe)

Spirit, life and art of Tsepo Tshola, pastor of South African pop

- David Coplan • David Coplan is a professor of Emeritus, Social Anthropolo­gy at the University of the Witwatersr­and • Read full article on www.newsday.

I GRIEVE to start this way. No sooner had I struggled to find some means to say goodbye to Mabi Thobejane and Steve Kekana, than South African music lost singer and composer 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 possessed that son-of-the-soil joviality that made them accessible and “simple” in the reverent way South Africans use that adjective.

I remember, in 1978, during one of my many research tours in Lesotho, a mountainou­s kingdom encircled by South Africa, I was hanging around with brilliant guitarist and composer Frank Leepa, drummer Moss Nkofo and the one and only Black Jesus (passing around the herb), and Tsepo, in a ramshackle old storefront across from Maseru Market.

They were Uhuru Band back then, and flushed with the success of their first hit song, simply entitled Africa. The song merely praises and celebrates the mother continent, yet so repressive was South Africa’s apartheid regime that the band was banned from performing there.

Their manager, Peter Schneider, pondered what to do. Shuffle the personnel a bit and change the band name, I shrugged. And so eventually did they re-emerge as Sankomota — Lesotho’s most famous Afro-fusion pop ensemble.

Tsepo would go on to bridge Lesotho and South Africa in a time of political tumult. What drove his life and his music would be his fierce sense of belonging to both nations as one.

The life

He was born in 1953 in the Berea district of western Lesotho, in the “one-street” but scenic town of Teyateyane­ng or TY. Tsepo, however, had other inspiratio­ns for his musical vocation than the latenight dances at TY’s famous Blue Mountain Inn.

His father Mokoteli was a pastor with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and both the Reverend Tshola and his wife MaLimpho were stalwarts of the double vocal quartet the Vertical 8. Tsepo always emphasised this church as his musical alma mater, with its liturgical roots in African-American hymnody (the singing or compositio­n of hymns).

By 1970 he had already joined Leepa, and they would form Uhuru in 1975. In the late 1970s, now as Sankomota, they were the house band at Maseru’s Victoria Hotel, entertaini­ng luminaries such as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, exiled from South Africa by their politics.

1983 was their breakout year, with South African producer Lloyd Ross of Shifty Records recording their first album, Sankomota, and the release of Leepa’s hit compositio­n It’s Raining. With Masekela, Tsepo toured Southern Africa and ventured to London, where the rest of Sankomota joined him in 1985.

Returning from London as Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of white minority rule approached, Tsepo joined Masekela for his epochal home-coming Sekunjalo tour of South Africa in 1991. Masekela was stunned by the massive adulation with which he was greeted by audiences (including me) that he feared had forgotten him.

Tsepo seized the opportunit­y to begin what would be his legendary solo career, one that would last until his heartrendi­ng departure on 15 July 2021.

Collaborat­ing and leading the vocals for countless top artists and ensembles, his gravelly “Louis Armstrong” baritone would drive gospel, traditiona­l and pop songs in Sesotho and under the name The Village Pope.

The spirit

The intertwini­ng of inner spirit, life and art in Tsepo Tshola’s odyssey cannot be overemphas­ised. Let me illustrate this through songs.

Tsepo was astonishin­gly prolific, and he continued composing, recording and performing almost until his death.

Of this monumental catalogue, however, a few are sure to be played as long as the turbulent, ebullient decades leading up to and following the turn of the 21st century are remembered. These include one of the earlier works, Papa, from Sankomota’s album Writing on the Wall (1989).

Religious in tone, as ultimately with all of Tsepo’s music, the song includes a solo verse as much intoned in prayer as sung in his raspy voice:

In 1994, a newly democratic South Africa witnessed the release of Tsepo’s signature album, The Village Pope, the one that forever gave him his name as iconic pastor of South African pop.

Most of the tributes that have poured forth in print and on social media have included this jaunty, iconoclast­ic alias. Yet it is not at all an attempt at self-congratula­tion or promotion, nor a reference to his sometimes harshly paternalis­tic admonition of his musicians in rehearsal and recording. It is rather an honorific proclaimin­g of his unwavering commitment to kith and kin; his home in Lesotho, his close friends and family, his bi-national identity.

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