Mpho Molikeng, a multi-talented Mosotho musician has worked says over his 20-year music career, he has learnt how to play over 150 African musical instruments. Apart from that, he can also make some of them from scratch. His passion to learn stems from the frustrations he encountered in playing the lesiba. Throughout his career, Molikeng has travelled the world and achieved greatness particularly in the musical field. Below are excerpts of an interview conducted by Lesotho Times’ (LT) reporter Bataung Moeketsi.
LT: You have worked with Wits University, when did they approach you?
Molikeng: They approached me in 2014. Other universities also started enquiring. People showed a lot interest. Masters and PhD students of musicology and ethnomusicology started enquiring and featuring my work in their theses… When Wits called me, it reminded me of 2002 when I wanted to enrol at a particular institution and wanted to pursue a BA in Music specialising in African instruments. I didn’t want to learn about Western instruments. They refused to give me a place unless I would learn the piano or one western instrument… so I left to learn on my own. Wits’ call in 2014 was my full circle moment.
I took the “TATTOO” exhibition to Museum Africa for the Africa month in May 2014. Their exhibitions usually last a month but mine had been on display for three. They didn’t pay me but I understood that even if I removed my instruments, they would end up gathering dust at home. During that time, a lot of people were enquiring about the exhibition and the man behind it. Many schools would bring their students and scholars to view the exhibition. It was a fulfilling moment but I was still broke.
That changed immediately after the end of the exhibition. I was approached in September, which is heritage month. I helped put together exhibitions and sustain myself. I was hired by an organisation of storytellers called Kwesukela Storytelling Academy. Just as when in Sesotho we start folk tales with “ba re e ne re”, in Zulu they say kwasukasukela (loosely translated as: it was a long time ago). I did tours with them around South Africa… I created various streams of income around the very same time. I would narrate plays and folk tales. I would come home once a year, gather books on folk tales, translate them into English and start telling them for money.
LT: You are a multi-talented artiste, what exactly can you do in the arts sphere?
Molikeng: I involved myself in a lot of activities. I trained as both a visual and performance artiste. I taught myself administration as well. With other things people would throw me into the deep end knowing that I love new challenges. As a multi-talented artiste, I try covering a lot of ground in my field. If there’s an artwork involved, I will paint it. Like any other discipline, it requires practise which means if someone commissions me to paint something for them, I will ask for time to retrain my eyes and hands. I paint. I did a lot public paintings in Johannesburg. I organised street theatres and carnival. I’m a curator. I’m also a published author.
LT: You have written some articles, where were they published?
Molikeng: My first published article was for an online music portal called Music in Africa. They were looking for seasoned writers, people who can write about Basotho music. I told them I was not writer… but a musician myself and indigenous music had been my life for the past 20 years. I told them, I could speak from a place of honesty and they said they needed my services… I bet no one could write what I could on the subject. This was in 2016. They needed someone to write a maximum of four articles and for what they were offering I said I would write six. I did exactly that and gave them two stories for free. So far, four have been published. The remaining articles will be published at a later date.
Someone from SAGE Publishing saw my articles. They were in the process of writing an academic reference work in the form of an encyclopaedia on history, culture and the geography of music. They read two of my articles and figured that I was the man for the job. I was commissioned to work on a section and now I am included in this encyclopaedia of the world. The SAGE International Encyclopedia of Music and Culture was published last year and is currently going for US$1 700 (about M28 860). Over 100 contributors worked on it. Less than 15 of us are independent scholars while the rest have doctorates.
I am now writing about the lesiba, although I cannot divulge any information therein. Hopefully by the end of 2021 I will be talking about the book.
LT: You have said you play an assortment of instruments; how many can you play.
MM: I cannot give you a specific number but I play a lot of Southern African indigenous instruments. I picked this up over a period of 20 years. Because of my love for those instruments, I can also construct a few. Although it’s an unconfirmed figure, I would say I can play over 150 instruments.
LT: Take us through the creative process. If one was to participate in one of your concerts, what can they expect?
Molikeng: I construct instruments for my personal therapy. I also make instruments for clients while some of them end up on my collection. In terms of concerts, many a times you will find that there are people who hire me to play and that’s all I do. But in seminars, that’s when I start making the instrument afresh. As I give an in-depth analysis of the instrument that may require construction as well. I get invited to numerous schools in Johannesburg where I teach students to make these instruments. I also get private clients who require my services.
LT: How big is your discography?
Molikeng: I am more of a live performer but I have been fortunate enough to be called by people in the film industry to score music. I have done scores for the Discovery Channel dating back to 2007. I have played on television adverts. There is a programme on e.tv called Mahadi Lobola and I contributed to its theme song. I don’t even watch TV but every time I sit in front of one and the show is screened, I remember my contribution. There’s a music library company called Lalela Music with branches in Cape Town and New York which contacts me each time it is looking for a particular type of music. Part of my discography is there. I get such commissions. When they are looking for music for an advert, they’ll ring me.
When Reverbnation (a free online music distribution portal) was introduced, I would upload my works onto it and people would reach out for collaborations. I am always exploring new ways of collaborating and bettering my services. I find myself being involved in such. For example, recently we were launching a show called Cut which we did online with Vincent Mantsoe, a revered choreographer in South Africa. I composed the show’s music…
LT: What are some of your most memorable achievements?
Molikeng: After my TATTOO exhibition in 2014, the academic world started opening up to me. Lesotho is a unique country and an untapped goldmine that we must teach the world about. I find myself in many circles of people who would love to know a little bit more about Lesotho and the music. The first seminar that I was invited to was in 2016 at the Southern African Society of Researchers in Music, an academic conference which was held at the Potchefstroom University. I went there to talk about the lesiba in particular. I took it back to before the times when Jan van Riebeek had come to South Africa and the origins of the instrument. I am well-versed in the instrument’s history which is why I am confident that I can now write a book about it. I had my third exhibition at the university and had an audio installation of the instrument playing.
I have played with several artistes from varying genres. These artistes are free musicians which means that they are avant-gardes and very experimental in terms of what they play. I was approached by the New Music Society of South Africa to play at conferences in Bloemfontein and Johannesburg. They had another one in Pretoria but this was around the time when I was trying to settle back at home, so I passed. All of this happened around 2010 when I was playing with Lukas Ligeti, the son of a revered Austrian composer, who was touring South Africa and I had brought him to Lesotho. We’ve had great relations over the years. He has thrown a few jobs in my direction. I believe that I have been a visiting lecturer at Wits since 2016 through his influences because he is one of the people who believed in me and was amazed at how I could pick up an instrument and learn with ease.
Had it not been for the global spread of the coronavirus pandemic, I would have travelled to Japan, the United States of America and Switzerland this year for various collaborations. One of the more memorable collaborations that took place earlier this year is a recording I had done of a Basotho instrument called thomo and I challenged music players around the world on Facebook. The challenge was called #LockdownMeltdowns or #LockdownChronicles and commenced a week after the Lesotho lockdown announced. At least 10 people responded and a friend named Ravish Momin based in New York who is working on his album saw what I had done and asked me to play thomo over a recording he sent me. I sent it and he loved it but I had not sung over it, so he sent it back for me to record over once again. I used two recording devices including my phone and a zoom field recorder. He put the song together and sent it back to me but I wasn’t too sure whether I liked how it sounded. He told me not worry and sent it to a producer in Japan and it is now very big in the club scene over there.
There is also a collective of four musicians including myself, Mabeleng Moholo (based in Soweto), Vuli Nchabeleng (based in Pretoria) and a university professor named Gregory Bayer’s (based in Chicago Illinois). Even with the lockdown restrictions, we have continued to play in our respective spaces and we have recorded four tracks which Gregory will put together. It may even become an album. He is also scoring indigenous instruments, which is something that isn’t well known.
I have also been appointed to the committee of the Southern African Rights Organisation, a body which distributes royalties to musicians. I am one of the people they appointed when they were trying to score indigenous music for academic purposes and preservation two years ago. It’s an on-going process. I believe it’s an amazing initiative and although late, I am certain the road ahead will be something to see.
LT: You have such an illustrious career, what does art mean to you?
Molikeng: When I first started playing drums it helped to relieve some of the burdens the world had thrown at me. I felt a void within me which came from playing instruments from other parts of the world but not my own. To me art means life, and vice versa. Art saved me from myself and the world. I am not sure I would still be alive it wasn’t for art. I say this in all honesty because there were times when I was going through so much and was feeling as though the load was too heavy to carry. Art soothed me… Any form of art must disrupt the injustices of the world. You don’t have to like all art but not liking it still conveys that it has an impact of some sort on you. I’m not talking about commercial art. I am talking about art in general and art in its rawest form. There are people who make art to heal themselves and others through their works. There are some many art forms we can engage in.
It’s a pity that my country, Lesotho, has not realised the importance of the arts for its children and the nation as a whole. You will find that Basotho who are making money from the arts must adapt to other genres and forms of art so that they can be accepted elsewhere and make a living… As Basotho, we are supposed to understand that no one can take our Bosotho away. This led to the movie Black Panther. I didn’t even watch it when it came out but I eventually saw it with some kids here at home. I am not big on movies. Everyone was raving about Basotho blankets. That’s an identity of its own. If we can work our magic in terms of the things that make us Basotho, the world is our oyster and the possibilities are endless.
LT: What is your advice to fellow Basotho artistes in their various genres?
MM: In terms of advice to artistes and anyone who believes that they have something to share with the world, I would say never follow societal norms. Don’t follow the crowd. Listen to the inner voice that’s always telling you this is what you are born to do and this is what you have to do to serve the world. Some may hear the voice today and make it big tomorrow. Others will hear the voice today and it will only work in their favour in 20 or 30 years’ time. But listen to that voice for it will keep you alive and give you purpose… That voice is you and if you don’t listen to it, you too will go astray like the people who are living lives they don’t want to live simply because of systematic pressures like having to pay rent, eat and so on. Some people find themselves in industries they never intended to be in or are forced in by their parents. That’s why many people die very young… Sometimes you may have to find work elsewhere just so you can reinvest in that voice and that’s okay. Follow that voice. It may take time but it will be worth it.
LT: Are you happy with your accomplishments?
MM: I have many dreams revolving around my work but thus far I am happy with where I am even though I want a lot of things. Yes, I also want a palace with a helipad and all the nice things but one of my biggest dreams has to do with development. I would love to see each Mosotho child playing at least one Sesotho instrument and to know who they are because with the way things are going, in the next two generations there won’t be any true Basotho and the world won’t be the same. Everything will be in libraries and referenced unless we start now to preserve Sesotho and our culture so that we won’t be too far removed in the generations to come. European cultures still have opera shows and sure, they have changed over the years but they still have them. Believe you me opera shows require about 100 musicians for something that may only really need 10 but that’s how they preserve the culture. In the very same way, my plea is for Basotho to preserve our culture or we will be lost. If you don’t know who you truly are, anyone can come and tell you anything about yourself. However, if you know yourself, no one can derail you from your path because you would know who you are and what you want to achieve. If we can preserve ourselves for our children and they do the same for theirs and the generations to come, we can create a future where the baton can be passed on well-deserving generation.