MPHO Molikeng, a Lesotho born curator, actor, musician, carnival artiste and organiser, street performer, praise poet, storyteller, cultural activist and entrepreneur has come a long way in the arts industry.
While locals would be forgiven for not recognising his name, his exploits across the border in South Africa has been notable as he was instrumental in popularising the carnival culture in different cities. In a career that spans over two decades, Molikeng has learnt how to play hordes of musical instruments. Weekender reporter Bataung Moeketsi (LT) recently sat down with the multi-talented artiste at his Naleli home. Below are excerpts from that interview.
LT: For those who may not know, who is Mpho Molikeng?
Molikeng: Mpho Molikeng is a Mosotho a man from Naleli, Ha-Tšosane. I was born some 45 years ago. I first went to St Bernadette but finished off my primary schooling at Ha-Hoohlo Primary in 1989. I then went to St Josephs and completed my junior certificate in 1993. Afterwards, I went to Bloemfontein to further my studies at what is now Motheo FET (previously Bloemfontein Technical College). I acquired my senior certificate in Visual Arts after two years. I came back home in 1995…that was a very dark period. My family was going through a lot. I then decided to move to Johannesburg in 1998 to pursue performance arts. I enrolled at Soyikwa Institute of African Theatre and obtained a diploma in Dramatic Arts.
At the end of 1999 I became a full-time artiste but then I was in a foreign land. Things were very hard as a freelancer. It was a very tough stage in my life. I was unemployed for about two years and I couldn’t even come back home. It was that hard. There were times when I’d feel like maybe art wasn’t the best decision… During this difficult period, I would visit friends and play drums with them. Every time I would play a drum I felt like I had shed a load off of my shoulders. This went on for about six months around 2000. One Sunday we were having one of our jam sessions in Soweto.
We rotated these sessions and this time we were hosted by a gentleman named Mandla Mentoor… A lady named Jo-Ann Radus had attended the session and brought along her djembe. One of the guys immediately started jamming. Of all the people that were there Jo-Ann picked four of us, Mpumi Sidiyo, Ntsane Mopeli, Moses Kutoane and myself and invited us to Rosebank. Only one of the guys knew where Rosebank was. The following day we went to a company called Drum Café… When we got there, we found over 2 000 drums in one place. Drum Café used to do team building exercises for corporations and social gatherings.
We rehearsed on the day and they gave us transport money to go back home. The next day, we got a gig at an Afrikaans school located in one of the nearby suburbs for a fund-raising event… We each got R100 and we were having the time of our lives. That was my first gig and it was super fun.
We were employed at Drum Café… We did a lot of team building exercises from the middle of 2000 to sometime in 2003. When we started gigging we would get R100 each per gig and by 2002 it had gone up to R200. Sometimes we would have three gigs a day meaning we would have made three times the pay. It was good money but I still had this void in me. I was playing a West African instrument but I had known how to play any Basotho instruments.
LT: What sort of challenges did you encounter growing up?
Molikeng: I don’t really want to dwell on the hardships. Every family has its own. What I can say is I grew up with my mother, ‘Mampho Molikeng and two little sisters, Nthabeleng who is now based in Joburg and Rethabile who is in Durban. My mother is basically the reason I am back in Lesotho now because of her old age-related ill-health. Before you arrived; I was even doing some chores around the house.
When I was seven years old, my mother’s uncle, Motsoenkana Maroe, would visit whenever he was not in the mines in South Africa. I was playing with my friends around the yard one day and he had this stick with him. He stood by the gate and started playing this stick. I stopped playing with my friends and came to listen. I listened for hours on end. Later at the dinner table, I then quizzed him until my mother told me to leave Ntate moholo alone to enjoy his meal. But still, I was fascinated by this stick. That’s when I started hearing it more on Radio Lesotho on the news bridge (jingle) where a lesiba is played.
I think less than 100 people can play that instrument today in Lesotho and that’s sad. I wanted to learn that instrument. I started feeling an urge to learn it around the age of 25 and decided to return home and ask Ntate Moholo, who was still alive at the time, to teach me how to play it. I thought I could quickly grasp the fundamentals from his teachings and return to Johannesburg to learn some more as I had all the time in the world to learn a new instrument. When I arrived… I asked him to make me the instrument and teach me how to play in front of people.
They were all hysterical and said I should have learned how to play the lesiba at the age of 13 and that I was too old. Everyone laughed. Ntate moholo had lost his front teeth and could no longer play the lesiba which he had in his hut gathering dust… He made a new one for me and showed me how it was played but could barely make a sound. However, I was determined. That was towards the end of 2002 around the time I was expecting my son.
I remember at 26 walking the streets of Johannesburg with a lesiba in my hand hoping to meet someone who would teach me how to play it. I later met a young boy named Makhetha Matlaba, who was originally from Mafeteng and was barely 17-years-old then. That was in 2003 and he became my teacher. Every Sunday I would go to him. I even moved from Berea to Soweto to be closer to him… It took me a good two months to make a comfortable sound. It frustrated me that I could easily play other instruments but struggled with the lesiba… From then until 2010 I did a bit of travelling from Johannesburg where I was based across the nine provinces. I also travelled to Swaziland (eSwatini), Kenya, Malawi, Sweden and Finland. I was playing drums and these indigenous instruments at the time.
I had fallen out with Jo-Ann in 2003. I think I got bored playing the same thing repeatedly for two years… The fallout cost me some gigs because lots of people had learned drums so they could work for Drum Café. They had a lot of artistes at their disposal and had begun to rip us off. Two years before that I had attended the Windybrow Arts Festival in Hillbrow… I had written a play titled The Cone and it won the Best Written Production award at the festival. I was still playing drums, writing, acting and painting because I wasn’t making enough money. I did a lot of signage for shops. When I fell out with Jo-Ann, I wrote another play titled This Operation and went to the same festival. This time I won the Best Production award. Both plays were one handers and I also directed them.
I then ventured into street carnivals while I was also using my spare time to learn new instruments. We revived the carnival culture in Johannesburg.
LT: Who is we?
MM: A carnival requires anything from 20 to even a 1 000 people. I became a part of the organising team which was at an informal school, the Creative Inner-City Initiative, right in the middle of the city. There were different activities every three months. In our case, we developed carnivals and street theatre. The Gauteng provincial government picked it up in 2005 because they believed it was a great initiative and wanted to be party to it. That’s when these carnivals spread across the country. Almost every province started having carnivals.
I had gotten married in 2003, a year after the birth of my son but then when I was doing carnival my marriage suffered. Although we had some good times, the marriage suffered because of my career… In those days, we were certain to find work during heritage month, Africa month and special occasions that had to do with Africa or South Africa. An event had to be centred on a particular ethnicity, Africa as a whole or South Africa as a country. That’s how we got work, meaning more than half the time we were not working and obviously there will be trouble in the family in terms of finances… I wanted to learn instruments but my wife did not understand my vision… My love for music cost me my family. I laugh now, but it was a painful period.
In 2011 I organised a theatre festival called Moa Solos of one-hander productions at the Johannesburg Theatre. It took place concurrently with my first solo photographic exhibition held at the Workers Museum in Newtown which I had called Rambling 22 themed after the miners’ strikes of 1922. I curated everything and had gone to the archives of existing photographic materials from 1922 to bring forth that dark-age which was very hurtful to South Africa…
I spent a year reeling from my family woes and I believe I went through a form of depression. I needed a way out from it all and so I decided to tour Europe in 2012, which birthed the Mpho Molikeng Europa Solo Tour. I spent two months in France in Paris, Clement-Ferrand and Oriak. I then did Vienna, Austria and Hamburg, Germany. I would perform alone. I did two shows in Paris, a few in Clement-Ferrand and attended a street festival in the small farmer’s town of Oriak. I performed with friends in Vienna. When I say friends, I am referring to people I met on the day and immediately hit it off with them. The few days I spent there were an amazing experience.
LT: How did you fund the European tour given your crippling financial situation?
MM: The tour was self-financed. As artistes we are lucky. You can spend six months to a year without working but then you’ll find a gig that will help to afford you a decent living for six months or more depending on how you spend your money. I got some sponsors for it, but the exhibition didn’t make any money. I had also done the theatre festival from out of my pocket. I’d gotten a girlfriend from France who had helped me a lot with putting my tour together. She had come to my Rambling 22 exhibition and that’s how we met.
We hit it off and two months later she came back to visit me. In a space of eight months we had begun to make big plans. The red tape of France and South Africa being far apart however, got in the way of things and the long-distance relationship took its toll. I was prepared to move to France because it is the most culturally diverse country in the world for me. I say that because I saw how much culture was appreciated over there. For instance; France recently celebrated Music Day meaning music from all over the world would be played on the streets. The activities are government funded. Which other country does that?
The tour was a great experience which led to what I could say was Mpho Molikeng’s revelation. One of my favourite things I often did on this tour was visit the Museum of Music (Musée de la Musique) in Paris. In this museum there are musical instruments from all over the world dating as far back as the 1200s. I was completely blown away. It reminded me of my own museum back in my Berea bachelor pad and I thought of how I had collected so many instruments already. I just didn’t have a venue or space to display them in this fashion. I came back to South Africa later in 2012 and set out to host an exhibition of Southern African musical. The exhibition was called TATTOO. The original meaning of the word means heartbeat. I named the exhibition TATTOO because music is the heartbeat of a society or a particular gathering.
The first instalment of the TATTOO exhibition was in January 2014. And since my birthday is on 17 January, it was a birthday present for me. It went on for six months and was self-funded. Ninety percent of the instruments displayed were from my personal collection. I didn’t have big drums and had to source them from the South African government who lent me a few instruments. I filled three of the four Johannesburg Library floors. There’s a difference between “TATTOO” and any other music exhibition I have seen in South Africa and the one in France.
In France they have audio devices at the museum and if you want to listen to a particular instrument you can punch a number on it and the sound will play from your headphones. I had to demonstrate all the instruments at my exhibitions. I could play almost the instruments that were on display of all the instruments and more than 200 exhibition items including vinyl, cassettes, CDs, DVDs and books. There were about six instruments I couldn’t play but I knew the basics. It was frustrating for me but people weren’t bothered considering the fact that I could play the others.
The exhibition itself almost failed after I was robbed on the streets of Joburg a month earlier while hosting a friend from Finland. They took my hard-drive, three phones including a mobile landline and all the material I had on the exhibition… I was very emotional at the time. I had worked very hard and the exhibition finally opened on the 16th. I was there almost every day taking people through it. People would generously give me money when they found out that it was self-funded.
That was the turning point of my career. As much as I had put money into the exhibition, I was able to get more out of it. To date I am still enjoying the dividends of that exhibition because my stock value shot up immediately after. I didn’t even have any money. I was going through the most for a short while. But some of the people I gave tours were musicologists and academics, people who found value in what I was doing. Wits University approached me to give a workshop for a day.