‘Music can boost the economy’
Lesotho’s music industry could have been bigger had the relevant authorities invested in systems needed to harness the great talent that remains under-developed, says one of the country’s greatest Afro-Jazz musicians Bhudaza Mapefane (BM).
In this wide-ranging interview, Mapefane tells the Lesotho Times (LT) why he believes local music has not realised its full potential and the industry will remain a disappointment unless corrective measures are taken as a matter of urgency.
LT: Your last album was in 2009 and your fans have been crying out for new smash hits since then. What have you been up to and why have you not produced something new in the last eight years?
BM: I have not stopped making music and I have been working on many songs. I was just not ready to take the music to the studio because of several reasons which also demanded my commitment. I am a different kind of musician; I do not put myself under pressure to release new productions at specific times but only do so when I am ready, mainly because I also believe in making good music. My body and soul have to be in harmony for me to produce the kind of music I will be happy with, songs that will disseminate powerful messages, put smiles on the faces of my fans and also keep them on the dance floor. But I want to assure all my fans that the long wait for new release from Bhudaza will soon be over. My record company, Universal, also thinks I have punished my fans long enough and it’s about time I have something new. I feel ready to pour my heart out and I am now polishing-up two singles, which I hope to release this Easter holiday. It’s going to be a pleasant surprise because over the years, I have learnt what my fans expect from me. I am also working on a new album, my fourth album, and I expect it to be ready towards the end of this year.
LT: A lot has happened in Lesotho that has, in one way or the other, impacted on Basotho since your last album, Likhomo. What is your message this time around in light of the country’s five years of political ups and downs?
BM: The way music influences certain actions and emotions, is quite powerful. Music is one medium that cuts across the social divide and can unite people, market a country and define a people. As a result, I feel I have a great responsibility to foster peace and harmony as well as share love and the joy that comes with my music among all people. Because I use my music as a uniting force, that brings people together no matter their political affiliation. The people dance to the music together, be it at a party, a wedding or any other gathering. I would like to be a musician who merges all the political colours together because those colours represent one people, Basotho. Some of the situations I sing about might have resulted from political issues or challenges, but I refrain from making hard core political messages that may be aligned to a certain political party because that is not my mission. I want to remain neutral for all people to enjoy the good music, both in Lesotho and beyond. I am a musician who supports good political ideologies and programmes that seek to support the poor and develop my country without necessarily looking at the political colour of who has contributed the idea in parliament to warrant my appreciation.
The singles I am working on are going to carry social messages, including reminding Basotho of things that matter most to us as a nation. As a people, we need to celebrate the things that bring us together and do more of such celebrations to remind ourselves that after all, we are one people.
LT: Take us through your music career… how did it all start?
BM: I was born on 23 September in 1961 in Mankoaneng, Hlotse in Leribe. I started singing when I was five years old at Sunday school at the African Methodist Episcopal when I was about five years old. My father loved jazz music and used to collect some jazz albums, which we listened to and enjoyed as a family. I think growing up in a music-loving family nurtured the love for music in my elder brother Mochoko and myself. We decided to explore the world of music, thinking well, we could just have some insight into what music is all about academically, to understand it and maybe play just for enjoyment and not to make a career out of it. My brother later decided to go study music at the Federated Union of Black Artistes in Johannesburg in the 80s and during school breaks, he would come home and sit with me at the piano teaching me how to play. It was like that until I also decided to study music at Mmabana Cultural Centre in Mmabatho, former Bophuthatswa, where I studied Jazz Improvisation, in 1987. I also did jazz studies at the University of Cape Town between 1997 and 2000.
LT: Tell us more about Bo Mapefane since it was your first album which sprung you to stardom?
BM: Bo Mapefane is my family name and song number three also has the same title. It talks about my family and where we come from. Other songs on the album reflect the Basotho way of life and the importance of preserving our culture as Basotho (Meetlo). I think the most popular song on the album is Lekhokhoma, which is interpreted in many ways by my fans. Sesotho is an interesting language, because, one word can have many meanings and that has been the case with the song Lekhokhoma, which I do not mind because that is what music is all about, as an art. The album, Bo Mapefane remains my biggest seller and it is still selling even to this day. As of 2006, it had sold 600,000 copies, and in South Africa they say it is the best or most selling Jazz album ever because no other artiste in my genre in South Africa and Lesotho has ever sold as many copies of one Afro Jazz album. It received a Multi-Platinum award in South Africa and for the other albums, Mohokare got a Double-Gold and Likhomo also received an award during the MTN South African Music Awards as the best adult contemporary album (African). Locally, I have received a Lifetime Achievement Award through an event organised by Ultimate FM Music Awards in 2014.
LT: Looking back through your musical journey, what would you say were the secrets to your success?
BM: I am passionate about music and that is what took me where I learnt more, at music schools and working with the likes of Sankomota, Lucky Dube and Hugh Masekela in South Africa. I like working with others to learn as much as I can. Taking my music seriously and studying how it’s done professionally was a great asset that unleashed the real artist in me. It is not just about compiling words and then picking a rhythm, but understanding that, for example, the harmonic structure should be relevant to the message. The rhythm should tell the listeners what they should expect before the words come, that these sounds are of love, war or freedom. You hear it before it happens because your creation should make the rhythm do more than just a sound.
LT: You have won big awards in South Africa over the years…what does this mean to you as a musician?
BM: It tells me that my music knows no boundary, it appeals to many people even beyond Africa, which is great because it shows that in Lesotho, we have great capacity to touch the hearts of many people musically. What disturbs me is the fact that many awards are from South Africa and even when we talk of pulling the crowds, we are popular in countries outside Lesotho such as South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Kenya. Over the years, I have noticed that here at home, many people like my music but some do not buy the albums. Some people I meet would rather have my music for free without appreciating the amount of money and time invested in making the music. Over the years, I have given some people free CDs for marketing and when I meet them today they ask for another CD because the one I gave them years back was stolen or they want the other CDs which they don’t have. If I organise shows here at home, many people ask for complementary tickets saying they want to come and support me. I am not sure how they can support me if I am the one paying for them to come and enjoy my music. It is not the same in other countries where people appreciates the arts, understand the heavy costs associated with recording in the studio, marketing the music and distribution.
But I really appreciate my local fans who have supported me over the years, buying my music, coming to the shows to support my music and sharing the music with those who do not know it. I am also thankful to radio stations that have continued to play my music.
LT: What support have you received from the government and the private sector in the development of your music career?
BM: First of all, I think what made me who I am was just my great love for music and the fact that I play many instruments. I play quite a number, including the piano, saxophone and the guitar. I have not had an experience where the government or the local private sector, other than Ultimate FM that recognised me through the award, have supported the growth of my career through a scholarship or help to record my music in South Africa.
Not that I am bitter, but it is the truth which I hope can help raise awareness on the importance of supporting the music industry for employment-creation and economic development.
I have asked government for support to study music and I was told there was no money to give someone to learn how to play guitars because the funds were reserved for serious careers such as engineering and medicine. But is it possible that a country can be successful with only doctors and engineers when God created us different and with different gifts for different contributions?
I believe if the authorities are serious about developing the economy and the country, they should embrace and support the arts as well, working together with the private sector. The lack of appreciation of arts at grassroots level is a reflection of how the governing system has discriminated against the sector for so long to such an extent that most parents would never encourage their children to pursue a career in music. That is sad because most people the world over knew there was a country called Jamaica because of Bob Marley’s reggae music. He marketed his country almost single-handedly through music, which is why our government should also take the music industry seriously.
LT: Where do you see the music sector five years from now? What would you like to contribute for the Lesotho music sector to be where you would like it to be?
BM: We need to create an environment that boosts the development of the arts by supporting the establishment of an Arts Academy, which is my passion because I would, like one day, to contribute to developing local music talent. We are letting so much talent go to waste by not capitalising fully in other areas such as the arts where we have great potential. A few Basotho who can afford expensive costs of studying music and other forms of art, are doing so outside the country.
Lesotho has produced some of the best artists in southern Africa and their work is celebrated in other countries, so why can’t we do something about that to increase the benefits, work with various artistes to market the tourism sector and attract foreign investment?
The government should lead the way and support the development of the arts sector as a crucial component that can equally contribute to the development of our economy. The arts sector in Lesotho has a lot of potential and all it needs is to be boosted in terms of capacity building to harness the talents and infrastructure that can allow musicians, for example, to record locally in state-of-the-art studios for good quality productions.
LT: Would you say you have made good money through your music?
BM: I could be living very comfortably if there were strict laws to protect my music from piracy. There are fake CDs being sold everywhere and that is affecting how much I am supposed to get from my music. I remember one time there was someone who came to me on the streets wanting to sell me my own pirated CD. He did not know who I was, so when he brought the CD to me I just destroyed it. I would like to see a situation where the police can help us prevent illegal trading in pirated music, which we see happening openly on the streets, to help promote our work.
LT: Tell us about your family and how else you spend your time away from music.
BM: It is very difficult to take me away from music because even at home, I play music with my family. I am married with a son and daughter. My family is very supportive considering the nature of my work which involves some shows both in Lesotho and outside the country. They understand that music makes who I am, it’s my work and passion. I am glad that my daughter is showing signs that she is going to follow in my footsteps and would like her to learn to play various instruments including the piano and the guitar. Apart from my music, I enjoy farming.