Tuesday

Re: Music ('Mino)

On 14 December 2003 I said,
"I think that the first, the very first sound I ever heard was my mother singing, or humming. She sings all the time. She breaks into song whenever she can, and shuffles her sheepskin-slippered feet in tune with one of her favourite political-gathering songs, "'Moulo koloi."

In 1990 my wife and I went from Europe where we live to Apartheid South-Africa to visit with my older sister, before heading on to Lesotho for my younger sister's wedding. Now, my name, Rethabile, gives me away. It says "black African," although it only literally means "We are happy". My last name, Masilo, leaves no doubt. Nonetheless, on the telephone Europeans have sometimes asked me which part of Italy I came from. My broom-jumping sister's name is Tokoloho, or "Freedom". My late brother's name is Khotsofalang, or "Be satisfied". My older sister's name is Kananelo, or "We accept". I can almost see my parents naming me: "Second son, we are happy, aren't we love? Right. So let's call him... We're happy, OK?." The only two members of my family whose names are neither a dictionary entry nor a full sentence are my two youngest brothers, Ramoreboli and T'soanyane.

But back to what I was getting at. I'm black, my wife's white, and there we were in a plane hurtling toward the then Jan Smuts International Airport in Johannesburg. I can't say I was particularly scared about it. I was perhaps apprehensive, excited, a dash of adrenalin in my veins. The last time I had been in South-Africa I had been running away from Lesotho, and I had happily boarded a plane headed away from home!

My wife broke down and cried at the airport, right after we went through customs. She said something about the way she... we were being looked at. Kananelo was there to pick us up. I hadn’t seen my sister in ten years, and she seemed heavier... sadder? We hugged and got in the car. Southern Africa came back to me in a flash as soon as we drove out of the carpark into the crawling Jo'burg traffic. The smells (grass, soil, something frying) hadn’t changed, and neither had that man's voice on the radio. South-Africa!

We headed for Kwa-Thema in the Gauteng (then Transvaal) township of Springs, where Kananelo lived.

[ Reminder: Kwa-Thema is a black township -- Apartheid is alive and well in 1990-- We're going to Kwa-Thema to stay for a week -- My wife is as white as a sheet! ]

Of course I was scared. I was no longer in a plane somewhere in the air, but in a car rounding the corner into Kwa-Thema. I probably wouldn't have been that scared if killings of whites by blacks as well as black on black violence hadn't recently been taking place. We spent most of the week indoors partying with family and friends. But we did go out once, and boy, did we go out.

We went to this braaivleis at a park somewhere. There were, like, upwards of fifty black people, with each family huddled around their fire or table, and there was my wife, white alone, unafraid, smiling and enjoying the braai. Talk about jitters -- I was jumpier than a flea on a stove. And what happened? All the folks who were in that park that afternoon were frying meat and boerewors, drinking Castle Lager and singing! Nobody attacked her, as I had feared.

They... we sang and ate and laughed. We had just left Kwa-Thema where there were rubbish piles at every street corner due to a stand-off between the government and Thema residents. On the way home from the airport that first day we had gone to a KFC to get lunch. There had been an armed guard in the restaurant clinging onto his automatic weapon. Outside that same restaurant somebody in a police car had been busy banging against something in a bid to get attention. Which is why my wife couldn't help but ask me at the picnic, "Why are these people so happy? Why are they singing?" A woman walked over to us, gently pinched my wife's cheeks and said, in a mixture of Zulu and English, "She's your wife? I think that's beautiful." The accent sang.

African mothers carry their children on their backs, which frees the mother's hands and allows her to go about her daily business. I must have been on my mother's back when I first heard her sing.


Le 'meile kae ngoan'a morena
Where have you left the king's child
Le 'meile kae Mohato ?
Where have you left Mohato ?
Tloho hae ngoana morena
Come on home, royal child,
Tloho hae Mohato!
Come on home, Mohato.


Mohato is King Letsie III, Lesotho's present monarch. In general, song words usually don't mean much—it's the DA-dum DA-dum beat that children enjoy so much. In fact, black music usually has very little to do with lyrics. The French, for example, will listen to what I consider a crappy song and extol the merit of the lyrics. On the other hand I can listen to The Four Tops going "Sugar-Pie Honey-Bunch" and enjoy it immensely. All you need is voice, rhythm, and the following lyrics:

[ Shoo-be-doo-be-doo-wap ]

And that's close enough to it, as far as I'm concerned. A political song might have an explicit message, but even such messages are short, like "Free Him", or "Down with Apartheid", which we will then chant and sing as we dance, because the song-dance combo is what is important, from a Johannesburg picnic ground to a black church in Decatur Georgia. Pure singing isn't necessarily poetry. Mind you I'm speaking for myself when I say so. If I seek poetry I recite poetry. "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood..." But back to the point. Why do we sing so? What does it mean to us? How has it helped us through the ages? Some of the uses of song in our culture are:

  1. To synchronise a common effort so that the pooled strength becomes more efficient;
  2. Entertainment. You’re your own Walkman, Jack;
  3. As an anger vent. We have a tendency to want to sing even during funerals, especially if the dead person slipped on a bar of soap, accidentally, in prison;
  4. To calm and soothe and reassure.

Have you ever had to answer that question about what music you'd take with you to a desert island? With only three compact disks allowed, I would take with me to a desert island:

a. Stevie Wonder, "Hotter Than July"
b. The Best of Angélique Kidjo
c. Le Best of de Michel Jonasz.

But, of course, if I could, I would take a Lesotho political gathering with me to that desert island. And if you've heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo then you have a pretty good idea of what I'd be listening to on that island.