If music be the food of love, starve on

25 Feb 2007

To most people, Nkgopalang Tlhomelang may well just look like a busybody in the fast evolving music setup in the country. One of the most outspoken ? and sometimes most controversial ? member of Botswana Musicians Union (BOMU) executive committee, Tlhomelang is fearless campaigner. And he has been at it for a while.

The most frequent question is, who is that man who is always around musicians? The public wonders about the secretary general of BOMU and his reason for investing so much emotion (and time) in music. More importantly, what is really Tlhomelang?s role in BOMU?

He has thrown himself head first into the seemingly thankless job that he calls ?shaping the environment, and landscape of the music industry in the country?.

The dalliance with music began at primary school.
?I grew up listening to Radio Botswana, with Andries Bok being the most popular musician in our part of the world,? Tlhomelang muses.

In addition, he was raised by a grandmother, who was a poet of repute. Then there was an uncle who strummed some melodious chords on the homemade guitar. Later, the little Tlhomelang would learn to play the same instrument, and even harbour an ambition to record. He mastered the songs of Bok and another folk artist Kotaeshele.

After completing secondary education, Tlhomelang joined a truck assembly company that had promised to send him for training. After years of unfulfilled promises, he crossed over to the department of water affairs, which also lured him with a promise of training. That move led Tlhomelang on the path we have now come to know.

The civil service kept its promise, and sent him to the then Botswana Polytechnic, where Tlhomelang met two wanna-be rappers Edge and Ex. In fact, the duo?s major thrust was dancing, with heavy influence from the likes of MC Hammer.

It was at that time that he realised that he could have greater impact from behind the microphone. His notion of ?shaping the environment, and landscape? that musicians work in was born. It has been a driving force ever since.

?I realised that for music potential to be realised, we had to change the space at which it played ? government, business world and the consumers,? he says.

One Saturday, he took Edge and Ex to Mafenyatlala Hotel in Molepolole, where a youthful DJ was at work. He was convinced that if he could get Edge and Ex to work with this DJ, they would form a powerful entity. Kenneth Moeng, aka Cutrite, did not need much coaxing to come on board, and the group Executedge was born. They continued on the rap path.

In 1996, the group came sixth in the Coca-Cola competition with a song entitled ?Guys don?t chaw herbs?, which led to their appearance at Woza ?96 at the Blue Note nightclub in Mogoditshane. After struggling, the group recorded and released ?On-en-on?, produced by Keabetswe ?Master Dee? Sesinyi. The album became one of the most critically acclaimed recordings of the time. ?Leboko?, a song that was nearly not included in the album, became an anthem.

Tlhomelang explains how it happened, ?We were looking for filler in the album. I suggested poetry over instrumental and it worked just perfectly?.
That was one of the group?s defining moments. Tlhomelang says since then, the concept of poetic renditions over raspy instrumentals became a common feature in local and regional groups.
?It worked because it infused our culture into the mainstream of popular culture. It was something different,? he says.

So groundbreaking was the concept that the group?s song caught the attention of a university student, leading to a paper titled, ?Is Executedge Distorting or Promoting Culture??.

Despite its innovation, the group struggled to fully commercialise their music, due to a hostile environment. Tlhomelang set out to alter the ?landscape?. It was the era of festivals in which foreign ? mostly South African ? acts were the star attractions while local groups played the stage-warmers. At one such festival, Executedge was paid P200, while a South African band walked away with P15 000.

?To me this was a burning challenge. It hurt badly. I took it personal. Promoters sabotaged us; they disrespected us. Even in promotional posters, our names were not written. Botswana musicians were clubbed together as ?others?. That particular festival led to a great turnabout,? Tlhomelang says.

The fallout from the show in question led to formation of a loose organisation known as Artists Against Exploitation (AAE). Tlhomelang, who served as the AAE spokesperson, says the grouping was ?not aggressive enough?. But the path to BOMU was cleared. In the fullness of time, the then Botswana Music Association merged with the new radicals to form BOMU.

?Before BOMU, musicians complained on their own without much impact. Now we raise any issue deemed important with the relevant people in one voice and it?s working,? Tlhomelang says.

Amongst BOMU?s achievements, he lists the cordial relationship between musicians.

?Previously, musicians looked at each other with suspicion. But now they collaborate, and attend each other?s launches,? Tlhomelang says.

He also points to the BOMU office, where members meet and interact, as a major achievement. The relationship with government has not always been smooth, but it is not openly antagonistic either. Tlhomelang says BOMU interacts with government through the department of culture and youth. He adds that BOMU has embraced Vision 2016 and has established a cordial relationship with Botswana Export Development and Investment Authority (BEDIA).

As for Botswana Tourism Board (BTB), Tlhomelang says they must drive the commercialisation and promotion of cultural tourism, ?which includes music?, but he has seen nothing from that end.
?These people still expect us to perform for free at their events,? he lashes out.

He wonders if the creation of BTB was not yet another project that shows how the country duplicates efforts.

There is something he calls waging war against piracy. It is a war that is being fought from different fronts, and in various phases. One such phase was to hold a copyright workshop for musicians. He also talks of the need to educate and lobby the police about copyright.

Tlhomelang says the workshop ?empowered the police to see the difference between a genuine and counterfeit product?.

He admits that a lot still needs to be done. He declares that the industry desperately needs an artist-friendly copyright law, and this is something he hopes to see happen this year. There is also the long-standing issue of management/collection society.

?We have been waiting for this for the past seven years. Our members are getting impatient, and they expect something to be accomplished this year,? he says.

Just how does Tlhomelang think radio stations will respond to the collecting society?

?First let make one thing clear, collecting society is not about local musicians. It is about music played on the radio stations. They must brace themselves for this development. If not, they are going to be talk radio stations, without music. We must negotiate and find ways of working together as musicians and radio stations,? he says.

Having said that, he states that the radio stations have fared badly. At the end of last year, during the listening session of one of BOMU members, he took a swipe at a radio station that he accused of corruption and underhand dealings. This outburst sent shockwaves through the industry. Tlhomelang says he did not mean to hurt anyone.

?I merely meant to communicate what our members complained about. If I hurt anyone, I?m sorry,? he says.

He accuses radio stations of preferential treatment, a practice he deems unacceptable.
?They make spot announcement about politicians? meetings, but when we request the same service, we are compelled to buy airtime. Why does this happen?? he asks.

Another problem that he detects is structural. The collecting society is the baby of Registrar of Companies, which does not work with artists ? and thus does not appreciate their problems
?One must remember that Registrar of Companies is interested in taxes, not in musicians per se. I think the collecting society should be moved to the new ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport.
Tlhomelang foresees a tug of war between the arts and sport at the new ministry.

?Sport is going to grow because there is so much interest in it, while one cannot say the same about the arts. Sport has a disbursing arm ? the Botswana National Sport Council, which is very active. The arts, on the other hand, have a dysfunctional Botswana National Cultural Council, which is said to advise government on cultural matters,? Tlhomelang says.

He argues for BNCC?s reform or substitution with a different structure equivalent to BNSC, so that there be parity between sports and the arts.

He is not about to join the bandwagon that celebrates the new ministry ? until he sees the ministry produce a comprehensive strategic plan and annual performance plan, with input from all stakeholders.

BOMU elects a new executive in June and Tlhomelang has not yet decided if he will seek another mandate. ?I will still contribute to the growth of BOMU, whether I?m in the committee or as an ordinary member. BOMU has not yet grown to a level that I envisage it to go.?

If this needs to be decoded, we will continue to see ? and hear a lot from him for quite a while. (FPN)