It is rush hour on Friday afternoon, February 28, 2014 as I negotiate my way through traffic to The Grand Palm Hotel. My mission is to get an impromptu interview with the great Tshepo Tshola aka The Village Pope.
I get to the reception area and there are a handful of jazz fans queuing up at a makeshift ticket counter. Not long had I asked one of the Hamptons Jazz Festival organisers, Star Ngwenya, about his whereabouts when the man himself shows up at a nearby ATM.
Clad in his long vintage golden yellow Chinese collar shirt and a black Gatsby hat, he looks almost nothing like the younger, chubbier Tshola of yesteryear.
Ngwenya whispers something into his ear before giving me a thumbs-up indicating he had agreed to an interview, at which point I nervously step forward to introduce myself.
I tag along as he leads me through Livingston’s restaurant, all the way to the terrace overlooking the Hotel’s beautiful green landscape. “I have never seen a monkey before,” he says as we marvel at the sight of the most famous Grand Palm residents hopping from one tree branch to another. As soon as we settle, the anxiety returns. Who wouldn’t be? I am sitting across a legend here; one of the greatest African artists ever. With a career spanning four decades (I think to myself), he must have done a million interviews and answered a trillion questions.
Suddenly the list of questions I have scribbled on my notepad seems utterly ridiculous. I decide to take the plunge and admit I have nothing to ask that has never been asked before and it pays off. “The comment you’ve just said gives me hope,” he says. “I spoke to a journalist recently about always asking the same questions …and this has been the case for 44 years.” He pauses to light a cigarette. “I still fail to understand the relevant definition of interview,” he says. “And because I don’t want to confuse myself I’d like to simplify it and call it a discussion. With you being just the messenger of this man’s life intentions, his reasons for being here and his thoughts as they unfold spontaneously so people can read them and not predetermined assumptions.”
His phone rings and he speaks to one of his band members. “Trying to put together the band,” he tells me after the call.
Just as we are about to resume our ‘discussion’ a clearly star struck middle aged lady shows up and asks for an autograph. “I am going to show it to my daughter,” she says. “They don’t understand how great you guys are.”
Back to our discussion and he complains about being asked who he is by radio presenters. “‘Ntate Tshola, tell us who Tshepo Tshola is’ …Why the hell did you call me if you don’t know who I am,” he laughs. And as if on cue, a call comes in from one of the local radio stations. It is his namesake, Tshepo Ntshole of Gabz FM. “Good afternoon,” he answers. “…..I have answered this question for the past 44 years. Next time find another question.” Following yet another interruption our conversation continues.
“I will like to get into another chapter. I want to talk about now.” Then proceeds to tell me about a new record company he co-owns with Joe Nina and Stanley Letshela called Killa Joe Records. “It is fortunately owned by musicians, run by musicians and we got expertise that will deal with administration in a direction that musicians deserve,”he says, as if to make a statement. “Today there are so many different record companies that mushroom every day,”he says, switching to a more serious tone.
“But the basic dignity of music must be preserved. I lived these years sitting down finding reason to pass a song with a relevant message,” he says. “The reason for this record company is to protect artists. Our first phase is to put our music understanding, talent, knowledge, production and arrangement together.” A waitress interrupts to take an order. He looks at me as if to say, you go first, and after a few seconds of indecision he goes ahead and orders himself a double whisky with flavoured water.
“Don’t be shy,” he tells me. As if he could telepathically tell my desire for something stronger than a soft drink. After all, it is a Friday. I place my order and our discussion continues for the umpteenth time.
“The initiative that Killa Joe Records has taken is to make sure that we unite music so that when we go out individually we know exactly that a song needs a team to perfect. An extra ear helps you understand your creation,” he says. “I think I have done more collaborations than anyone else in this part of the world. You name them- Brenda Fassie, Hugh Masekela, Thadiswa Mazwai, PJ Powers, Rebecca Malope, Siphokazi, Kabelo, Joe Nina, Steve Kekana, Nana Coyote …..”
I bring up local artist Thabang Garekwe’s name, and Tshola immediately lights up. “He is amazing,” He says. “He once gave me his CD and I played it in my car for a whole week.” He also spoke as passionately about Maxy saying she deserves more recognition than she is getting. “For God’s sake, she initiated that music and she deserves the credit and recognition….” Yet another interruption as our order arrives, and then “Ramapolo”, Tshola calls out to a gentleman passing behind the terrace. It turns out to be the great Hugh Masekela as he joins us on the table. I am now sitting across two musical greats as they reminisce about the good old days.
“I once stayed here in Botswana with Hugh,” Tshola says, to which Masekela adds, “It was great. We hung around at places like Woodpecker and Oasis Motel.” “I have learnt a lot from that man,” Tshola says as soon Masekela takes off. “People don’t seem to get him but there is so much humility in the man’s arrogance.” He then talks about how artists are deprived of the recognition they deserve by society and the relevant authorities. “One day I want to see myself driving on ‘Masekela Avenue’ before I get my own street.” He complains that they only put up (Merriam) Makeba’s name posthumously. ”What a shame.”
We are back where we left off before Masekela interrupted. Tshola advices not to worry about the constant interruptions, and draws an analogy from his musical experience. “A space in a song is more important than a wrong note.”
He talks about how journalists should learn to love artists and portray them in good light. “You gotta love us,” he says. “Off course too much love is more dangerous than hate,” he gets philosophical. “You have to find the balance.”
And that leads to the discussion about a ‘coffee table’ book he is working on about his own personal quotes and pictures. “It will be chapters of conversations I have had with particular people,”he explains. “I am inspired by life and motivated by death. Anything in between is a necessary exercise I must go through. I am at peace with myself. Oh, what a happy child I am.”