Decades after the fact, Benjamin Baiketsi still recalls with some bemusement the debate about his nationality that erupted stage-side as he set a piano on fire at a Cheek-to-Cheek concert in Mogoditshane.
After staring in shiny-eyed wonder as he poured on exuberant flourishes of disco beats, a group of revellers began to examine his national DNA. One side said that given how skilful he was, the young man playing the piano definitely had to be South African. The other, more enlightened, argued exasperatingly that this guy was a Motswana, a member of the Botswana Defence Force who also happened to be in the army band.
He takes up the story: “After some time when I looked up from the piano, one guy – a soldier colleague who knew me from the Mogoditshane barracks, called out to me: ‘Besto!’ I nodded to acknowledge his hail and only then did the debate end. This was at a time when there was mentality among most Batswana that everything good necessarily had to be South African.”
But how did a soldier get to score a gig with a major South African disco band at the twilight of its career?
“The band members were setting up instruments for a show. I went up onstage, engaged them in small talk about music and happened to mention that that their piano was similar to the one I played in the BDF band. I asked to play a few notes, they agreed and were so impressed that during that same show, they asked me to play a set. Afterwards, when the band came to Botswana, I would play for it,” Besto explains.
It was through this connection that he was introduced to big South African acts of the time: Brenda Fassie, Lucky Dube, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Stimela. He gave of himself in unselfish abundance and pretty soon was windmilling from one prime-time gig to another. Even better, he was lining his wallet with extra cash and amassing a coda of accolades in the process.
His relationship with Cheek-to-Cheek bloomed over the years and is still going strong. As recently as a few days ago he was in electronic communication with the band leader, Madoda Malotana. Next month, when the band visits to play shows in Francistown, Gantsi and Kasane, Besto will be tagging along to play piano.
In telling his love affair with music, Besto also excavates the remarkable, largely untold cultural history of Mahalapye. It would be hard for today’s iPod generation to believe this but there actually was a time when beats were produced from instruments – not pirated software on an elder brother’s laptop. Besto came up in an age when three Mahalapye bands had ignited a general explosion of small-boy musical outfits. Right across the village, scores of young boys formed their own ‘bands’ in which each member had to imitate the sound of the air instrument he ‘played.’ Besto remembers how in the evenings, he and other boys would crane their necks out at the stage from behind the walls of an open-air enclosure where the ‘The Breakers’ (the best of them all) was playing.
When he enlisted as a private in 1984, the Sir Seretse Khama Barracks band room, with its assortment of instruments, became a veritable confectionery store. He wasted no time in ravishing each shelf and in no time he played virtually all instruments. Not too long ago, on an easy Tuesday morning, he demonstrated his other skill at an African mall shop that sells musical instruments as his fingers blazed across the fretboard of an acoustic guitar, playing Lionel Richie’s ‘Easy.’
Having surmounted the cognitive challenge of reading music, Besto was able to teach himself how to play the saxophone (alto, tenor and soprano), drums as well as bass and lead guitar. He also plays tuba bass and bag pipe. One of 10 learners in his class, Besto was introduced to the bag pipe by a visiting Scottish teacher he only remembers as Sergeant Samson. Of the three who got merit, he was the most junior.
“When I go into a studio to record, the only musical assistance I need is that of a vocalist because I can play all instruments,” he says, not bragging.
Not only does he play, Besto has also taught others how to. Among his prot├®g├®es are music stars Franco and Jeff Matheatau whom he says he gave beginners lessons in piano when they joined the army band 10 years after he did.
In as far as musical instruments are concerned, Besto’s retains the conviction that Mahalapye hosts the largest geographic concentration of talent in all of Botswana. The primary evidence he provides to back up that assertion is in the form of names of highly accomplished lead guitarists like Metha Oagile, Sebene Morolong and Stone Moloi as well as trumpeter Socca Moruakgomo.
“Currently, all the top guitarists in the bands of disciplined forces are from Mahalapye,” Besto says.
In its totality, this statement may be false – as a matter of fact it sounds false, but on account of his ties to Mahalapye and the (probably) mistaken belief that he is an instrumentalist manqu├®, the writer is hard put to dispute it.
For the 20 years and three months that he was an army band member (he retired in 2004 at the rank of sergeant), Besto had time aplenty to fine-tune his skills. But did the army teach him enough about music? The answer is ‘no’ because the infrastructure of opportunity that BDF builds for its musicians is not high enough for them to see the other side of music – the business side. Unless they are able to worm their way into an insider network of cronyism in which the well-connected flourish, former band members don’t go far enough. Besto released an album in 2004 soon after he left the army but it did not get enough needle time on local radio stations to generate adequate listener attention.
Let’s conclude with a thought exercise: in its Global Competitiveness reports, the World Economic Forum routinely scores Botswana low on its generation of artistic/cultural products. How different would the situation be if the market made full use of the artistic talent that the army nurtures – indeed, all such talent from across society?