Monday, December 6, 2021

Lekofi Sejeso, when Peleng and Botswana music become poorer

Tragedy is when a cousin calls you on a Saturday morning to tell you that he has just tested positive, and then goes on to uncoil a list of those who just departed, among them Tebogo Lekofi Sejeso, aka Carf Carf, the effervescent if not sizzling and mesmerising self-taught pianist. A few calls around one or two Lobatseans, the tragedy is confirmed.

Now it is our turn to mourn over the loss of a music giant. We have peeped over the window to see how our neighbours in South Africa agonise over Kori Moraba, Aus’ Sbongile Khumalo, Bra Jonas Gwangwa and lately Tsepo Tshola and Pat Shange, among others. Although their loss was also theirs, we were separated by this ‘Blood is thicker than water’ barricade, where our tears more or less counted for nothing. Now it is our turn to cry. Carf Carf has now decided to join this glitterati of the music world. Botswana has gone one musician poorer. Peleng has gone one legend down. Lobatse is one son down.

Sad.

I was tempted to cry, but this period is not for crying, it is for reality. It is for nursing the weak from crying as COVID-19 does as it pleases. As we hear of a thokolosi, the virus changes shape every time it is found out. This is where we need to spend more time. When all and them are falling like flies following a dash of an insecticide, we need to intensify.

But mine is less about a COVID-19 combat campaign, which I fully subscribe to, but it is about bidding a homeboy farewell. I could neither attend a memorial service hosted in his honour, nor his funeral; all because I for one was on isolation as a primary contact. Besides, as is common course, numbers at gatherings are controlled; leaving it only to those very close to be present. At least in this space, the numbers are not controlled.

I cannot claim to know Carf Carf’s musical, but it would have started in the mid-seventies when I, as a lightie, was introduced to one Author Makhwengwe Mengwe, albeit at a distance. He was said to be a great musician, with young women already experimenting with him. But there kept on being mention of this other equally talented musician, who I just could not meet. The two were fondly mentioned as the finest musicians to come from Peleng together with one Wonder Mhlabathi and Aus’ Dineo, both of the Scarers fame. There was also mention of one Clement Jackson.

I was to see Makhwengwe in action with the Dragon Band featuring Ace Mooki on lead and Setshogo Thekiso on bass. This Makhwengwe was on drums. The three piece band blew away the night to us at Lobatse Secondary School in 1976, with the lead guitar hardly audible. The bass was like coming from a ‘fish oil’ can guitar with tyre tube rubber strands that we used to imitate real guitars. The drum was the most dominant, with rattles akin to an over stressed poor quality surface. The sound was terrible, even for us high school new arrivals; especially having been exposed a year or so earlier to better sounding and more compact Pleasant Invaders from Johannesburg at Lobatse Hotel. Besides, we used to loiter around Cumberland Hotel hall for pieces of music that could spill out of the hall when the likes of Soul Brothers, Mahlathini and Mahotella Queens, the Mad Black Hawks and them were in town.

A few more shows, another new entrant, ‘The Hunters’, who then transformed into ‘Thunders’ under the late Bra ‘Dayster’ Kgotso entered the fray, before we heard of the coming of the Incrowds from Gaborone. That is where I finally saw this much-talked about Lekofi Sejeso. The Incrowds were no doubt better than Dragon, especially with instruments that looked and sounded better than those of Dragon. The sound was far better, with cover songs not very far from the originals. For some reason, the student body didn’t dance in numbers as would have been expected, prompting Cuff Cuff, sitting behind the drums, to take to the microphone to ask what songs they should play to pull us into the dancing floor. Of course we were happy with the set. That must have been the last time I saw him on drums. The Incrowds’s only known attempt at the studio was with the hit single, ‘I’ll make it through the day Babe’ with ‘I’m longing for Mati’ on the flip side, or as ‘unders’ as was the lingo then.

The next time I saw this Lekofi was with the same Incrowds at a mini-festival at the then new but old Lobatse Stadium featuring the Thunders. This time he was on keyboards, where I first heard the Soul Brothers’ ‘Mshoza Wam’, with his fingers on the ivories telling a story and pointing to a future pianist who will be in a class of his own. Of course the crowd was receptive, with our sisters and aunts in bell bottoms and afro hairs and their faces glowing from ‘Ambi Special’, ‘7 Days’, ‘Super Rose’s Hi-Man’ or such like. The song sounded very original until I later heard it from the Soul Brothers themselves. It actually still does appeal with David Masondo’s voice sitting well on the instruments, anchored on Moses Ngwenya’s keyboards and Senzele Mchunu’s bass.

Like all other groups of those days, The Incrowds folded, followed closely by other dynamic groups of those days; ‘Every Mother & Son’, Ricky Molefhe’s Gold Fingers, Imagine (later Dithebe), Whyte Kgopo’s Mother, Malombo Mmereki’s Breakers of Mahalapye, Mighty’s Melody also of Mahalapye and later Metlha Oahile and Hebert Boatile’s Mahalapye-based rock band Demote.

I was later to see Cuff Cuff backing Hugh Masekela at the University in 1981 in one of Hugh’s rare visits to this part of the world during those exile days. His keys on ‘Skokian’ drew the best from Hugh, with Rene Maclean on sax supplying the necessary synthesis.

He was then to emerge with his best ensemble, Dennis Alexander’s Afro Sunshine Band. A few experiments on where the band really wanted to go ended with a cocktail of music covering a wide range of genres, until the band settled for afro beat. The arrival of Chris Mbewe from ‘The Great Witch’ of Zambia on lead guitar and vocals tilted things a bit to rhumba. Then arrived his compatriot Alex Gunda from the same ensemble; the very real taste of percussions as the spice of music. How they landed these two gems remains a mystery to me. Mbewe’s six strings were mesmerising, probably rock-influenced from The ‘Great Witch’. As for Gunda, like a good wife’s kitchen cabinet, his cabinet carried an assortment of instruments never seen on these shores before, each delivering its own flavour to the dish. I liked him most when he would leave his seat for a tambourine or the cow bell, the only percussion instruments that I knew up to that point other than the congas. The Zambians’ combination, founded on the big left-handed Oupa Phofu’s thundering bass guitar drove Lekofi nuts on his keyboards. Of course I was amazed by Oupa. Onn stage he stood upright still like a log, no motion, carefully selecting the meanest and the roundest of the notes. People say he never danced, but he danced with his eyes, he would blink with every note.

The guys became the talk of the town, with revellers moving with them from club to club. The later earned themselves the title ‘The No. 1 Backing Group’ for every good artist that came into the country would be directed to them for a solid backing group. One day landed one Jane Osborne, a Zambian beauty we were told was based in London. An unknown entity who was only introduced to us several days earlier by Radio Botswana through her serenading ‘Mombasa Moon’. An evening at then Cameo got the crowd asking for more, with a more reinforced crowd at the Bonnington Park (Was it a park though?) the following day for an encore. Chunkie’s ‘King Beat and the Zoom Sisters’ warmed up the stage with their cover songs of bubble gum music; fashionable then, with the Zoom Sisters letting go of their waists to the delight of the male folk. The stage was warm enough. “Ladies and Gentlemen, please put your hands together for the sensational Afro Sunshine Band”, went the compere’s voice. The guys belted it out. Lekofi’s fingers at it again, moving on those ivories like it was foreplay. Cover song after cover song, well imitated; the only interruption being a snake that cropped up from nowhere, necessitating a break as the whole band chased after it. It slid up the rock behind the stage, Cuff Cuff was up there, attempting to move the chip under which it sneaked. I was worried about his fingers. What if they get bitten? That would possibly have been the end of the long awaited show. A Samaritan bought a pint of petrol. Again it was Cuff Cuff who splashed it all over the rock before he lit some matches and ordered the boys back to stage. Soon the temporary inconvenience was forgotten as the guys worked us back to climax. The time was right, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please put together your hands together fooooor, fooooor…Jane Osborne!!”. The hour was here.

By this time, Cuff Cuff and I had identified one another as home boys, and would find time for a chat at every one of their shows that I attended. Of course one day, his delinquent eyes interfered with my company, but that soon died out when he found that out.

When the guys were resident at the Mogo Hotel in Mogoditshane, they one day backed one of the greatest ever Rhumba musicians, Sam Mangwana. Why them? It was obvious. Apparently this is where the ‘Afro Sunshine’ song originated. A couple of Sam Mangwana’s specials that included ‘Maria Tebo’, ‘Bana ba Cameroun’ and ‘Susana’, Sam took to praising the guys: ‘I know you are my best friend, I love you so muchMon ami yoo, Mon ami yoooo’.

Soon after the guys went to studio. ‘This is Africa’, featuring ‘Mabasket’, ‘Afro Sunshine’, ‘Tote’ and ‘Re ba lebile’, among others. Sadly this time, Oupa had relocated home to South Africa, his place on bass taken by the thunderous Livingstone ‘Dollars’ Paledi. Now there was the mesmerising Cuff Cuff on the ivories, Mbewe on lead guitar, Ronnie Mokgolodi on drums, Alex Gunda on percussions and Gino Maposa on saxophone and Dollars on Bass. In Mabasket, the Damba, Matjevi and the Peleng’s Zezuru community’s influence could not be disguised. The typical Zezuru bargaining skills were out in the open.

This was the climax of the great Afro Sunshine band and apparently the beginning of the end. When everybody else expected more, Cuff Cuff jumped ship. Whenever I asked him about it, he would be almost in tears. When he came to pluck up some courage, he would tell me how cheated they had been by their manager who, in his view, gave them pittance out of the royalties. It was clear, the guy from Peleng wanted every Thebe of the sales, but seemingly that was never to be. It is at this point that I was introduced to the world of royalties, studio costs, etc. that seemed to have been a factor on how much the musicians could receive for their sweat.

Life was never the same for my homeboy. One day it would be suggested that he was taking over production of jingles at BopTv, the next day he would be re-joining Afro Sunshine which was clearly limping, the other day he would be joining a South African crack band that could not be mentioned. None of these turned out to be true. Instead he resurfaced in Lobatse with a new outfit – Batsumi, now on six string, teaming up with Guard Orutile on bass and the mercurial Tiki ‘Khoza’ Kaketso on drums in what was said to be a Nosey Road project. From drummer to keyboardist, then to guitarist. Nothing else but talent. Although the guys could not take off as a big stage band, they were clearly a marvel to listen to in their cabaret sessions in selected pubs in Lobatse, with well controlled notes and well managed octaves. The sound was perfect.

Momentarily Cuff Cuff would appear in Gaborone with sporadic visits to my office (then at the BNSC), promoting a concept of a Zebras’ song, whence I referred him to the BFA; the first point of contact on Zebras matters. Then he dropped ‘Ke tseo dipitse tsa naga’, a rhythmic tempo-filled piece that pushed Stan Tshosane’s Zebras to AFCON qualification before all and sundry threw their hats into the ring, with none of them ever matching his works. Even to this day, the song is the ‘it’ at the Zebras matches, only that none of the coaches can emulate Stan Tshosane. Unfortunately I never got to be told the story of the royalties, but knowing Cuff Cuff, he would not have come from it empty handed.

Then he was back in Gabs fulltime, with Batsumi now history; Tiki relocating back home to Kanye while Guard followed Cuff Cuff to Gabs for a successful stint with Unity Band. I loved it most when the two guys were part of the ensemble assembled by Socca Moruakgomo to back him on the launch of his ‘What’s happening’ project at the now defunct Orient Express; a very executive evening, I must say. With Bra John Selolwane on lead, Lekofi back to his stronghold (piano) and Guard on bass. Socca could not have asked for more.

Then there came Cuff Cuff’s Just Friends metamorphosing as Jazz Friends depending on the need at hand. Yet another combo, where he reunited with Dollars Paledi and Whyte Kgopo, fighting for supremacy with Zakes Gwaze and Eric Juba’s Abraxas Band. Club entertainment was back on the upswing. At its peak, Just Friends robed in Thando Khaole of the Black Five fame from South Africa; “a hell of a singer” as Bra Whyte would describe him. Clearly at that time, Cuff Cuff and everybody else thought the Afro Sunshine Band days were back. But it all seemed to be moving slowly for my home boy, with pittance fees at every show for the whole band that were far from enough for even a single band member. I saw him take advantage of technology to go solo on cabaret shows, this time back on guitar, occasionally with Nunu Ramogotsi and such other emerging and available songbirds. I would occasionally slip into the Grand Palm lobby bar to enjoy his serenading pieces, to a glass. This must be the last of him that I saw musically, as he then migrated to the Casino, an alien to me for gloomy historic experiences that befell me and my family.

But there were other highlights I would remember my homeboy for. Then as a young teacher, hitchhiking to Kanye for an Afro Sunshine show at Ramatea, a beautiful outing in the garden, where I heard the song ‘Ntate Mathata ke eng Ntate, ha o sa rute bana’ for the first time and apparently for the last time. I am saddened by the fact that he left before completing the story on why he never took the song any further, a song he told me he wrote when they were in Swaziland. I thought that was a masterpiece, rich in wisdom; especially for those dads who look the other way once they are told their bedroom exploits have yielded a fruit. I imagined that the song could have been somebody else’s copyright, but wondered how such a rich Tswana song could come from Swaziland. I further wondered why he could go all the way to Mozambique to pinch ‘Tote’, but could not progress a Tswana song from Swaziland.

I will forever cherish the good times we had; the many hours on the dance floor that Cuff Cuff and the guys subjected us to with Afro Sunshine, a group that I apparently followed around the horizon, even at the very awkward of the times.

I will forever cherish the lovely periods I spent together with him and his band members when we were neighbours in Phase 4; with the guys sprawling on my (then) rich lawn, to some mesmerising notes from Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Bra Jonas Gwangwa, Aus’ Meriam Makeba, Bra Hugh, Zim Ngqawana and them.

Hugh Masekelas, Jane Osbournes, Sam Mangwana and many such shows, I still think Afro Sunshine’s best was when the guys were in their element at the Montshiwa stadium in Mahikeng, when they appeared with UB40 at the national stadium (clad in traditional skins) and when they played in the same show as Ray Phiri and Stimela at Bodiba in Mogoditshane. The guys were truly class. They left an everlasting impression.

We, Lobatseans will miss one of our own. We will miss his ‘dambanated’ if not ‘matjevinated’ flair in his humble Tswana. Go’o a go robetseng…444 in the UCCSA hymns. O dumele tsala.

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