Botswana’s live music circuit top brass was present at the Lizard Lounge last weekend. Guitarist John Selolwane strummed, Lister Boleseng, who released his debut album last year, was on the saxophone, and Makhwengwe Mengwe capably manned the drums.
As Lekofi Sejeso sang Mabasekete, an Afrosunshine hit from yesteryear, about a basket-weaving merchant, a friend turned to me, and zealously predicted, “2007 is going be a comeback year for old school musicians!”
My visionary mate might be on to something too. A few days later I heard of a flurry of musicians who had played in the pub and club scene for decades were setting out to release albums. Amongst them is the ingenious John Selolwane who also renewed his pact of releasing an album.
The Sunday Standard set out to find out what caused the flurry and what has delayed our esteemed artists to record:
John Selowane has had an extraordinary musical career spanning over forty years. In that time, he has performed alongside celebrated international musicians, from Abigail Khubeka and Busi Mhlongo to Paul Simon and Buddy Guy.
“In one way or another, I have been recorded with artists that I have collaborated with at home and away,” Selolwane told me. But what has kept him from releasing his own album?
“Record companies!” Selolwane retorts without hesitation. “In 1982, I was signed on by a foreign recording label. I set off recording music (in a mobile studio at Woodpecker) that was intended to be released under my name. When the time came for the music to be polished in a London studio (as per agreement), dishonesty on the part of the recording company became apparent; my album was shelved only for a few of the tracks to be released years later on the Sarafina motion picture soundtrack.
“I am still in possession of the rough mix that has the songs Se a Lela Setshaba and the movie title track, Sarafina. I was sidestepped when that music was released.
“Record companies have the power to contract you then put you off the market.”
John Selolwane is in the process of striking an independent contract of sorts with an up and coming Forensic Records, managed by Skizo, for an album that will totally be under his control.
On his part, guitarist Selolwane does not profess to know why practicing musicians in Botswana have not been recording.
“Perhaps they consider recording to be expensive.” He goes on to counter his statement, “Botswana has a minute target market for music; it is assumed that 6.5 percent of a country’s population are music consumers.” That would be approximately 10, 500 units, barely enough to reach South Africa’s gold record status of 25000 records.
Lister Boleseng, an alto saxophonist, only released his debut album after a musical presence spanning 20 years. He has also appeared in numerous band line-ups.
Boleseng and his peers’ interest in music was thickened by the arrival of Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa.
“There were no recording studios or music schools at the time,” he said. So the interest didn’t spur any recording from the fresh bloods as they experienced new music. Hugh Masekela’s own Techno Bush album was recorded in a mobile studio.
Death. It stuck out disturbingly from his reasons for the surge of musicians recording, “Many musician have taken their talent to the grave; I wanted to have the opportunity to contribute to popular culture, like Duncan Senyatso and Ratsie Setlhako have done.”
Boleseng deems the musicians suffer from some sort of perfectionism syndrome. “I had the same problem because of the records I listened to; I wanted to produce a high standard production that showed growth so I would go over it over and over again polishing the material, and, thankfully, my peers eventually got through to me and I released the material.”
I spoke to Kgalagadi Jazz promoter, Shima Monageng.
“As a promoter and music retailer, I must say I look forward to this surge of recordings because not only will the artists gain financially from sales, they are in a position to register with SAMRO and benefit from royalties if and when their music is played in South Africa,” said Monageng. “I will also have music to sell and artists to promote. It has been difficult in the past negotiating with local artists (who are of high calibre) but with not a single recording. As a promoter, recordings are the tools with which I attract an audience. These artists have often been disadvantaged to negotiate better fees.”
Bass guitarist Citie, also welcomes this influx, stating, “There are no benefits in not recording; recording is documenting culture and leaving a mark for future generations to enjoy and refer to. The hidden talent in Botswana will be exposed to be enjoyed by all.”