Decades before a yuppie African-American politician could enthrall the world with his message of change, an iconic, voice-of-a-generation Motswana musician was already singing about it.
“A re chencheng [Let’s change],” Ratsie Setlhako implored the nation.
How could this man, who had no western education have been that forward-looking, asked an audience member at a public lecture given by Dr. Batho Molema at the University of Botswana on Thursday evening.
“Never underestimate the intelligence of folks created by God,” Molema responded.
The statement drew rapturous applause from an audience largely made up of Gaborone-resident professionals.
You get a sense of just how intelligent Ratsie was when you apply your mind to his music. Molema rendered his own interpretation of Ratsie’s music, revealing the hidden messages in the songs as well as the subtleties of Setswana.
Morobanyana sounds an innocent enough song until you pay close attention to the language. It is about a home-bound man who, despite his ‘”limp”, is determined to reach his destination (Ramokgwebana) and reunite with his spouse. A mischievous grin suffusing his face, Molema invited the audience to consider the meaning of “limp” in a broader semantic context. That was Ratsie’s genius. Someone not as linguistically endowed as him would have used the word ‘horny’ which would have had the effect of spoiling the aesthetic effect of the music. Crassness is not art and as an artist, Ratsie could not be crass. At one point in his life – and as was common in those days, Ratsie worked in the South African mines as a labourer. The men would be separated from their families for months on end and were thus deprived of conjugal comforts.
Morobanyana, Molema offered, tells the story of a man determined to “endure separation and fight sexual desire.” Put differently, the lyrical content of the song is essentially two-thirds of the National AIDS Coordinating Agency’s ‘ABC’ message: abstain, be faithful, condomise.
Molema came to know Ratsie when he was working at Radio Botswana and still has vivid memories of his interaction with the legendary musician.
He would spend the whole day in the studio with the elderly man, recording his music. In what would have been a long session, Ratsie’s segaba gave up on him and the music lost its melody. He went outside and scooped some sand with his hand. He then rubbed the sand along the string to scrape the dirt off and, lo and behold, the melody was restored.
Molema also hosted an RB jazz programme. It so happened that one of the change-themed songs fused very well with A re chencheng in terms of beat, pitch and melody. Ratsie provided the vocals and thus a remix was concocted.
Gifted though he was, Ratsie’s music did not bring in good money and he died a pauper. The death itself was tragic. He was mowed down by a truck in Palapye. A school in the village has been named after him.