Watching Ntirelang ‘NT’ Berman’s slight frame playing his acoustic guitar and sing on stage, explains why he is one of Botswana’s most written about young musicians, but, yet to release an album. Berman’s raw style of singing makes for his rousing performances.
The 26-year-old self-taught guitarist has completed an 8-track album that draws from his Selete culture, and while traditional music currently enjoys status as Botswana’s most popular music, Berman hopes to bring variety to the mix.
“Currently, the traditional music that is recorded is dance driven,” Berman states. “Not that it’s a bad thing. I, however, draw from Selete music which has a slow tempo ebile o diretswe go lapolosa maikutlo (and relaxing).”
As I spoke to Berman, he sat beside a guitar that had two strings missing. “This represents the Setswana 4-string guitar,” he explained. Most of the recorded Setswana guitar folk music played on RB1’s Sunday program, Dipina le Maboko, is played on such tuned guitars. The tone is different.
“You are probably never going to get the same sound playing (local folk guitarist) Stampore’s music on a 6-string guitar, there are songs that I have composed and recorded with the 4-string guitar such as Mmampudi.”
Mmampudi is a narrative song about the trials and errors of three women. It borrows its name and chorus from a children’s folk ditty.
“I have not released the album yet,” Berman says. “I am trying to figure out who to release it with.
“Since my expression of traditional music is different from the norm, it should be presented as it is and then we can see how Batswana respond to it.
Berman believes this could be the beginning of a sub-genre in the traditional music industry. “I want to create music that will be unique to Botswana, I know it is not going to be easy.”
The thespian’s singing style has its roots in poetry. His very first act was a poem written by his teacher in Standard 4.
“I joined traditional dance troupe at school, reciting poetry as part of the choreography,” he says. “As a dancer and poet, I then joined Baruuakgodumo, a Ramotswa based drama group.
“Mme nne ke hela tota,” (I however sang off-key, terribly) he laughs, “I did not sing at all in the traditional dance troupe or drama group. Instead, I created vocal soundscapes and played the whistle. Along the way, I also enjoyed acting.”
Berman’s turning point was when his drama group introduced musical instruments to traditional dance.
Though he particularly enjoyed the marimba, he found out that they swallowed his poetry.
“There came a time when I wanted to do my poetry as a solo performance, because with Baruuakgodumo the poems were in the context of dance.”
He started searching for an instrument that would accompany him
“I tried segaba, setinkane and keyboards. The keyboards sounded too western, the segaba and setinkane too quiet. Finally, I found the guitar which I found to be nearest to the marimba sound, and which sustained sound longer.
“I ended up singing my poetry rather than reciting it.”
Berman’s creative experimentation has not been without hiccups. While sharing ideas with other performers, Berman says, Kgaladua, another recorded poet, snatched his style.
“The way he sings and recites poetry, that was how I did it before. I had to reconsider my delivery because people would see me as imitating Kgaladua and, ironically, I have learnt my shortcomings from listening to him.”
“I want to create my own voice so that if, for example, I should collaborate with another traditional act, our styles must be eminent. It will give Batswana an edge in world music.”