Thursday, October 5, 2023

The explosion of Setswana music is a great promise

I start this column where I ended the previous one, on the subject of music, specifically Setswana music. In the previous column I argued that the Setswana renaissance must always be seen as something holistic. Our focus must never be on language only, music only, theatre only, or bogosi only. We must accept that in restoring our lost values, culture and language; different contributors will have to emerge forcefully. It is therefore gratifying that in the past ten years we have seen a number of cultural groups and traditional dance troupes contribute to making the Setswana language and music main stream. This is in particular relevant in that most of these groups are youth based. The involvement of the youth guarantees longevity to a language, culture and music. One such group is Machesa. The group Machesa, popularised the Sekwena and Sengwaketse phatlhisi dance, in effect making it fashionable. Their unique sound and dance were rewarded with a Kora Award in 2003. This was probably the best musical achievement the country had ever had, comparable only to Botswana’s win of a singular Olympic medal by one Nijel Amos in 2012. Machesa have recently launched a new album called 16% which will probably delight many unionists. These Kora award winners have been silent for a while. From this album I was however most impressed by their song Chalobeke, which I believe will still be heard in our airwaves 10 years from now.

Many of our local musicians have brought much honour to the country and yet many are yet to receive commendation and recognition from their country of birth. One is reminded of the brilliance of Duncan Senyatso and the Kgwanyape band, founded in 1985 by Duncan Senyatso (singer and guitarist), his brother Caxton Senyatso (bassist) and the Scottish musician Simon Jaquet which up to this day stands as a reminder that much can be achieved with great determination and passion. Senyatso was one of the pioneers of commercial Setswana music when many turned their backs to singing in the national language. One of the most famous songs by this music genius is the song Sheleng from the album Mephato ya Maloba which even now sounds as fresh as if it were recorded only yesterday.

Sometimes when we talk of Setswana music, we conceive it much narrowly as that type of music with stomping dancers, matlhawa, phaeyana, young men with sticks, wearing ditshega. While this element of Setswana music is a significant part of the broader Setswana music, we must admit that the domain of Setswana music is much broader than this. This is because some Setswana music captures the traditional dances of the Batswana as well as their poetry. Another kind of Setswana music is the one that doesn’t restrict itself to a specific genre; rather it uses the Setswana language across a variety of genres. This is where there is much promise to the Setswana language development. One of the significant contributions of the missionaries to the Setswana language is the development of Setswana orthography. The Setswana language was seized and used to express a unique Christian content. Similarly, we see the Setswana language being used in other genres such as gospel music. Gospel music, perhaps more than other genres, has been at the forefront of producing music in the Setswana language. At one point the leaders of this type of music in Botswana were Mmereki Marakakgoro with his famous Eet-sum-mor and Chegongoro as well as Phempheretlhe Bafana Pheto with his Lekunutu le Morena. These music giants have since moved over and the new gospel king is certainly one man, Tshepo Lesole. His latest project I believe, has the popular song Nkabo ke le kae currently receiving outstanding airplay. Much of the Setswana gospel music is unrecorded and is played in many churches as part of praise and worship to God. There are however many recorded gospel artists who do their music in Setswana.

On the jazz front, we have people like Punah Gabasiane, Shanti Lo, Lister Boleseng, Soccer Moruakgomo, Tebogo Mathiba, Thabang Garogwe, Banjo Mosele and many others. A number of groups and individual musicians have also been reviving the old traditional music and modernizing it for the discerning modern listener. One such folklore artist is the young and highly talented Ntirelang Berman from Ramotswa who delights crowds with his distinctive singing and guitar playing style.

Another excellent musician Kabo Leburu who is a skilled guitarist and musician and has much in common with Berman has in recent times demonstrated much brilliance. The band Seragantswana is another breathtaking Setswana band. They use mbira, segankure, marimba, a bass guitar and a drum set live on stage. They remind us that music doesn’t have to be in English for it to be beautiful, captivating and electric.

I cannot cover the entire spread of Setswana music. We have Setampore, Ratsie Setlhako and many gifted Setswana musicians both in Botswana and South Africa. What this wealth of talent demonstrates is the depth and variety of talent that exists in the Setswana language. Such talent gives hope and shape to the survival and revival of the Setswana language.


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