The mountainous kingdom of Lesotho, with a few natural resources and no significant industrial development, is one of the world’s least developed nations. The country is entirely surrounded and economically dominated by the Republic of South Africa. Muchof the workforce is employed in the mines of South Africa, most of the men work in the gold and coal mines where they stay in men-only compounds on basic 6 months-contracts. This massive volume of migrant labour means that Lesotho is highly dependent on the Republic.
Bohale Ba Dinare may not be a familiar name but his music deserves your attention for sure since this album has been on my turntable for the last few days and its festive mood seems like the perfect soundtrack to welcome the New Year 2016.
Last March in South Africa I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Baird, an Englishman born in Zambia, living in Holland. He was playing percussion with some fellow musicians around a campfire during a braai, celebrating the birthday of a friend. Our meeting was a pleasant surprise as I had reviewed one of the CD’s which Michael releases through his label SWP Records, ‘Lesotho Calling -lesiba & sekhankula music’ (SWP 033). See my post Sounds & Basotho songs from Lesotho
I became even more fascinated by the fact that Michael also re-releases the famous Hugh Tracey field recordings that are part of the ILAM archives in Grahamstown, South Africa.
So here is an exclusive interview with Michael Baird about his label, his music and his many travels throughout Africa.
Tell me when you started your label and why?
That was in 1986. I had produced an album’s worth of recordings of my percussion trio Sharp Wood, having spent a lot of time and trouble getting a good sound and performances, and I looked around for a serious label to release it. It was so frustrating – one said “phone back in ten months”, another said “it’s really interesting music, but if only you were the latest thing from New York…..”, yet another said “if you change some things we’ll sell more…..” So I released it myself and we sold the lp ‘Percussion’ at our concerts. In my opinion the existing record business lacked vision.
What is your release policy? You state that SWP releases music that the big companies won’t touch. What makes SWP different from the rest?
SWP stands for Sharp Wood Productions. I release my own music – I am first and foremost a drummer and composer. I want to retain at all times the final artistic responsibility for my music, I don’t want some halfwit money-motivated producer looking over my shoulder telling me what to do! My music is ‘independent’, I think it sounds like nobody else’s. And then there is all the African music I have released: I don’t do it just to make a profit, I do it because I care about the music – and nobody else is releasing it. If SWP doesn’t release this beautiful music, you aren’t going to get to hear it!
You were born in Zambia. Describe your first encounters with the music of that country?
The first encounter was still in my mother’s womb. After that I had a black nanny and she took me down to the compound or village, where singing and dancing is a normal state of affairs, and I’m strapped on her back getting swayed back and forth, you know – music is everywhere in Zambia, because it’s an expression of ‘being together’. I grew up with African music.
What is your most memorable African music experience?
So many. Falling asleep in the evenings as a young kid with drums pounding in the distance. Hearing the magical tinkling of an approaching thumb-piano as the guy accompanies himself while walking through the bush. Sitting-in as a 7-year-old playing the basic patterns with drummers and xylophone players from Zambia’s Western Province. Hearing the thunder of a Rwandan drum ensemble as a 5-year-old. Being totally mesmerized as a 9-year-old by a Chopi xylophone ensemble from Mozambique. All in all, it’s the time patterns, the unity of beat. African music is a communal thing – you can join in if you know the tune or rhythm, but if you mess up you’ll get a clip round the earhole and told to listen!
You describe your style of drumming as ‘voodoo jazz’. Explain
It’s just a name, you know. But it refers to my music as a whole, and not just specifically my drumming. Some German journalist in 1988 wrote a review of a Sharp Wood concert and posed the question: “Is it jazz, or is it voodoo?” Wow, I finally knew what I was doing – I was playing voodoo-jazz! No, I kinda liked it because there is a ritualistic, exorcistic element in my music. Good rhythm is hypnotic, as you know. I try to blend musical concepts from both Africa and Europe into some kind of new music; the tag ‘voodoo-jazz’ will do fine for the time being.
Tell us more about the project The Ritmoloog? How does that fit into your catalogue?
The Ritmoloog Continues – it’s one of my albums, the continuing story of…..Michael Baird. Recorded in 2005, together with guest musicians. I had mixed midi and live playing together already on my cd ‘On Remote Patrol’ in 1996, and I wanted to pursue that. In between I had done other albums – ‘Sirenians’ was distilled from a composition commission for octet and ‘Gongs and Bells’ was all about overtones and sort of buddhists along the Zambesi. But in September I’ll be releasing ‘Ends and Odds’ which is like a continuation of The Ritmoloog concept. The final mixes are just finished, the mastering next week. Now that, folks, is a cd worth checking out! Afro-ambient grooves with weirdness thrown in. I play a lot of instruments on it – kalimbas, keyboards, drums – and again some guest musicians. The new is as old as the world, but I see myself as a ‘modernist’, and all that means is that I am in a position to steal from all over the place. But it definitely is still my soup!
Are you working as a musician or cultural anthropologist?
I am a musician. I am a colonial kid. Zambians say to me, well if your umbilical cord is buried in Zambia then you are a Zambian! All my live music experiences were African until the family moved to England when, as a 10-year-old, my parents took me to see a european classical concert. I couldn’t figure out where the fun was – no sweating, no dust, no masks, no drumming. It was Hugh Tracey’s recordings which inspired me to also make field recordings. I am self-taught as a musician and if I am also seen as an ethnomusicologist, then I’m self-taught there as well. I have thoroughly researched a lot of African musics – by now I know quite a lot about African music, even if I say so myself, but I approach it all as a musician and not as an academic. Let me add that by making field recordings, I practice ethnomusicology – the people working in university departments just teach the theory!
Why release the historical recordings of Hugh Tracey?
When I walked into the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in 1996 at Rhodes University, South Africa, where Tracey’s archive is kept, there was nothing available on cd. His original field tapes were literally just sitting on an academic shelf gathering dust, doing no one any good. Such beautiful music should be made available to the world! You see, if a piece of music moves me, I want to let you hear it. It then turned out that the condition of the old reel-to-reel tapes was pretty bad – after playing a tape through, there was a little pile of red dust next to the magnetic head: the goddamn coating was just coming off! No time to lose – after all, Hugh Tracey’s unique collection of recordings constitutes the musical memory of half a continent. Two years later I released my first four albums in what ended up as a 21-cd series ‘Historical Recordings by Hugh Tracey’. That took the best part of eight years of my life.
Why choose traditional tribal music instead of a selection of contemporary popular music from those countries?
That’s not totally accurate, as I have released two compilations with Zambian pop music from the 60s, 70s and 80s. But SWP releases music that no one else does – I never planned to do my Hugh Tracey series, but because no one else apparantly had the vision to do it, it fell to me to do it. Life is like that sometimes! If the music is already out there on the market, that’s fine, then I don’t have to do it. But if I know about some great music that no one else seems to know or either care about – which often I had had the priviledge to have heard as a child – then I reckon I should release it. On top of that, the traditional music is dying out.
In what way do you feel that it is important to preserve the music that you record?
The music I have recorded in Africa – 4 cds released so far and a 5th coming before the end of the year – is dying out. You see, first the missionaries arrived and forbade the devil’s music, then in the colonial era, into which I was born, there was this incredible arrogance that all African music was primitive, then in the post-colonial era the new governments had the idea that everything Western was superior anyway, and nowadays most countries don’t have the means to care for their cultural roots. ‘Music Conservatory’ is an interesting name because it contains the word ‘conserve’ – there are only very few African countries that conserve their musical traditions.
In what way do you see the loss of traditional society vs the modern industrialised society?
Well, it’s all about cultural diversity. We need cultural diversity on this earth, because the alternative is a mono culture – and that’s a sad place to be. Vive les differences! Once you’ve got people eating the same, they’ll soon all be thinking the same. Yeah, macmadness…..plus there is so much musical genius to be found in traditional music – it took centuries to create it for godsakes. We can learn so much musically from this music, so don’t let it just disappear. I am a contemporary person, I’m not a purist, I like to mix things up, but there is a cultural tragedy going on and we should care about it! If some young musicians from Zambia are making ‘new music’, then I want to be able to hear that they are from Zambia, i.e. that they are creating from their own rich musical roots, and not copying hiphop or whatever. MTV is destructive for local creativity. But I just love the Kasai Allstars from Kinshasa and Jagwa Music from Dar-es-Salaam – examples of new music from the cities but coming from their own roots.
What was the biggest challenge for you to record this music? And the biggest reward?
The biggest challenge is financial. Malaria, crocodiles, paranoid policemen, I can deal with – but I can’t continue making field trips to Africa because it costs too much money. Meaning SWP is not selling enough of those cds! And I don’t get any funding, I have to pay out of my own SWP pocket. Funnily enough, finding funds to continue his fieldwork was also Hugh Tracey’s constant worry throughout his life. It’s a pity – there are trips to parts of Mozambique, Zambia, Congo, Central African Republic, that I would like to do. The biggest reward is the music itself – finding it, and then making a technically good recording of a great performance. They are my music colleagues you know!
What is more important to you; the rhythms or the words/poetry? Words that you may not understand, why do they speak to you?
Words are also sounds. Languages are also music. Mwa-bu-ka-bu-ti! Kaf-e-keni-po-mu-kwai! You don’t have to understand the meaning of a lyric to enjoy the organic whole. However, if a song has a real social or spiritual message, you’ll miss out on it if you don’t get the translation. But for example, one time I heard this great drumming and there were a couple of sentences repetitively sung in the groove – turned out all they were singing was “yes we’re all here, if you are not here, then where are you?” I was already enjoying the music okay, but when I heard that, it brought tears to my eyes. Words can detract from music, but they can also add to it.
Why is it important to save traditional African music for the world?
Because it is so beautiful. Also, in African traditional music you find a collectiveness that you will probably find nowhere else in the world: on your own you are nobody, together we are someone. Now that’s a strong philosophical message which us Westerners with all our individualism can learn from! Historically speaking, we are in a crucial fase as far as African music is concerned, many traditions are disappearing as you read this article. But I’m optimistic – I actually think that the future is African.
The album ‘He O Oe Oe!’ by the Sotho singer Puseletso Seema, backed by the group Tau Ea Linares, translated ‘King of Buffaloes, was originally released in 1985 by Globestyle, the UK label of Ben Mandelson and is long out of print. The recordings on this album are unique because Ben, as a passionate music aficionado, arranged for the meeting of Puseletso Seema and Tau Ea Linare, who normally record separately.
Sotho traditional music is an integral part of Sotho social education and traditionally links hearing with the understanding of the natural and social worlds. The Sotho describe instruments as either liletsa tsa matsoho (those sounded by the hand) or liletsa tsa molomo (those sounded by the mouth). The former category includes the moropa and skupu drums, these days often made from oil cans because of scarcity of wood. The latter category includes the lesiba, a mouth-resonated stick-zither sounded by blowing. The primary use of the lesiba is in cattle-herding; bird sounds and actions are seen to affect cattle; these sounds can be imitated on the lesiba and the instrument is thus used to control the animals’ behaviour. The whistles and yipping are herdboy’s calls as recorded for the particular song.
translated means ‘land can’t be fat’ -the song is about land that cannot receive rain or nourishment or proper care, cannot yield food to feed it’s people
Traditionally there was no professionalism in Sotho music, although this has developed in response to changes in Sotho culture. Broadcasting and exposure to other styles of African and international music and the demands of the pop music market, even the introduction of the accordion, all have their influences on musicians and singers.
excerpts from the original linernotes of ‘He O Oe Oe!’ by Puseletso Seema & Tau Ea Linare. Globestyle ORB 003 UK 1985
I could not believe my luck when I found this album; “Lesotho sings”, songs from the kingdom of Lesotho, a mountainous country that is completely surrounded by South Africa. There are a few recordings by Hugh Tracey that were recorded during his fieldwork in 1957 known to me, but I must admit that not many records from Lesotho have crossed my path before…
“Lesotho Sings” consists of a collection of hymns and folk songs as sung by The Maseru and Hlotse Methodist Choir conducted by Alex Gwinsta.
The Basotho, like their fellows the Zulus, the Xhosa and Tswana, love to sing! The Negro Spirituals of the deep South, and the natural harmonies of the African in his own habitat, share a bond, indicating a common heritage intensified by the deep felt religious convictions of the African folk at heart.
They sing of their honoured founder, Moshoeshoe; they sing well-loved hymns from their wide repertoire, they sing in English and in Latin, as well as in their sister languages, Tswana and Xhosa and of course in their own Lesotho tongue.
Excerpts from the original liner notes of “Lesotho Sings” The Maseru and Hlotse Methodist Choir conducted by Alex Gwinsta–private pressing Lesotho
…and another excellent compilation of lesiba and sekhankula music, “Lesotho Calling”
The lesiba is a blown mouthbow, whereas members of this family of instruments are struck or plucked. At well over a meter in length, it is among the longest. This ancient instrument of the Khoi people, known as gora was once widespread throughout present day South Africa, as it was readily adopted by several newly arrived Bantu peoples –called ughwali by the Xhosa, kwadi by the Pedi, lesiba by the Sotho. But only the lesiba survives today.
Dada Moqasa & Michael Baird
‘the beauty of this instrument immediately knocked me out. A meditative sound, almost abstract but definitely breathing, an array of overtones, music of the ancestors, music of birds and mountains, a sound that could only come from Africa’ . Words by Michael Baird who recorded what he found on his trip through Lesotho in 2006; lesiba players and another herdsman’s instrument, the sekhankula bow and some old-style Sotho concertina.
The title comes from an expression used by some players to announce themselves before starting to play ‘Move aside, I’m the man!’
Another herdsman’s instrument of Lesotho is the sekhankula, also known as maohorong depending on which district. It is a musical bow that is played with a bow stroking the strings and is widely distributed throughout South Africa. A curved stick or sometimes a straight steel rod, of the type used for reinforcing concrete, is put into a 5 –liter paraffin can through the top end, which is open having been removed by sawing and the stick/rod is jammed in place. The string is a length of tin iron wire, which is attached to the top of the stick and fixed to the outside of the far corner of the can; the can acts as a resonator, sometimes with an opening cut in the bottom and small holes punctured in the sides.
Motsoetla plays instrumental only, no singing. At the beginning of this track, we can hear him rubbing his bow across the top of his instrument a few times where he had his resin reserve. This is something all the sekhankula players do before commencing a piece.
Samuel Tolosi and Motsoetla Letsie with a sekhankula