Accordion cowboys

2014-01-30 08:00

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Tseliso Monaheng explores famo, a popular form of accordion music that blends storytelling, spoken word and rapid-fire rap styles to reflect the lives of Basotho

Famo has spawned several successful musicians, but it has also promoted rivalries among groups and individual players in Lesotho – some of which have been deadly.

The story of Lesotho’s traditional music has its roots in a community dating back to the late 1800s, which spawned the songs of li tsamaea-naha – the migrant labourers who journeyed for days on foot to work in the mines in South Africa. The men would compose songs during their migration about everything from love interests to the hardships of life. The freestyle traditions of that era are still closely guarded by contemporary musicians in Lesotho.

Lesotho’s traditional music is referred to as famo, (from ho re famo, meaning to flare one’s nostrils) or ’mino oa koriana (accordion music). Today it is a self-sustaining entity with its own set of rules, allegiances, internal power struggles and ways of generating profit.

The music is a lingua franca for Basotho people in Lesotho and the diaspora, and different regions have their distinctive sounds, as do the different groupings, such as the Terene, Seakhi and Fito.

Famo has had its fair share of conflict. Over the years, different musicians and their groups have been involved in verbal showdowns to defend their reputation, honour and musicianship.

Initially it was for sport, and verbal jabs were exchanged by different artists on their respective albums (the jousts of 1960s legends Apollo Ntabanyane and Phakane come to mind). But as time passed, a new school overtook the old guard and its members weren’t interested in playing by the same rules.

In the past five years, the rivalry between Terene and Seakhi has escalated, with deadly consequences.

The Lesotho Times newspaper has been monitoring the situation, keeping tabs on the number of fatalities as time goes by. “Fighting between the two has resulted in the senseless killing of more than 100 artists in the past two years,” the Times reported.

It’s a delicate subject, and no one is willing to talk about the fighting, which is understandable because even people who weren’t directly involved have been killed, including radio personality Thabang Moliko.

The story goes that Terene and Seakhi started out as funeral schemes, aimed at assisting their members financially during times of bereavement. Matters turned bad, so bad that the movements’ leaders, Terene’s Rethabile Mokete (alias Chakela) and Seakhi’s Bereng Majoro (alias Lekase) and Lehlohonolo Maketsi (alias Mahlanya), went into self-imposed exile in South Africa.

“I got tired of receiving tip-offs via my mobile about who was planning to kill me,” said Lekase.

The roots of the violence can be traced back to the marauding days of Marashea (or Russians), the criminal network of Basotho migrants who lived in South Africa immediately after World War 2. The name Marashea was inspired by the USSR’s victory over Germany during that war.

Its members were self-styled renegades who banded together in and around Joburg in the 1940s and 1950s, primarily to protect each other from urban gangsters and rivals from other ethnic groups. Membership was open to all Sesotho speakers.

Stories about Marashea were legendary, such as the one about how they buried one of their own by tossing the casket skywards before spraying it with bullets.

The violence obscures a deeper story about the music. Historian Lehlohonolo Phafoli advocates for the use of the phrase ‘accordion music’ over the word ‘famo’ to describe the music.

Accordion music encourages conversation. It’s a language blaring from loudspeakers in front of speakeasies and Chinese-owned shops – the sound distorted, the customers walking in and out, oblivious to the noise.

It’s carried across the seas as envisioned by Moshoeshoe I in his conversations with the missionaries and the common people at the pitso (meeting), to countries now inhabited by pockets of Basotho: England, the US and even China. Famo is a universal language of all Basotho people.

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Joburg is a mecca for famo musicians, from the early days when groups such as Mahosana a ka Phamong and Tau ea Mats’ekha arrived to the present. Much of the production of albums by superstars of the genre, such as Mants’a and Lekase, takes place in the city.

The music may come from deep in the heart of Lesotho, but Jozi is where it is recorded. Although independent studios are springing up in Lesotho, state-of-the-art recording facilities are still a long way off.

Famo musicians do not write their words down. Every performance is an exercise in the art of recalling past events, of relating them succinctly to the audience, of mastering narrative to the point where a seamless transition between events results in a coherent tale of whatever message the lyricist wishes to convey. The form is called likheleke (wordsmiths).

Lekase best exemplifies the likheleke style. He favours a type of delivery known as masholu (thieves), where the lyricist steadily attacks the music without restraint, without a chorus, until the song ends.

At a famo music concert organised by the government to herald a truce between warring musical factions, Lekase found time in between songs to speak to the revellers. He spoke of nights spent in exile, of fearing for his life, of calls he had received asking his camp to watch out for assassins from “the other side”.

It felt surreal to be in his presence, such a towering figure who clearly commands respect among his followers.

Over the next four hours, all the famo musicians vied for the attention, the love and respect of the audience. Mants’a was ambushed by the crowd, who then hoisted him high above their shoulders and lifted him on to the stage. Chakela chanted a refrain from one of his famous songs and the audience chanted it right back with 10 times the vigour. At least for that night, the rivalry between the different camps was put aside.

However, one could not help but wonder how long a government-mediated truce would last.

Mahapelo Mohale, a committee member of the Lesotho Music Rights Association who was part of the concert’s organisational structure, was confident that it would.

Time will tell.

» This piece first appeared in Chimurenga Chronic, a quarterly Pan-African gazette published by Chimurenga. The new edition is available in bookstores, or for order or download, at

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