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Accordion Cowboys

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

Photo by Hlompho Letsielo

Photo by Hlompho Letsielo


The story of Lesotho’s traditional music scene has its roots in a community dating back to the late 1800s and which spawned the songs of li tsamaea-naha – the migrant labourers who journeyed for days on foot to work in the mines of South Africa. These men would compose songs during their sojourns, 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-governing, self-sustaining entity complete with its own set of rules, allegiances, internal power struggles, and ways of generating profits. 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 group camps or groupings, such as the Terene, Seakhi and Fito.

The music scene has had its fair share of conflict; at different points in time, different musicians and their groups have been involved in some sort of verbal showdown to defend their reputation, honour and musicianship. Initially it was for sport, with verbal jabs being 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.

During the past five years the rivalry between Terene and Seakhi has escalated sharply, with deadly consequences. The English language weekly Lesotho Times 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 in 2011 about the Terene/Seakhi face-off. It’s a delicate subject to discuss; no one is willing to part with information, understandably so, seeing that even people who weren’t directly involved have fallen victim, such as slain radio personality and cultural enthusiast Thabang Moliko.

The story goes that Terene and Seakhi started out as funeral schemes, aimed at assisting their members financially and otherwise during times of bereavement. Matters turned bad, so bad that the movements’ leaders, Terene’s Rethabile Mokete (alias Chakela) and Seakhi’s Bereng Mojoro (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, the criminal network of Basotho migrants who lived in South Africa immediately following the Second World War. The name Marashea (Ma+Russia) was originally inspired by the USSR’s victory over Germany during that war. Its members were self-styled renegades who banded together in and around Johannesburg 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, however, obscures a deeper story about the music. Historian L.S. Phafoli advocates for the use of the phrase “accordion music” over the word “famo” to describe the music. This stance is rooted in a change of attitude among Basotho people regarding the music. Phafoli credits the duo of Apollo Ntabanyane and Forere Motloheloa, then known collectively as Tau Ea Mats’ekha, for this revolution. Although this musical form had previously been considered low-rank and pedestrian, the platforms which the group was afforded – stadium-size shows – conscientised people to the important role of accordion music in addressing people’s daily trials.

Themes reflecting the socio-political condition aren’t hard to come by in many of the songs. For example, the late musician Famole, universally admired for his impressive lyrical abilities and vocal stylings, appealed for calm among Basotho people during the 2003 elections.

“May forgiveness and understanding reign [among Basotho]/ may the elections be without tussle/ cease the fighting,” he sang in a bid to unite all political factions and to encourage them to work in harmony.

Mants’a, another famo heavyweight, who has mentored an impressive list of artists – among them Famole and Selomo – sang regularly about the preservation of cultural heritage, while also serving up references to pop culture and current affairs newsbites.

Accordion music encourages conversation. It de-trivialises human interaction by establishing commonality among its
adherents. It’s a language blaring from shitty loudspeakers infront of speakeasies and Chinese-owned shops – the sound distorted, the customers walking in and out, oblivious to the noise; it is also played by the middle classes at their weekend getaways. It’s carried across the seas as envisioned by Moshoeshoe I in his conversations with the missionaries and the common people at the pitso, to countries now inhabited by pockets of Basotho: England, the US, and even China.

Famo is a universal tongue of all Basotho people.

Johannesburg has been a mecca for famo musicians, from the early days when groups such as Mahosana a ka Phamong and Tau ea Mats’ekha cut their teeth there to the present time when much of the production of current 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, because although independent studios are springing up in Lesotho, state-of-the-art recording facilities are still a long way off.

Mahase, the kingpin of the group Mahosana a ka Phamong, rose from humble recording beginnings and got a break in Jozi circles in the mid-1980s. “We used to send demos to Johannesburg,” he says of those glory days when EMI was still a force to be reckoned with. “The first one we sent in 1984 failed, but the one we sent in 1985 got accepted.”

That demo resulted in Mahase’s debut album, Shaluza No.1, released in the same year, and the beginning of his rise to fame.

Jan Smit, or “Jane” as he’s often referred to on recordings, is a sound engineer who has been working the fringes of Jozi since the 1980s. His outpost, Takk Studios, draws established and startup acts alike, many of them from Lesotho. Mants’a, Chakela and Mahlanya, for example, constantly seek out his services.

After a swift climb up the stairs to the second floor of a church building in the Johannesburg neighbourhood of Kensington, sho’t left and straight ahead towards the end of the corridor, I come across a handwritten note stuck next to the door with sellotape: “Jan Smit 082******”, it reads. The door leads into yet another corridor with a door on the left. This is the studio’s waiting room, a modest space. A gold plaque of Umgqumeni’s iJukebox hangs on the wall. Eight chairs rest against half-white, half-grey walls. Discarded brown paper bags from Mochachos Chicken Fiesta are strewn across an office table. Above the table is a window that opens to reveal the downtown landscape: from this vantage point one can see Ellis Park Stadium and Ponte Towers, with a hint of the Hillbrow high-rises inside the frame.

Thani, the Takk engineer on duty today, has asked for some time to finish off a session. Finally he appears.

“So how long does it take to record an album?” I ask in my rudimentary Zulu.

“Sesotho is okay,” he offers, and then explains, “I’ve witnessed good spirits when working on the music. I think we take six to seven hours, and then the entire project is done.”


“Serious,” he says, “Zulu music takes longer, maybe five days, maybe two weeks. It depends [on the artist].”

“So how do you charge, per song or per session?”

“With Sesotho, we charge per song. There are different rates for different artists – the big ones like Chakela and Mants’a, and the ones who aren’t as established.”

There’s a notice in the waiting room that catches my eye, something to do with Sesotho and isiZulu bands having different terms of payment. One is required to pay upfront, the other can settle the bill afterwards. “Why the decision?” I wonder out loud.

Thani smiles nervously. “The Sothos, eish…Sometimes a Sesotho group arrives and records. After the process, they take the master recordings and disappear without a trace. They’ll only be back after a year, seeking a place to record again. So you find that we do all the work, but they refuse to pay, hence the rules.”

Recording is important, but famo remains a live music form.

“There’s a famo music festival happening at the end of the month,” read a message I received while on board a taxi headed towards Maseru for Christmas in 2012. My holidays would be spent listening to famo songs on cassette tapes in anticipation of the festival.

The concert had been organised by the government to herald a truce between warring musical factions. After the opening prayers and speeches were over, the legendary famo musician Mahase approached the stage like the senior figure he is, accordion comfortably resting on his chest, while the audience cheered him on. The band launched into the first song, one which he later told me they “didn’t know the parts to, they just followed my lead”. It was hard to tell, judging by how well each part gelled into the other, the accordion riding on the doubletime pattern of the drums, while the bass line rumbled beneath the organised chaos.

Translated, the lyrics spoke to the warring factions’ prior thirst for blood, and ended with a rallying call for peace: “I heard good news, I heard bad news/ musicians are uniting/ murderers, your work is over”. Poignant words.

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, where the lyricist steadily attacks the music without restraint, without a chorus, until the song ends.

The audience at the festival listened attentively to Lekase’s gospel, while a troupe of dancers, dressed elegantly in maroon blankets with a band of multi-coloured patterns and black T-shirts with the words “Ha se betsoe Seakhi” (“It will not be defeated”) emblazoned on them, encircled the performance area, raising their fighting sticks in lock-step with the music. Lekase found time in between songs to address those in attendance. He spoke of nights spent in exile, 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. He is like a oneman version of a Wu-Tang song, a sputnik firing off endless bars of free thought at the masses, leading a sermon about peace, love and forgiveness.

Over the following 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 onto the stage. Chakela chanted a refrain from one of his many well-known songs, and the audience chanted it right back with ten times the vigour. At least for that night, the rivalry between the different camps was put aside, their respective rallying calls, “Ha e tlale terene” (“Let the train fill up”) and “Ha se betsoe Seakhi”, fitting perfectly together. However, one could not help but wonder how long a government-mediated truce would last.

Prior to his assassination, the great famo musician Selomo had been active in negotiating a truce between Seakhi and Terene. He ended up being a victim at 36 years old – a string of bullets was pumped into him on an early morning in May 2011 outside a local hotel.

At his funeral, the then minister of Home Affairs, Lesao Lehohla, was heavily criticised by those in attendance. People questioned why the government wasn’t doing enough to combat the escalating violence. A newspaper quoted Lehohla as saying that the violence and resultant deaths were an abomination; that it was sad and shameful to have people dying at such a high rate. It wouldn’t be farfetched to presume that public pressure – through newspaper reports and popular shows on the radio – had forced the government to take action.

Mahapelo Mohale, a committee member of the Lesotho Music Rights Association who was part of the concert’s organisational structure, sounded confident that the truce would last. Asked whether he felt the media were partly responsible for the escalation of violence, Mohale agreed, adding that “the media is sensationalist. I believe that [they] should tell stories in a way which aims to build.”

For such a momentous occasion, the 20,000-seat national stadium should have been three-quarters full. But evidently the hardcore fans were either too broke or too self-absorbed to put their money where their mouths are, and the cool kids were too shit-scared to even consider attending a traditional music event.

Letsa koriana eno,” they say, “play that accordion.”

And so it went, until dawn came and the birds started singing.



This story features in the December 2013 edition of the Chronic.

Available here in print or as a PDF. The issue offers forays into interlaced subjects of power, resistance, protest, mobilisation, mobility and belonging.  

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