Ode to Sankomota’s Sankomota album on its 33rd anniversary

Oteng Chilume

I am extremely emotional about music, particularly the music of Stimela and Sankomota, and never fail to seize the opportunity to state and celebrate the milestones of these two bands.
This week marks the 33rd anniversary of Sankomota’s debut and eponymous album Sankomota which was first released in November 11, 1983 by Lloyd Ross’ Shifty Records.
It’s difficult for someone like me, who grew up living a bare life in small villages- far from the privilege and excess in towns- to conjure up a metropolitan themed article about a band like Sankomota where you almost always have to state that you first experienced the band from seeing it on the television, magazines or that your father bought the LP and you played it on the fancy family stereo. My recollection of town life is at best patchy, but what I remember about most of it, are far and few in between details provoked by memories of certain songs.
Whenever I listen to Stimela and Sankomota, I get emotional to the point of crying because somehow, the mood and feel of the music of these two bands always transports me back to the innocence and some heart-tugging experiences of childhood. I suppose I was always destined to be affected by music one way or the other. My grandfather, my father’s father, is an old man from Chadibe, a small village which is nestled between Borolong and Mathangwane. The latter is my mother’s home village. Before he moved to Chadibe, the main village, he lived at the Chadibe farming lands where along with being a subsistence farmer- he and my grandmother- ran a shebeen where they sold Khadi, a local brew made of wild raisins called Mogwana.
It’s this part of my grandparent’s industry which exposed me to music because, as far as I can remember, I was the only of my grandfather’s grandchildren allowed to help assemble and play the gramophone. My other memory of experiencing music was from being raised by my maternal grandmother, who is very fond of Mpaxanga, South African music which was and is till the staple of Radio Botswana, the national broadcaster. I suspect she learnt and loved the music while working as a ‘girl’ in apartheid South Africa where she worked in her youth. It was not until I lived with my father in Gaborone in the late 1980s and early 90s that I began to know band names and songs; before then, the only artist I knew by name was Leonard Dembo because I was particularly fond of his hit Venenzia, which I always felt very proud selecting and playing at my grandparent’s “Spot”, sending a wave of drunk adults into a rapid trans of joyful dancing. Venenzia is not a hard song to love if you grew up in our parts, especially in our farming lands where the only thing you knew was Mozimbabgwe and Brenda Fassie.
I experienced Sankomota while growing in Gaborone. My father was into reggae, and particularly loved Lucky Dube, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley and others. I have no memory of whether he had bought or dubbed Sankomota’s Ramasela from the radio or owned the actual LP, but I recalled that my little brother and I were particularly fond of the song, especially the part in the chorus which says “E mo lomile kae, mo maragwaneng”. Ramasela was played in my father’s house almost as frequently as Stimela’s Whispers in The Deep which we fondly called Phinda Mzala from the refrain in the chorus. My brother loved the latter song so much that he was called Phinda Mzala. Well, my brother was called many names you see, he was a livewire and the soul of any party and was easy to love because he was a happy child. Very often it is through my recollection of his free spirit that I recall the happiness of my childhood which besides our charged sibling rivalry and life struggles, always includes nostalgia for music.
You can imagine my joy in 2015 when as an adult, I bumped on Sankomota’s legendary vocalist, Tsepo Tshola, at South Africa’s OR Tambo Airport- while returning from a trip to America. I caught his sight just as I was coming into the terminal; his face was unmistakable even though I was surprised by how he had aged. Tshola was also travelling to Botswana where he was going to perform at the Hamptons jazz show. I summoned courage and went and greeted him, obviously star struck, and told him I was a journalist, broadcaster and thanked him for his and Sankomota’s music which I told him was the soundtrack of my childhood. While he was magnanimous, Tshola did not care about my emotionality and just acted towards me like a long-lost uncle, telling me that he was accompanied by an artist, Kelello Tekateka, who he wanted me to ‘expose’ in Batswana as I was in the media. We took a few photos together before I reclined to my seat where it really felt in my heart that something had come full circle…it is not every day that a boy who grew up in Chadibe, Shashe, Mosu- Ku Bhani La Ka Loiwa and Maun walks into one of his all-time favorite musical icons.
The occasion of the 33rd anniversary of Sankomota (the album) is also a great opportunity for people like me who grew up on Radio Botswana- to recall how the radio station affected our love for music as well as inspiring a village boy like me to pursue a lifelong dream of being a broadcaster.
For some of us whose parents could not afford televisions for large parts of our lives, RB 1 was the theatre of dreams in our childhoods because as well as inspiring our dreams, it made us love the music of great bands like Sankomota which later textured a lot of our memories about the past. In fact, today, RB 1 is the only radio station which plays most songs from this album, particularly Ramasela and Vukani.
It was not until much later that one fully appreciated the role of bands like Sankomota towards the liberation struggle and against the tyranny prevailing in Lesotho- from which this band previously going by the name Uhuru, originates and was thrown out – a blessing in disguise as it later blossomed against all odds in Apartheid-South Africa, recording a string of hits. If there is anything that this album represents, it is the genius of Frank Leepa, the band’s guitarist, vocalist, arranger and composer. But much simpler, for some of us, the album Sankomota carries songs which throw us back to our childhood, a place 35 years in the past and now too far from the current age of great discontent, strife, agony and disillusionment. We often find ourselves with nowhere to hide our fears for the future except in the nostalgia of great music.