They are all here, your Setswana folklore musicians who strum the four-stringed guitar and do tricks on segaba and fenjoro, Solly Sebotso, Ronnie Moipolai, Molefe Western Lekgetho, Sibongile Kgaila, Oteng Piet, Batlaadira Radipitse and Babsi Barolong with the ensemble’s solo keyboardist, the one and only Annafiki Ditau. And they are going places and earning fame and money, thanks to Dutchman Johannes Vollebregt and American David Aglow, writes GOSEGO MOTSUMI
In a historic turn of events, Batswana folklore artists have released a music compilation titled, “I’m Not Here to Hunt Rabbits,” which is also set for an international release after it was launched in Gaborone recently. The record, which was released in CD and vinyl format, is particularly historic because the world is in search of Botswana’s authentic sound that has not been properly documented, let alone distributed, over the years. With a population of only two million people, it has been a struggle for Botswana’s folklore guitar music to be heard as the industry is still growing and the market is small. But all this is about to change because international record companies will be taking Botswana’s folk music to the world.
The new record, jointly released through the German label Piranha Records and Brooklyn’s The Vital Record, features music of traditional guitarists Solly Sebotso, Ronnie Moipolai, Molefe Western Lekgetho, Sibongile Kgaila, Oteng Piet, Annafiki Ditau, Batlaadira Radipitse and Babsi Barolong. The owner of Vital Records, David Aglow, was introduced to the artists’ works via an email with a link to videos uploaded online by a user who identified as bokete7. With the subject title of the email reading, “The only way to play the guitar,” Aglow could not resist following the link, subsequently making the decision to travel to Botswana to record the artists in 2014.
“Like millions of others who had viewed the videos online, I was mesmerised by an androgynous figure in a headscarf playing guitar with a logic defying left hand technique,” he said. “Instead of reaching under the instrument’s neck from behind, this person was reaching over it from above. The treble strings banged out the tune while steady bass slapped, snapped or even hit with an elbow sustained it from below with remarkable fluidity. The first logical step was to contact whoever posted the video.”
The online link sent Aglow to a repost that cited the original upload posted by a user called bokete7. He found bokete7’s Youtube page, which he described as a goldmine of contemporary African folk replete with dozens of videos featuring various artists and instruments. Aglow managed to get in contact with the user who was quick to respond to his email. It turned out that bokete7 is an ex-pat from the Netherlands called Johannes Vollebregt who lived in Botswana for more than 30 years. Vollebregt would run into these exceptional street musicians around Gaborone and decided to film them with his new camera and uploaded the videos on Youtube. A guitarist himself, Vollebregt was fascinated by the creativity and intricacy of the style and uploaded hundreds of videos, racking up millions of views. Aglow spent about two months in Gaborone alongside Vollebregt and its surrounding villages recording the eight musicians featured on the collection.
“The first musician I met was Western. I had heard about Youtube and watched music videos there, even though the Internet here can be very slow. I thought of posting this music online. At that point, no one had posted any of these musicians. Even today, not many other people post them,” Vollebregt said, adding that he wanted to give the artists some credit and get them some recognition at an international level.
Thanks to the videos, some of the artists were booked for a show in Cape Town and performed daily at the Baxter Theatre for two weeks. Solly Sebotso has toured internationally and won several national guitar contests and the album’s lone keyboardist, Annafiki Ditau, wrote Re Babedi, the rare local hit playing on radio. The gig was a success and they got paid handsomely.
Ronnie Moipolai is the face of Botswana’s guitar on Youtube because his videos have millions of hits. A true itinerant musician, he played his music any time, anywhere but his natural environment is at a shebeen where people go to unwind. His songs can last up to 10 minutes and included his theatrical style of play citing lyrics about local issues. One of them, Ditakaneng, which gives an honest account of what happens in the Gaborone township of the same name, is featured in the compilation, as well as his other song titled Special.
Aglow and Vollebregt included two songs (Ke a Tsamaya and Condom) by Babsi Barolong, who plays a three-stringed violin-like instrument called the fenjoro, and another two (Mmanti and Ngwana wa Dichabeng) by Oteng Piet, who plays the segaba, a one-string bowed instrument.
“Our traditional guitar always has four strings, never six,” said Sibongile Kgaila. “With six strings you are now moving into jazz and other kinds of music. All the songs I play are my own compositions. All guitar players around here know each other and over the years I have shared lots of tricks and tips, but I take pride in having my own distinct style.”
The 19-track vinyl also features Annafiki’s Re Babedi and Mma Thabo, Solly Sebotso’s Rampoka and Chaba Bakweni, as well as Batlaadira’s famous track Mmamanthwane and Ke Nnete. The aim of the compilation is to get the artists recognition and a wider support for their music that the world has been yearning to own and enjoy.