Farewell, the great Village Pope

Tsepo Tshola, the Lesotho master musician whose music underscored our celebratory times and offered a warmth of solace in our periods of grief has died.

“I’m a son of a preacher and a prayer woman. They got married on stage. I’ve got all of this love of music and love of God from my parents. I grew up not knowing anything else but church and songs.” revealed Jazz legend Ts’epo Tshola in a radio interview on Power FM.

A career spanning over 40 active years is testament to the passion at the heart of that distinct baritone and stellar penmanship of Tsepo “The Village Pope” Tshola. The legendary jazz musician passed away at the age of 67 on 15 July 2021 in his hometown Berea in Lesotho, after being hospitalised for Covid-19 related complications. The Lesotho born and raised musician was one of the beloved sons of the Southern African Jazz advent that dates as far back as apartheid South Africa, well into the new millenium and beyond.

Along with the music of great and also departed South African jazz legends such as Hugh Masekela, Jabu Khanyile, Jonas Gwangwa and Zimbabwean legend Oliver Mtukudzi, amongst others, Tsepo Tshola’s music formed part of a distinguished cultural experience that was a staple in Southern African living. Just like how kwaito was the soundtrack weaved into the fabric of post-Apartheid South African urban youth, Southern African jazz was ingrained in the festivities of the black adult populace in similar fashion.

Before reaching his legendary status as a revered household name, Tsepo Tshola was a young Mosotho boy making music with his friends in the Lesotho district of Berea. In the 70s, they formed the famed band Sankomota, which consisted of Frank Leepa (guitarist, vocalist, arranger, composer and founder of the band), Moss Nkofo (drummer), Black Jesus (percussion), Moruti Selate, Pitso Sera (guitar) as well as Tsepo himself (as lead vocalist and composer).

The band went through transitions in its journey (name changes, from Anti Antiques and Uhuru to Sankomota), eventually gaining success, particularly in neighbouring South Africa and Europe. For some, it was seen as Lesotho’s equivalent to South Africa’s Stimela which was also a popular band of the time. Sankomota would go on to release six albums before the passing of the group’s founder – who by all accounts  was a virtuosic genius – Frank Leepa. Their last album, Frankly Speaking, was released in 2001, with Frank passing two years later. Tshola, who had flirted with a solo career, would fully branch out shortly before then, with the release of his debut solo album, the critically acclaimed A New Dawn.

Moving to South Africa and becoming a permanent resident, he enjoyed a long and fruitful career that saw him releasing multiple albums that did exceptionally well. He was good friends with Hugh Masikela, collaborating with him and a score of other notable South African musicians. Some of these collaborations include Brenda Fassie’s “Boipatong”, Hugh Masekela’s “Tsoang Tsoang”, and Thandiswa Mazwai’s “Ndilinde”. He also featured kwaito musician Thebe on his own song called “You Inspire Me”. Kabomo also covered Sankomota’s “Papa”, written and sung by Tsepo Tshola.

Curiously, Ntate Tsepo seemed to have a soft spot for hip hop that most elder statesmen musicians of his ilk didn’t really have. He collaborated with South African hip hop star Cassper Nyovest on his emotional ode to his father called “Superman”, as well as collaborating with Jub Jub on his heartfelt comeback single “Ke Kopa Tshwarelo”, after serving a stint in prison following his culpable homicide for the death of four children in 2012. I imagine both Cassper and Jub Jub sought his services largely due to his boisterous baritone voice that offers a soothing and reassuring sentimentality, easing any trepidation – which is exactly the kind of feelings the two artists wanted to evoke in their respective songs, even if for different reasons. Perhaps his understanding and appreciation for hip hop is owed to his two sons, Kamogelo and Katlego Tshola who are both hip hop musicians in Lesotho. He also made an effort to collaborate with younger upcoming artists from Lesotho such as Selimo Thabane, Ntate Stunna, as well as Bonolo who is from QwaQwa.

“Ho Lokile” is arguably Tsepo Tshola’s most loved and popular song and it is sadly the most fitting song to play at this time. It is a hauntingly beautiful song that abounds with gut-wrenching melancholy, as it is about grief and the acceptance of God’s will at the wake of a loved one’s death. He adapted it from a hymn, given that his parents were active members of the church. Legend has it, he reimagined and sung it as an ode to his wife after her brutal slaying 30 years ago. A permanent fixture in his live performance sets, it is a song that has brought tears to multitudes while watching him perform it live.

And that is the alchemy in Tsepo Tshola’s music. His music could make us all dance frantically (cue “Kithi Githi”) in one instance, and have us wailing in the next. He wrote with biting humour, an accessible ubiquity, and an immutable warmth, always. His music, from Sankomota to the collaborations and the solo stuff, was a richly giving experience and will remain so even now that he has transitioned. His name has finally been called and may God be pleased with his soul.

Rest well, Village Pope.

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