Zakes Mda is one of South Africa’s best-loved novelists – though he is also a celebrated playwright, children’s book author and an increasingly visible painter. His latest novel, Wayfarers’ Hymns, is at once full of drama and mirth, set in Lesotho and playing out in the bloody world of famo musicians. At a launch of the book at the University of Pretoria, Dr Nokuthula Mazibuko-Msimang interviewed Mda about it. This is an edited transcription of that interview.
Q: I was intrigued that yes, you talk about the culture of Basotho and the instruments of Basotho, but not in the way that you’ve done before, as a kind of healing salve to our colonial oppression and apartheid and so on. This is a different ballgame. Tell us a little bit about what inspired you. And about the process of writing this book about musical gangsters, really.
A: This book is centred around famo music. Which is a genre of music in Lesotho. Very popular there, predominantly the instrument there is the accordion, it used to be the concertina before. So Basothos have taken the concertina and the accordion and turned them into Sesotho traditional instruments.
And it’s a kind of music that’s full of poetry. And the poetry is known as hymns, difela, but these are secular hymns, they are not religious hymns. And so that is why the title is Wayfarers’ Hymns.
Wayfarers are travellers. The title comes from the Sesotho name of the genre, it’s “difela tsa batsamai”, which means “the hymns of those who traverse the land” … Now, I grew up knowing this music because I grew up in Lesotho. But it’s only recently that I learned new things about it, which are recent developments, gang wars, the wars, amongst the gangs that are led by musicians themselves.
So these musicians have evolved into gang leaders. And every weekend in Mafeteng, which is a district in Lesotho, there are their funerals of musicians who have died in these wars, of their followers, of the chorus boys and so on. Fighting for territory, fighting for followers, but also fighting for illegal mining.
The illegal mining that happens here in Gauteng, in Welkom and so on, is actually led by the musicians, the leaders of these gangs. So I was fascinated to hear of this because I’ve never read about it, even in the newspapers.
Sometimes you will hear that four zama zamas, by which they mean the illegal miners, were found dead on the roadside or something like that. And they never dig deeper, who were they, why were they there? And then right into the fact that the mining operations, the illegal mining operations are actually run by syndicates of Basotho musicians. They are fighting over these territories as well. And indeed, when you listen to the music, I mean, it’s beautiful, it’s healing, with wonderful poetry, but it engenders a lot of death. You know, which is a contradiction in terms. I think that’s what fascinated me to write a novel set in this community of famo music, examining the culture that gave birth to it, the culture of the old MaRussia gangs, the Russian gangs of the 50s. And then up to the contemporary musicians, because you see, you trace the ancestry