News of Afro-jazz legend Tshepo Tshola’s death last week left many people cold.
The Village Pope breathed his last in Teyateyaneng, Lesotho just a month shy of his 68th birthday. He had been hospitalised for a week with COVID-19.
A week before his death, Tshola had buried his sister, who succumbed to complications related to the new coronavirus. Another sister is said to in a critical condition.
Many will remember Tshola for classics like “Ho Lokile”, “Madambadamba” with the legendary Sankomota, “Shine Your Light and “Ntate”. These were just a few of the hits he churned out in a career spanning over 30 years.
I was first exposed to his music in my teenage years when the proprietor of a bar near my father’s small restaurant in Harare would play Tshola’s songs – every single day. When I became an arts journalist, I fell further in love with his music as my understanding of it broadened and deepened.
As fate would have it, we were to become friends when I moved to Lesotho. We interacted first in the planning of the Lesotho Times Fanfest which was held in November 2018. In an interview prior to the event, I challenged him – as I had challenged his friend Oliver Mtukudzi a week earlier – to do a collabo with the Zimbabwean superstar.
Sure enough, just as Tuku responded, Tshola gave me the task of planning the collaboration. Little did I know at the time that Tuku had been unwell.
Another friend, Anderson Mamimine was to visit me in December 2018. Mamimine, who is battling glaucoma, has only less than seven percent of vision left in his right eye but he still travelled to Maseru, where I am now based. In our interactions, Mamimine said he wanted to collaborate with Tshola and I called Tshola and we met at one of the local hotels.
I particularly remember Tshola’s sense of humour on the day. He was sitting having his lunch and he bellowed on noticing Mamimine’s visual impairment; “Silence, why do these disabled people love me so much? Everywhere I go, these disabled people are all over me,” he said unleashing his unmistakable laugh.
In five minutes, we had discussed the collaboration and sealed the deal. Tshola was meant to travel to Harare in January 2019 for multiple collaborations. This includes one with Tuku, one with Mamimine, one with jazz artiste Melusi Khumalo and potentially another one with either Jah Prayzah or an artiste from his Military Touch Movement stable.
Sadly, on 23 January, the same week that Tshola was meant to travel to Harare, Tuku died. He died with all the plans.
Tshola was devastated. He had hoped to travel for the funeral but that failed. We postponed his trip to March but that again failed. He was to fall ill later and the trip was aborted. Last year when we were considering the trip, it was deterred by Covid-19.
Khumalo, who at one point travelled and met Tshola in Maseru said: “Growing up listening to this legend, I never thought I will be so close to having a collaboration with the old man.
“I can only describe him as a towering down to earth music icon from the southern African region who was willing to listen and give advice. This he did for me when we were preparing to redo Sthandwa sami, one of my tracks in 2020. I honestly do not think we will find another giant like Ntate Tshepo – it’s going to be a huge challenge. Will always remember him for his 1994 hit Shine Your Light. It’s not easy to find talent with discipline, hard work glossed with humility.”
For Lebohang Thotanyana, a Lesotho politician and businessman, Tshola’s death is the end of an era.
Thotanyana recalls going to watch Sankomota (formerly Uhuru) rehearsing during Tshola’s early musical days when he was a small village boy in Teyateyaneng.
“I recall how we would excitingly go and watch the band practice. Those days a band practice was like a real performance. Everyone in the villages around Ty would go there and watch because that was our only opportunity to see these musical legends on stage performing.
“I remember how passionately he would sing. Ntate Tshepo was born to sing. My late mother, who taught him in primary school and was also his choir mistress, always boasted of Ntate Tshola and how he was always outstanding as a musician even at a very young age.
“Indeed, it is an end of an era, an era of great musicians who founded the Uhuru band which later renamed to Sankomota. This is the first Lesotho group from Lesotho to record an LP. Tshola was the lead singer of the group and he performed alongside Frank Leepa (the guitarist and leader of the group), Black Jesus and many other outstanding artistes. Sankomota became a force to reckon with, everyone loved it,” said Thotanyana.
He described the late musician as brave artiste who conquered the larger and more organised South African music scene.
“I think history will judge him as a man who went out of his comfort. Back in the day when he started, music was not regarded as a serious career in Lesotho. Tshola was prepared to endure the journey. He conquered it in the end. It was easy because of his outstanding talent and passion. This puts Tshola ahead of all the Basotho artistes. Despite his fame and fortune, Ntate Tshola remained humble. He never forgot his roots and was a proud Mosotho. He was a family man who never forgot his siblings and family. Ntate Tshola was forever at his home when he did not have engagements,” said Thotanyana.
Zimbabwean music promoter Josh Hozheri said: “Tshola was a true champion and a top-class jazz entertainer”.
“His voice was distinct and very clear and his message in his music immersed in the majority of the jazz fans.
“When I invited him to the Winter Jazz Festival in 2010, he offered himself to stay for one more week and conducted a jazz workshop for young artists and rehearsed with Summer Breeze. I personally feel this is the end of such calibre of artistes. This group of talented and very hardworking artistes will not be replaced. They produced their music from the heart. They were driven by passion,” Hozheri said.
Music critic and scholar Tinashe Mutero said Tshola’s death was a loss not only for Lesotho but for the global music fraternity.
“It is also particularly a loss for Zimbabwe at the very least. My generation grew up listening to his music. He was a radio staple on Radio 2 now Radio Zimbabwe. Perhaps that explains why some of us find it difficult to vibe to rushed pop sound. The Village Pope belonged to a generation of musicians who were immensely talented and made music with a soul. The serenity of his music made sense even at an age that I did not understand the meaning in the lyrics. It’s even more profound now that I understand what he sang about and sad that some of the ideals we are still struggling to achieve,” Mutero said.