Sankomota: An Ode in One Album – Reflective Essay by Phehello J Mofokeng pays a well-deserved and powerful tribute to Sankomota, the internationally acclaimed Lesotho band, with singular emphasis on their 9-track debut record also titled Sankomota. The record was birthed and recorded by Shifty Records in 1983.
The author’s mission is clear: “to provide a clear elucidation of the music of Sankomota in their first album. Each song is explained in some details – outlining its elements of orature and narrative nature. I also delve in detail in the lyrics of each song, explaining their deep language, political significance and strength of their messages and themes. … I make no pretense at writing expertly about Sankomota – this is my interpretation of their music that I have been so enthralled to and has shaped my artistic life and outlook” asserts Mofokeng in his debut non-fiction work, Sankomota: An Ode in One Album.
Brilliant, reflective and impressive work, Mofokeng does a stellar job in his first foray into writing. This work draws from and evokes the academic Mathe Ntšekhe, anthropologist Wade Davis, author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, academic and linguist Thapelo Otlogetswe as well as writers, Pitika Ntuli, Lesego Rampolokeng and Ts’eliso Monaheng. Mofokeng also borrows liberally from the sibling of the band leader Mpho Leepa, amongst others. Mofokeng makes it no secret that he admires Sankomota – in fact he implies that this is one of the bands that added colour to his childhood. He is a contemporary, intellectual groupie and a fanatic spellbound by the beauty and wisdom of Sankomota and its enigmatic leader Frank Leepa.
The language is comprehensible and clear. We are let in on the origins of the band name; on the life of the resolute and versatile founder, composer and leader and his musical influences. The text infers to the lives of the other members without being biographic. The book is a well-researched historical lesson on Sesotho, Basotho, Lesotho and some politics of Africa relevant to the period of the album.
It is succinctly laid down why the Sankomota album is a priceless classic, a daring international unifier, and why the band was a socio-political mouthpiece of black people at that juncture of history. Mofokeng’s political positioning of Sankomota and their music is reasonable and adequately justified. His emphasis on the political importance of Sankomota is rationalised, not just glorified or glossed-over.
In two ways I thought Mofokeng’s narrative was slightly diluted in some parts. The author fails to unreservedly claim that Sankomota’s first album was the first to be recorded in Lesotho. Perhaps the information should not have been included as an unconfirmed fact. Mofokeng also refutes or doubts the validity of the fact – this is because Lesotho had a national radio station in the 1980s and it is hard to believe that there could not be an album recorded in Lesotho until 1983. Mofokeng mitigates his doubt by qualifying that maybe Sankomota’s debut album was the first to be recorded for commercial release. This is a small differentiation but an important one
The author’s own interpretation of the track “Madhouse” is simplistic. He says the song is confusing. If so, this small fact or misinterpretation by the author should not be the basis of trivializing the meaning of the song. Commentary that “I thought this was a relatively shallow song, not necessarily a politically-reflective one” is unfortunate, given the symbolism and aspects of concealment that by now we know existed in the songs. Concentrating on the literal meaning of any song will only betray the spirit and metaphysical meaning thereof. Here I thought the author did not do justice. The breakdown by Prof Thapelo Otlogetswe is pivotal, spot on and entails a superior understanding. It helped salvage Mofokeng’s compromised interpretation.
Listening to the various tracks during and after reading the book was liberating. I had previously listened to the songs with an illiterate ear. I was fascinated by the power of the mainly single-word titles of the album. It was enthralling how a single word could explain and encapsulate meaning of such powerful songs. Lyrical content is characterized by quality as opposed to quantity. Mere sentences are pregnant with meaning.
As an “urban” Mosotho there was no way I would have known that the songs consisted of riddles, idioms, symbolism, concealment and proverbs, and here the author’s high level understanding shines through. Through Sankomota: An Ode in One Album my comprehension of the meaning of the songs is crystal clear. I am able to listen according to the author’s own words: “in between the words, in between the music and melody.” Mofokeng interprets the deep language that Lesotho nationals used in their music and he unravels this with clarity of thought. He provides a new lens – an earpiece – for listening to Sankomota anew. He brings their music to life.
I am pleased that Mofokeng does not treat the music of Sankomota as a cadaver to be analysed, instead he re-animates it and breathes a fresh, contemporary air into what he calls “genre-defying music.” This re-animation of music is fortunately not achieved through difficult and academic terminology, a feature that could spoil this slim account of Sankomota’s first album. The text is pseudo-academic without being pedestrian. It borrows analytical elements from various academic theories and applies albeit limitedly, technical musical elements. Fortunately Mofokeng does not go overboard with the use of this academic and technical posturing.
Mofokeng’s account of Sankomota’s first album is a brilliant addition to the body of musical non-fiction genre in the country. He opens new portals and ways of understanding one of the most spellbinding bands on the musical timeline of Southern Africa. An Ode in One Album offers many gems of knowledge that are almost taken for granted by history and posterity. South Africa needs more of such narratives that center on art and artists, to circumvent the erasure of our local stories…
Phehello J Mofokeng was born in Kestell, in the Free State, South Africa. He is a Master’s student at Wits University. He is currently based in Johannesburg. An Ode in One Album is his debut book.