Tshola had been in showbiz for over half a century: a career that stretched from Sesotho roots and popular music in the 1970s, through international tours and collaborations, to his most recent identity as an inspiring gospel singer, and the co-founder of independent music label Killer Joe.
What characterised his work was a passionate desire to tell it as he saw it, whether that was about the evils of racism in the early days of his career, or the dangers of addiction and, more recently, the need for self-reliance.
His righteous preaching earned him the soubriquet of The Village Pope, but was also a family legacy.
The young artist
Tshola was born on 15 August 1953 in Teyateyaneng in Lesotho, a small, mountainous and landlocked country surrounded by its larger neighbour, South Africa. His father was a preacher and church organiser and his mother a chorister. He first honed his rich baritone in a church choir.
As a teenager, he joined the pop band Lesotho Blue Diamonds. Later, he hooked up with Anti-Antiques, formed by guitarist “Captain” Frank Leepa. The two first got talking in the streets, he recalled: “It was God’s doing. I was looking for a match – so one of us had a match and the other had a cigarette: ‘Sure, man, let’s share.’”
They also shared opinions about music, and although Anti-Antiques already had a vocalist – and was definitely not earning enough to support two – Leepa’s dream of forming a super-group, and Tshola’s striking voice, ensured his membership.
Tshola goes on:
I remember the first time I heard my voice on the radio. I was walking the streets and it was playing from a radio in a shop. I jumped for joy – and jumped straight into some water. I spent the time after that looking for cardboard to put into my shoes, because they had no soles.
In that insecure, erratic environment of the nascent Lesotho modern music scene, Anti-Antiques morphed into a second incarnation of Leepa’s band Uhuru. A small but relatively successful 1979 tour of South Africa crashed and burned when “we were banned for singing Africa Shall Unite”. South Africa’s apartheid rulers did not tolerate the song’s Pan African liberation politics. Leepa’s fourth band, Sankomota, was founded in the mid-1970s.
Tshola sang with that incarnation of Sankomota for some time in Lesotho, but by the mid-1980s he was working more widely too. He eventually accepted an invitation from jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela to record the albums Techno-Bush and Waiting for the Rain in Botswana.
Meanwhile, Sankomota had recorded their widely acclaimed self-titled debut album in Lesotho in 1983, with an international release the following year. The music combined Sesotho musical roots with sharply contemporary musicianship and a stirring liberation message.
When Tshola, by then in London, heard the cassette, he immediately rushed to persuade a London colleague, musician Julian Bahula, to help organise work for the band. After huge difficulties raising funds and arranging a route that didn’t pass through South Africa, where they were still banned, Sankomota made it to London. It became their base between 1985 and 1989.
Bahula organised a number of concerts and tours, many of them under the aegis of South Africa’s liberation movement, the African National Congress. “We were touring Europe and literally getting paid with bread and salami,” Tshola recalled. “There is no way you can keep quiet when you feel the pain. We were driven by pain.” And, despite the hardships: “That contribution still makes me happy today.”
Tshola’s voice sounds out sweet and clear on Sankomota’s second album Dreams Do Come True (1987) and their third, The Writing’s On The Wall (1989).
He also continued to tour with others including Masekela and, like the trumpeter, went through reckless times shadowed by drug addiction. And like Masekela, he took that experience forward positively, later counselling other musicians battling addiction.
The Village Pope
Tshola had been composing since the mid-1980s. As change came and South Africa transitioned to democracy, he found plentiful work there: appearing, for example, on the 1983 Africa Against Aids project and the ANC’s 1994 elections album Sekunjalo.
Tshola’s own album as leader, The Village Pope, was released in 1993; a second album, Lesedi, appeared in 2001 and a third, New Dawn, in 2003. He worked with the late Zimbabwean singer Oliver Mtukudzi, with South African vocalists Brenda Fassie and PJ Powers and, later, with dance music producer Cassper Nyovest, with vocal star Thandiswa Mazwai and, as his interest in returning to his gospel roots grew stronger, with gospel star Rebecca Malope.
By the 20-teens, much of his time was being occupied by his label Killer Joe, co-founded with musician Joe Nina and lawyer Stanley Letsela. That too was a response to earlier bitter experiences. “I never found managers,” he said in 2019, “they were just looters … Today, I manage myself.”
Tshola also returned to his roots in other ways. He established a home in Johannesburg and another in Lesotho, where his adult sons, Kamogelo and Katlego, both singers, stayed. There, he collaborated with the Conservation Africa music project to archive Lesotho’s music legacy and mentor young musicians.
As news of Tshola’s death emerged, South Africa was staring bleakly at the results of nearly a week of unrest and disorder. Those mourning his death invoked his song Stop the War, as a message worth remembering.
But Tshola the social commentator had other words too. Asked by the South African Broadcasting Corporation on Freedom Day 2017 what freedom meant to him, he warned that living free was not a simple, self-evident thing: “Freedom needs discipline and focus. Unless you learn freedom, freedom will destroy you.”
Robala ka khotso (rest in peace) to a truly golden voice and a very sharp thinker indeed.
Listen to a Tsepo Tshola playlist at the author’s blog over here.