Believe it or not but in its early days Radio Botswana played songs from Subiya, Ndebele, Yei, Herero and other culturally-under-the-radar tribes, writes BASHI LETSIDIDI
When he has tuned into Radio Botswana on Sunday mornings hoping to hear Subiya songs, Kgosi Moffat Sinvula of Chobe has been consistently disappointed. So, during a Ntlo ya Dikgosi session last year, he asked the Minister for Presidential Affairs and Public Administration “why Radio Botswana Sunday programme called Dipina le Maboko plays traditional songs of certain tribes instead of all Batswana tribes.” What the Hansard reflects as the answer is a badly turned out stew of logical fallacies and plain untruths: “Radio Botswana plays cultural music and poetry from all tribes in Botswana that have recorded such material for public use. No tribe or cultural grouping is excluded from the programme. Examples of songs and artists from all tribes played in Dipina le Maboko include "Reyimbo reto ro ando and Kukho Nanyena - Seyei songs from Guda village; Mabele Ntshwarele and Koma Ditau from Sehitwa; Sello sa Malema from Bobirwa; Diware from Shakawe; Bannabagolo from Moralane; Ka Dirope by Andries Bok from Werda; Easthuizen from Bokspits, and many others.”
Contrary to what the answer says, tribes do not record their own music and poetry and submit the recordings to the radio station and if such policy exists, it has never been formally communicated to the public. The traditional music of many (if not most) tribes or cultural groupings is excluded from the programme. Quoting songs from seven tribes in a nation that possibly has more than 100 tribes to illustrate a point about inclusivity is beyond stretching credulity. The “Examples of songs and artists from all tribes” construction and the citing of examples from less than 10 percent of Botswana tribes is problematic at a semantic, logical and substantive level. More helpful is the account of Batho Molema, a former Radio Botswana announcer who built Botswana’s largest and most comprehensive traditional music collection. Tragically, the original recordings were subsequently lost to the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) under avoidably tragic circumstances. In 1968, the Director of Broadcasting was Bryan Edgner, a British national who was a holdover from the colonial government. Molema describes Edgner as a “very versatile guy” and such quality showed when SABC sought permission from the Botswana government to record traditional music in the country. The Botswana recordings would have been added to SABC’s “Bantu” music collection. Molema surmises that Edgner instead elected to have Batswana employees at RB undertake such project. Afterwards, SABC would dub off the resulting RB collection.
Thus began an ambitious national project to record traditional music in the entire country from every culture. The work was carried out in two one-year expeditions and yielded what would become the country’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Botswana (not Setswana) traditional music. The project began in Gweta where all resident tribes were invited to contribute cultural offerings in song and poem. To be sure, this happened at a time when Botswana had a peculiar, constitutionally-sanctioned caste system that did not acknowledge the existence of some tribes. However, that Gweta was the first stop is significant for the point that Molema later makes. From Gweta, the RB team went farther north stopping at every village to record local music. At independence, Botswana was the third poorest country in the world and the quality of its roads attested to that. Immediately after Maun, the J1 Bedford truck that the team travelled in couldn’t handle the terrain and so had to turn back. Molema says that the schedule was determined by a map provided by the Department of Surveys and Mapping. Though incomplete, the map was suitable for the task under the circumstances. To deflate the claim that constitutionally-recognised tribes were favoured, Molema says that if that was indeed the motivation, the project would have started in villages where such tribes live.
“Why wasn’t Serowe the first village we recorded at? Why did we drive past Mochudi, past Serowe and begin the assignment in Gweta? You have to realise that at that time there was no controversy over tribal issues. We were innocent and knew nothing about politics. I can assure you that when we drew up the schedule, we were certainly not thinking about tribe or language and there was never any malice on our part – we just followed the map.” To buttress the latter point, he adds that in some instances, the recording team would even “beg” reluctant residents to lay on a show for them to enable a recording session. In peculiar contrast to Sinvula’s assertion, Molema says that as songs recorded from all over the country started playing on radio, some people he only refers to as “the powers-that-be” started asking why Mbukushu and Ndebele songs were being played as part of the collection. The explanation was that they belonged to the collection because the cultures/tribes were Batswana. Others complained that some songs (which meant songs from certain cultures) were “boring.” The latter was a not-so-subtle entreaty that such songs should never feel the prick of a studio gramophone needle. The need for equity aside, Molema says that it was important for the station to acknowledge and reward effort that performers had put in. “Some recordings were made under the most trying circumstances and we saw the need to recognise such effort. In some villages, only eight or nine people would show up at the kgotla and it was important that their work should be recognised.”
After the recordings, Radio Botswana created more play-time slots, including one a 30-minute programme called “Cultural Heritage” which catered for the few westerners living in Botswana at the time. By Molema’s account, all the recordings were subsequently played on Radio Botswana and in the order that they had been recorded. Culture buffs would rightly see this as the golden age of Botswana’s traditional music because never before had anyone built a collection of this size and range. In an age un-2016-like in its acute lack of socio-technological devices, RB was the only source of this music. On the downside, not everyone had a radio set and so the consumption of this cultural good was limited to the very few who had such devices. The situation has been tragically reversed: almost everyone has a radio but that collection is gone – gone like the century it was recorded in and the J1 truck that transported it and to never return. SABC came knocking again after a sizeable collection had been built. At this point, a certain white lady was studying African music through SABC which in turn, contacted RB. The managers of the two media organisations agreed to copy the Botswana collection onto vinyl and Molema was assigned the task of accompanying the collection to Johannesburg where SABC is headquartered. RB – and indeed Batswana, got a raw deal from this misguided act of neighbourliness.
A reel containing the original recording would be loaded into a machine and its contents transferred onto an empty vinyl tape. As a result of cultural ignorance, the white producer supervising the recording would edit the dubbed music to suit what he considered to be proper music. On the original reel tapes that Molema had recorded in Botswana, there was hand-clapping, whistling, ululating and hand-clapping which come standard with a traditional musical production. To the white ear of the SABC producer, that sounded like extraneous noise and at each moment of this “distortion”, he would tell the sound man to stop the tape, start over and tune the sound such that the apparent intrusions were almost edited out. Ironically, what was being distorted was the dubbed copy and tragically, when the exercise was complete, SABC kept the original tapes and gave RB the distorted duplicates. In addition to the distortion, the recording (which was being done by people who were not familiar with the contents of the tapes) left out some songs. Molema says that there was a gap between the songs and in as rushed a manner as the SABC recording was conducted, the producer would assume that the tape had spooled to the end. Back home with the duplicates, Molema realised that some songs were missing and it was only then that he put two and two together to fathom the answer. Also missing were the A4 label scripts which were on the original recordings. Molema says that the labels contained details about the title of the song, the village it was recorded at, the date of the recording, the number of songs, names of the main and accompanying singers as well as ululators, the main message, the lyrics and the running time.
Tragedy continued to unfold back home with the duplicate collection – “the SABC leftovers” as Molema calls it at one point. By degrees, the collection, including that in Molema’s own office, thinned out and he cites office relocations as one of the reasons. At a time that proper filing systems were introduced, a good portion of a collection built over a long period of time had disappeared. In the early 1980s, Molema desired to build a new collection of and undertake systematic research into traditional music. With lessons learnt and in a better resourced Botswana, the project (everything from recording to archiving) would have been undertaken in a far superior manner. Exactly how anyone can resist a nation-building project in a continent perpetually racked by tribal conflict defies all logic but the “powers-that-be” were not supportive at all. In frustration, Molema quit the civil service in 1982 for a job at Sefalana Wholesalers. Summarising the letter episode, historian and Mmegi columnist, Sandy Grant, says that Botswana “criminally threw away” an icon. What is gone (the music collection) is gone but had the project Molema proposed gone ahead, Sinvula would never have had to ask that question.