Radio Botswana lost collection worth trillions to SABC

SHARE   |   Monday, 27 June 2016   |   By Bashi Letsididi

A misguided act of neighbourliness cost Botswana its largest and most comprehensive traditional music recordings to South Africa writes BASHI LETSIDIDI
To be clear, there is nothing scientific about the calculation but at a conservative estimate, Radio Botswana would have lost a collection of traditional music with potential value worth trillions in any international currency.

In 1968, the Director of Broadcasting was Bryan Edgner, a British national who was a holdover from the colonial government. RB veteran, Batho 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 phases and yielded what would become the country’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Botswana traditional music.Much later when the music had been recorded and a collection built up, SABC touched base with RB. At this point, a certain white lady whose “H” name Molema cannot remember well, hazarding it between Hutchinson and Hamilton. The lady was studying African music through SABC which in turn, contacted RB. The managers of the two organisations agreed to copy the Botswana collection on vinyl and Molema was assigned to accompany the collection to Johannesburg where SABC is headquartered.

If you are a culture buff who sheds a tear on witnessing the defacement of rock paintings in Tsodilo Hills, you will weep a puddle on learning what happened at the SABC studios. A reel containing the original recording would be loaded into a machine and its contents transferred on an empty vinyl tape. As a result of cultural ignorance, the white person 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 man supervising the dubbing, that sounded like “distortion” and at each moment of “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 songs were played out at the gap intervals. 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.

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. Molema remembers that he and his colleagues would often talk about the need to protect the collection and one of the ideas mooted was depositing it with the national archives. However, the idea just swirled around until it was too late.

With particular regard to the RB disappearances (which include recordings by Ratsie Sethako), Molema says that he does not want to blame anyone. Firstly, there was no proper filing system and secondly, the “euphoria” of independence proved extremely difficult to manage for one too many Batswana. From stories told by those who were conscious of their surroundings in the immediate post-1966 period, Batswana were just overjoyed with having transitioned from the Bechuanaland Protectorate to the Republic of Botswana. In more relatable terms, “Re a ipusa” – which means “our country is independent”, was as much a chart-topping slogan in the late 1960s as “ESP” is in 2016. The clinically euphoric are said to have gone around slapping others around just to prove that they were really independent.

In the RB context, independence-occasioned happiness decanted energies away from exercising proper stewardship over the treasure trove of traditional music. As regards the RB-SABC deal, Molema says that he was “too junior” to give what would have been proper advice. For that reason, he had to watch helplessly as he took a collection of original tapes to Johannesburg and return with an incomplete and distorted collection of duplicates. In the early 1980s, Molema desired to build a new collection of and undertake systematic research into traditional music. When his bosses rebuffed him, he resigned from RB.

To riff on a metaphor that former president, Sir Ketumile Masire used under the tragic 2014 circumstances of Gomolemo Motswaledi’s death, the monetary value of culture can be properly understood in terms of thinking of every particle of sand in the ocean as being worth P200. That is because culture sells very well. On YouTube, a video by a Kopong guitarist called Ronnie has notched up over a million views with some commentators rhapsodising about how he can run rings round Grammy Award winners like Bruce Springsteen. A dinner hosted in honour of delegates of an Africa-Caribbean-Pacific conference at Phakalane Resort in Gaborone in 2009 had virtually all the visitors crying out for an encore after every Culture Spears’ performance. 

In a non-monetary context, culture is an important element of one’s identity. What is perhaps the most significant thing about Molema’s project is that it happened at a time that newly-independent Botswana was at a crossroads. People were acculturating into a western identity at a very fast pace and Molema’s project helped preserve culture (nurtured over centuries) that was riding off into the sunset. In continually repeating the lyrics “for the love of house/for the love of beats” a house song communicates nothing more profound than that the cultural sophistication is in a state of flux. Conversely and as Molema explains, all traditional songs communicate an important message or history lesson. He gives as an example and renders an analysis of one RB classic, Go ka tweng? whose lead singer is Gaotswesepe Robalang. The song is fraught with lament which Molema attributes to the real-life trials and tribulations that Robalang had to live through.

Decades later, there is effort to reclaim culture that was lost and the Centre for Scientific Research, Indigenous Knowledge and Innovation at the University of Botswana stands out as the most robust expression of such ambition. Tragically though, a large portion of the traditional music collection that Molema built at RB has been be lost forever. An important part of cultural identity that is worth more than all the money in the world has been lost forever.