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Famo music: the past, the politics and the future



By Ntsikoe E Likiki     

With its unparalleled use of the accordion instrument, command of praise poetry and storytelling ability, Famo music has for many decades captured the culture and lifestyles of the Basotho people.

Over the years Famo music has transformed from just music but also into an independent culture.

In as much as it has produced internationally acclaimed giants such as Apollo Ntabanyane, Mosotho Chakela, Mahlanya, and many more, Famo is nevertheless blamed for the interminable gang murders, political killings  and other heinous acts of violence which have headlined the newspapers in the motherland and abroad for many years.

This article looks into the history of Famo, the politics surrounding the gang wars and questions the future of the genre.

It is accounted that Famo emerged in the drinking dens of the mine workers in as early as the 1920s. Towards the late ’70s, the concertina instrument was introduced into the genre by the legendary Samuel Motho.

Around the 1980s, the accordion was adopted and the music grew and spawned renowned bands such as Tau ea Mats’ekha (Lion of Mats’ekha), which consisted of Apollo Ntabanyane and Forere Motloheloa, famously noted for their 80s hit Ha Peete kea falla, meaning ‘I’m leaving Peete’s place.’

Other artists and bands who rose to prominence then include the veteran songstress Puseletso Seema, the late Thabo Lesholu, Mahosana a ka Phamong and Setsokotsane sa Mekaling to mention a few. Back then, the music concerned itself with the struggles of life, matters of love and marriage, and the realities of Khauteng’s (Gauteng) reckless life; as this was the place where things happened.

The music gained popularity in the Soweto communities such as Randfontein and Carltonville. It was also played in notorious places such as Snawana, Phiri, Molapo, Mapetla, Naledi and Moletsane.

The places are referred to as notorious since they were the meeting lairs of the criminal network of the Basotho migrants called Marashea (Russians or Ma+Russia), who are said to have lived in South Africa after the Second World War. They adopted the name following the victory of the USSR over Germany in that war.

Marashea also established themselves as a gang which sought to protect its members from urban gangsters and rivals of other ethnic groups in and around Johannesburg. It is in these meetings where the late Thabo Lesholu, who is said to have been the boss of Marashea, entertained and motivated his gang-members with his marvelous performances. This leads me up to the issue of gang wars in Famo.

Legend has it that Seakhi and Terene, the two most prominent gangs from Mafeteng in Famo music today, started out as funeral schemes in the late 90s or early 2000s. Their objective was to assist their members financially in times of mourning.

However, it is unclear how the rivalry flamed up, but it turned so bad that eminent members of both associations fled into self-imposed exiles in South Africa. Terene’s leader Rethabile Chakela, also known as Mosotho Chakela and Seakhi’s two giants Bereng Mojoro (known as Lekase) and Lehlohonolo Maketsi (alias Mahlanya) ended the business with death threats fired from one side to another.

Worthy of note is the assertion that Seakhi, unlike all other gangs, has no boss. All members are equal. It is also claimed that all these other gangs namely Fito, Phula-Bobete, Tornado and Mahana-Puso are actually Terene in disguise, while Seakhi stands fearlessly in solidarity.

Other accounts reveal that killings have always occurred in the Famo community, but were never on a high rate as they are today. The bloodshed escalated to higher levels leading to the brutal shooting of the late Seakhi heavyweight, Rants’o from Thabana-Morena in 2009. Following Rantso’s death, another brutal assassination which shook Lesotho was that of Selomo in 2011. Despite his participation in negotiations for truce between the two gangs, Selomo’s life was ended in a hailstorm of bullets outside a local hotel.

It is said that in 2014, over 100 lives were reported to have been lost in in the Famo killings.

In as much as the previous government and the current government have made attempts to help end the turf wars, there however remains another angle that needs to be examined.

The rivalry between these two gangs has clawed even into the politics of Lesotho. It is on this basis that many people have alleged that Selomo’s murder was political.

Some have even claimed that the gang membership has transcended into the law enforcement institutions, thus Famo-related murder cases are never thoroughly investigated.

The banning of the music in night clubs can as well be seen as a slap on the wrist for the perpetrators of these murders.

I should point out that though that Famo music today has become irrelevant to the life of the urban man. It is only in the rural areas where the music and culture are still held in high regard. This is because most of the Famo artists have always, and still do, spring from the rural areas and thus their messages and experiences are relatable to the societies they come from. Whereas in the urbanized regions, the music has faded out not only because of the negativity associated with the killings.

It goes without saying that Famo is a diamond that got bruised along the way. Gone are the days of its golden era where peace-preachers and poetic wordsmiths such as the late Famole, the veteran Morena Mants’a, Hatlane, Lehlohonolo, to mention a few, would uplift the listeners with their wisdom, proverbs and stories of hope and analytic lyricism.

That Famo music has been banned from night-club play has put many cultural enthusiasts like me disappointed. In as much as it was an art form which raised Lesotho’s flag and epitomised our culture, Famo has become a menace to society.

It has become difficult for us as Basotho to innocently pride ourselves with our blankets, as they are associated with certain gangs and thus one would pay with their life for wearing a blanket of their choice.

As 2016 hastens towards its end and we soon shall be celebrating 50 years of independence, should we fully forget about our cultural jewel that Famo is, and accept that all good things do come to an end?

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