You Need To Hear This Sonic Journey Through Lesotho's Spiritual Traditions

Lesotho rapper Morena Leraba and Brooklyn-based producer Kashaka collaborate on new single, "Lithebera"

Morena Leraba. Photo: Hlompho Letsielo. Courtesy of the artist.
Morena Leraba is an artist grounded in simplicity, reticence and impeccable neatness, qualities that are the status quo where he’s from. Born and raised in Mafeteng, a flatland district in the southern part of Lesotho, the 31-year-old rapper’s worldview is informed by a raw rural experience and the solitude that village life has provided him.

Leraba’s steadily sparking interest from artists locally and internationally, including Enchufada’s own, Kashaka. After coming across Leraba’s music on Soundcloud, Kashaka, 25, reached out to the rapper about collaborating. The two clicked. And today they’re releasing their first single together. The artists also have plans to meet in real life for the first time when Kashaka visits Lesotho at the start of April.

Okayafrica caught up with the collaborators to hear the story behind their “Lithebera” which we’re excited to premiere below. Leraba’s interview was conducted in Sesotho and transcribed into English. Kashaka’s interview was done over email.

Lineo Segoete for Okayafrica: How did Morena Leraba go from being an enigma cradled in the mountains of Lesotho to being featured by Cape Town-based musicians such as The Freerangers and Dorin Shane Braun?

Morena Leraba: Carl McMillan, a filmmaker raised in Lesotho, went to study in Cape Town and while there he would constantly tell his friends about the Mountain Kingdom. These friends included The Freerangers–Jonas Stark, Fritz Hölscher and Craig Ross–who initially composed a melody as a tribute to Lesotho and thereafter sojourned here to experience it firsthand. While here, the Ministry of Tourism Environment and Culture in Lesotho heard and liked the song and Carl, whom I’d met here at home, then suggested that it would be perfect if it featured a Mosotho artist and he thought of me. The musical chemistry between me and the guys during rehearsal and recording was uncanny and so our relationship took off. Since then I’ve taken several trips to Cape Town to record projects, including a single produced by Fritz.

Walk us through your collaboration with Kashaka… What is your concept for the song?

Morena Leraba: This first single we worked on is called “Lithebera” [a concoction of traditional healing herbs]. In it I am a traditional healer who meets Kashaka after summoning him through a divination ritual. I tell my initiates about Kashaka, who is a mystical diviner from faraway lands, and predict his arrival in our midst. Once present, I announce his presence to the initiates and tell him to greet them using a foreign phrase for peace. I tell him to use the phrase As-salaam alaykum (peace be upon you), which happens to be a greeting the initiates are familiar with. Mine and Kashaka’s motivation behind this approach is to show that music is a unifying agent without barriers, which is synonymous across all languages.

Being that you are based in Lesotho and Kashaka in Brooklyn, how was the whole project recorded?

Morena Leraba: Kashaka sent over a beat he thought would suit me and I did indeed fall in love with it. I then recorded vocals over it at the studio of a producer Stylus (Thabo Mathaba) based in Maseru who proceeded to help in arranging and sending my recordings back to Kashaka for fine-tuning and mastering.

What message are you trying to pass to the people who hear your music?

Morena Leraba: I want to display the potency of Sesotho language and spirituality; hence, its practice as inspired by our deep-rooted faith as a people. I want to demonstrate an understanding of nature through the usage of herbs as healing devices, as well as the sense of social protection and security one gathers from communion.

Image: Art By Krigga
What in particular struck you about Morena Leraba's sound and made you want to collaborate with him?

Kashaka: What struck me was his strong sense of melody and timing as well as his conversational tone. I felt like I was listening to a story, despite having no idea what he was saying since it was in Sesotho. Music is a language, and his performance spoke to me, so I sent him some beats to continue the conversion. I was really happy with how he replied.

How does Morena’s sound fit with the direction you wish to take your music?

Kashaka: His sound fits perfectly into what I'm trying to accomplish with my music. I strive to make music that plays off the diversity of the world and its history, a pluralistic sound that incorporates styles from all over; one that references the past but also fits into the present and future. My goal is to show how connected we all are through this universal language of music. To have someone singing in Sesotho, taking a traditional approach with melody, rhythm and storytelling that also fits perfectly with a contemporary electronic instrumental, is a perfect example of that connectivity and universality.

How was the music received when you played it at the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival?

Kashaka: I was opening for the legend Afrika Bambaataa, a person who also uses music as a tool to unite people with different views. I played a variety of genres from hip hop to R&B to Detroit house to Kuduro and Afropop, while sprinkling in some of my tunes and remixes as well. Towards the end of the night I dropped our song “Lithebera” and people really responded favourably to it –especially the turnaround at the end, which came unexpectedly for the crowd.

The single is to form part of a larger compilation. What is the concept behind the project and what do you wish to accomplish through it?

Kashaka: The larger compilation is my first Kashaka project. In the past I've released a song with Zebra Katz, a collaborative EP with Brooklyn rapper Wati Heru, a song featuring Brazilian MCs Rôa & Mannolipe, DJ mixes, original tunes and remixes. But this is the first time I'll be releasing a full length project. The intention is similar to my general intention with music, which is to create a diverse, pluralistic sound that learns from the past and looks toward the future, with a goal of creating connectivity amongst a diverse group of listeners. The album will feature collabs with vocalists and producers from around the world because I want the music to represent my own personal experiences as well as others' experiences. I'm aiming to finish this project by the end of the year.

Lineo Segoete is the co-director of Ba re e ne re literary arts in Lesotho and a freelance writer and wanderer governed by creativity. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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