[Music/Culture] Morena Leraba
Introducing our new resident creative: The mysterious and captivating Morena Leraba. A Mosotho shepherd, musician, singer, poet and writer from Lesotho, the landlocked "Kingdom in the Sky" of Southern Africa.
Psychic Garden first crossed paths with Morena Leraba back in early 2018 during the recording sessions for Africa Express' electronic-fusion album EGOLI, a seven day musical residency workshop hosted in Johannesburg, South Africa, which included over thirty talented musicians and producers assembled from across Africa and the West. The aim of the project was for everyone to collaborate and record an album in just seven days. The full 35 minute documentary of this AE musical residency can be viewed here.
Meeting Morena Leraba was an unforgettable experience, he was undeniably one of the most fascinating and idiosyncratic artists who was involved with EGOLI. A very cool, calm and charismatic character with a mystical aura of the utmost humility paired with an air of inherent cultural wisdom and artistic knowledge. He ended up contributing his vocals on two of the album's key singles, and we have remained in touch ever since.
Morena Leraba, (real name Toboho Mochaoa), is a Mosotho musician and poet who was born and raised in the rural village of Ha-Mojela in the district of Mafeteng, south of Lesotho's capital city of Maseru. Morena grew up as a shepherd in the mountains, but also went to School and University in the capital, he views this duality as "the best of both worlds."
The mysterious Morena Leraba is a nomadic experimentalist with a truly singular sound; dynamic fusions of Famo poetry infused with electronica, dub, rock, jazz, house and hip hop. Morena combines the poetic potency of his Famo language, utilising the vocal techniques, the delivery and tonality of the Basotho Shepard Initiates, to manifest his musical alter ego as the mystical Mosotho Shepard, the grand wizard of Sesotho mountain poetry.
The character of Morena Leraba is still a puzzling enigma in Lesotho, many people in South Africa cannot connect the dots about who this mysterious Famo musician from the mountains is, and how he's managed to tour the world with a 7-piece live band without having his own full-length album.
Morena Leraba's unique interpretation of Sesotho music is a deep rooted and otherworldly experience that bridges the gap between two realms, uniting the rich Shepherd culture of Lesotho with entrancing electronic music sounds, blending the ancient poetry, village stories, history and spirituality of the Basotho with futuristic sonic styles. Morena Leraba's music is constant state of evolution, his dynamic voice can translate to a wide spectrum of sonic landscapes, allowing him to inhabit any genre he desires. Morena has described his remodelled Sesotho sound as "the old & the new".
The mesmerising music and lyrics of Morena Leraba are deeply rooted in Lesotho's traditional spiritual music and poetry, including the sub-genre of Famo, which originated back to the 1920's when Basotho men would walk long distances from Lesotho to Kimberly or Johannesburg as migrant workers in the gold and diamond mines of South Africa. Famo was created by the Basotho men who worked in these mines, the music is the fusion of traditional singing and poetry, infused with drums, bass and accordion.
Since establishing himself over six years ago, it's only taken a handful of striking collaborations, singles, and live show performances to illuminate this talented artist on the cultural radar, leading him to perform live on stage at big festivals in Norway, France, England and Cape Town. Now in 2020, after a recent signing to the Black Major music label, the future is looking bright for the Shepherd King of Lesotho Electronica, with his album currently in development and a debut EP expected in 2021.
Please enjoy our exclusive in-depth interview with Morena Leraba below. Comprised from six hours of phone conversations. We spoke with this enigmatic artist to explore his humble musical beginnings, his creative influences, musical collaborations, cultural history, plans for his upcoming album and how he went from the rural villages to touring the world stage.
What are the origins behind your style of music?
"My music is deeply influenced by the Music from the Mountains, the traditional songs sung by the Basotho Shepherd initiates, which is the foundation for all traditional Sesotho music and is the grandfather of the Famo sub-genre. Famo music is the poetry of war, honour and the battlefield, the battle cry of the Basotho. The language of Famo is very deep Sesotho, deep poetry, it's a very rich language that has this element of masculinity to it. These traditional songs are dark, spiritual and fierce in nature and speak about the warrior's bravery and accomplishments on the battlefields. The Kings poems were always the most famous, but every Basotho chief and warrior in Lesotho had their own Famo poems. We have been fighting for a long time in Lesotho, there have been many wars in our kingdom, so all the old poetry of Lesotho is always about war. These traditional Basotho battle cries and war stories is exactly where Famo music comes from. The word Famo translates to mean "To flare your nostrils", to display your fearlessness before battle. Famo is kind of like the dark, hardcore rap of Lesotho."
How did your upbringing influence you creatively?
"My home district of Mafeteng, where I was born, is actually the headquarters of traditional Famo music, it’s quite famous there and we have a lot of talented Famo artists who come from this region, so whether you like it or not, the music is embedded in you from birth. In rural Lesotho, growing up as young boys, pretty much everyone was a Shepherd. As young Shepherd's growing up, not even as musicians, we all had our own nicknames and alter egos. Among us, you will find some with the musical gift, and eventually they would manage to record their own Famo albums, but people would practice first, like in the hip-hop cyphers, it's a tradition among Shepherd boys, especially if someone has an accordion. Boys from the village would gather to sing and sow their unique poetry on top of these accordion beats. We ended up creating alter egos and aliases for ourselves, with poetry in embedded in their name..."
What does your name represent in Sesotho?
"In my case, the word MORENA translates directly to mean KING, but it could also be used as a title for MISTER, SIR, or LORD - and the word LERABA in Sesotho means SNARE or TRAP - from when Shepard's would use snares to catch rabbits or small bears for food during the winter months in the mountains. The nickname Morena Leraba could translate into KING TRAP or LORD SNARE or vice versa. I created the name as a kind of joke originally for a one-off project, but it has stuck with me."
What led you to create the Morena Leraba character?
"The answer for this question is very layered. When I created the character, there was already some sort of awareness and a plan of execution, but the build up to actually becoming Morena Leraba had been developing slowly in my subconscious throughout my life. Growing up in the Southern environments, the rural communities in the mountains, being a Shepherd from the village, all of these deep rooted personal influences served as the inspiration behind my alter ego. The character is a result of my experiences, upbringing, lifestyle and environment, so the character is 100% me..."
"My Grandfather was a priest, my Father was the son of a preacher and my Mother came from a section of town known as Majakane (The Place of the converts). I grew up in a deeply religious family as a good christian boy, but I was also hanging out with Basotho Shepherds, so from an early age I realised that there were a lot of misunderstandings between these two worlds, there was a certain stratification in our society. As young boys, we were told not to hang out with shepherds as they were considered to be a bad influence, but my natural inclination has always been towards my roots, my shepherd friends..."
"I think I created the character of Morena Leraba as a way to disprove all the negative and false stereotypes about Basotho Shepherds. I wanted to create a COOL Shepherd, one who would do world tours singing in his native Basotho tongue. I dreamed of presenting the Mosotho Shepherd and Sesotho Famo Music to the world in a new reimagined way. Famo is a unique style of music that very few understand from birth, but I knew the language was powerful enough to reach a wider audience. I wanted to borrow from what I knew, my roots, my history, to transform the rich goldmine of Lesotho poetry and culture into something anyone on earth could relate to through music. When I first created the character I decided to conceal my true identity behind my traditional balaclava mask and my woollen blanket, I wanted to remain unknown, I still do..."
As an introduction to Morena's music, we invite you to watch the 2017 music video for "Impepho". A new-age electronic multi-cultural collaboration between the 3 regions of Lesotho (Morena Leraba), South African (Mankind) and Brazil (TrapFunk & Alivio). This incredible video was directed by a Lesotho-based Irish filmmaker, Carl Houston McMillan, a close friend and long time collaborator of Morena Leraba's. We spoke to Morena and Carl on the meaning of this song and the concept behind the video.
Speaking on Impepho, director Carl Houston Mc Million said...
"I have always wanted to create a video for Morena Leraba in the highlands of Lesotho. I am blown away by how he gives a voice to and celebrates Lesotho’s unique shepherd culture. And then I saw the Jameson Music Video Grant call for entries and thought it was such a great initiative that offers support for independent musicians and filmmakers. The song in question, Impepho (meaning incense), is a powerful high-energy track that was created through inter-continental collaboration. The lyrics pay homage to the artists’ heritage. It’s a boasting track, but the boasting isn’t about “what I have”, it’s about “who I am”. Basotho shepherds are proud, strong and kind, and their story deserves to be documented & shared with the rest of the world. With this music video we, hope to do just that."
What was the process behind making this incredible video?
"For this project, me and Carl went up into the mountains for location scouting, test shoots and research. I guided Carl and introduced him to the Shepherds and nomadic peoples who live in the huge mountainous regions. For the real video shoot, Carl assembled a huge crew of talented cinematographers and we filmed the project for over three days in "The Place of Smoke", a town in the middle of Lesotho, the kingdom's midlands. It's a rural town famous for their horse racing, because there are no main roads, people still rely on horseback so it's still an old traditional way of life there. We worked with a huge crew of Shepherds in the video. I spent a long time talking and working with these men, to articulate the full concept and story of the project to them and to translate Carl's specific directions."
Can you explain the concept and imagery behind Impepho?
"Coming to the story of the video...Impepho takes place in "The place of smoke", a very famous town where horse racing is the biggest entertainment in these rural mountain towns. The King of Lesotho loves horse racing and often travels to these villages to watch the competitions, so Carl made the horse culture the central focus of the video. Me and my Shepherd friends are all singing and boasting about our fast horses and poetry skills, before meeting up with the swagged out South Africans in the nightclub after the races. This video feels more like a dance music competition between the rural Shepherds and the modern outsiders from South African, Mankind and his crew."
"At the start of the video, you see that I am burning down my house. This shot refers to when Shepherds are in the mountains and build small houses as protection from the snow. When the winter season is over and the Shepherd decides to relocate to another mountain, they will burn down the roof of their former home, to let other Shepherds know that this hut can be used again if discovered. Basotho are also very scientific in their approach, they burn the roof mainly to get rid of their DNA from the scene, to remove themselves entirely and begin again. These burnings cleanse our souls, representing a new chapter."
"I had managed to keep my true identity a secret right until the Impepho video, the people from Jameson didn't understand why I was hiding my face, and they wanted to see some facial expressions, it was quite a debate, but I succumbed and finally revealed my face after many years of staying obscured behind my balaclava, many of my friends and family could not believe it was really me! but the majority of people cannot associate me with the character of Morena Leraba at all, which is still cool!"
What does your traditional costume represent for you?
"These iconic woollen blankets were introduced in Lesotho in the 1900's as a symbolic representation of the British protectorate, designed to commemorate the relationship between the King of Lesotho and the Queen of England. During the Second World War, the King of Lesotho collected money from all the Basotho chiefs and village people so that he could buy a Bomber war plane for the British military to aid them in the conflict. This is why the images and patterns of Battle Planes and British Crowns can be found on certain Basotho blankets, including the red and grey one I wear on stage. At first, many people rejected this European style of clothing, but for the people living in the mountain regions these woollen blankets were essential for surviving the heavy snow in the winter months. Along with these thick blankets, we were also gifted with the balaclava masks, wellington boots, thick socks and trousers, for the elements."
How did your musical journey as Morena Leraba first begin?
"My first serious musical recording was a collaboration with a talented artist from the north, Kommanda Obbs, one of the pioneers of Lesotho Famo rap. I originally worked with him as a graphic designer, to help market, promote and release his latest album at the time in Lesotho, TS’EPE. The album was a non-digital DIY CD release and is considered to be one of the all-time classic Lesotho albums, in terms of lyrical content and approach, it was the first album released by a Mosotho musician recorded entirely in the Sesotho language. This album came during a revolutionary time, when many young South African artists were starting to proudly sing and rap in their native languages to represent their heritage. Kommanda Obbs fused Hip Hop, Rap and Famo influences together into his own beautiful style. It was a pure representation for us as Basotho, he inspired many young Basotho musicians to start recording and writing their own Famo music, including me myself."
"You should also know that, we the people who live here in the mountains of Lesotho, we first came here sometime during the 1800's, when people were first moving southwards, large groups of Basotho had been living in South Africa for a long time, along with many Zulu, Botswana, Bapedi and Balodedu people, we are more like one group of people, some migrated to Botswana and some travelled to Lesotho. So this album by Kommanda Obbs actually managed to reconnect all these different people back together to remind us of who we are and to ultimately celebrate our collective history because we were all the same clan of people before the english redrew the borders. That's the beauty and power of music and storytelling, It can go beyond borders to heal and unify fragmented communities. Meeting and working with Kommanda Obbs was the moment when I started taking the idea of my musical career seriously."
What are your plans and vision for your debut album?
"This year has been a difficult year for musicians and due to the heavy lockdowns and border restrictions I haven’t been able to travel freely to South Africa to begin recording my album. So in the meantime I’ve been writing songs by myself and working with Tiago Correia-Paulo (340ml), an amazing producer and musician from Mozambique, We hope to finish my EP before the end of 2020, and release it sometime in early 2021."
"I've been developing the concept behind my debut album for a long time. I want the album to represent the true story and history of South Africa, told from the perspective of this Mosotho shepherd character. I'm currently still writing, researching and developing the narrative of the record, because this album will have a lot of historical references in it, a lot of rich knowledge and history. The sound of the album will take a lot of influence from the history of jazz and Famo. My biggest challenge is that I want to record the album in an analog style, using the old ways, to record everything in a one room session with the whole ensemble, saxophones, drums, guitars, backing vocals, brass section, the full big band experience. My live band at the moment are currently seven members strong, but I hope to have nine members eventually, two ladies in the brass section."
"The album is a project I’ve been working on with my live band from behind the scenes. We're developing the new songs that we’ve been performing live. Our journey so far as a group has been a massive experiment and learning curve. Working in a band with musicians from South Africa has been a very cool experience. I’m learning a lot constantly, I’m learning the language of music itself, the structure of songs, the landscape of live performance and storytelling. I don’t wanna lie, I still consider myself very new into this whole musical world, so when I’m performing live and touring with my band it feels like I’m living in my own musical classroom and I'm learning so much, I really appreciate it."
"When people see us performing live, I want them to see South Africa in my band, the true story of South Africa and the History. I’ve been obsessed with the idea of the big band for such a long time, but with the changing landscape in music things are different now, theres a technological shift, there’s this reality that festivals would rather book DJ’s instead of 9 piece-ensemble bands, because the latter is something of a logistical nightmare for booking agents, but we believe it can be done."
"At the end of the day, South Africa doesn’t have a beautiful history, but it’s our history, we can’t escape the realities. South Africa’s history is one of colonialism, apartheid, land dispossession, resistance, liberation struggles and wars, and I think this is why South Africa is still so tense today, but these sad moments and occurrences throughout time, they sort of bind everyone together in a certain way. The country is a melting pot of different cultures and different peoples, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, yet there is still a tension atmosphere in post-apartheid South Africa that you cannot deny. I want the album to sort of touch upon these painful stories in a healing manner. South Africa needs that kind of music, people need to accept the sad and the ugly past, the ugly history, in order to rectify things and have a mutual understanding, so everyone can just co-exist. I’m always trying to reconnect things happening now to events from history through my music."
What's been one of your favourite collaborations so far?
"My introduction to the South African music scene was after meeting the BLK JKS, an amazing psychedelic rock band from Soweto. We soon became friends and recorded the song HARARE, an ode to the struggles faced by all the migrants and the hell they go through working in South Africa without proper documentation, an important topic in the Famo Scene. The song itself is a special fusion of folk, psychedelic rock, trip-hop and Famo Rap. I am truly proud of this song, the lyrics came naturally and the subject matter is close to my heart."
In early 2018, Morena Leraba and thirty other artists from Africa and the West, were invited by Africa Express to assemble in Johannesburg, South Africa, to record an album together in one week. Morena contributed his hypnotising Sesotho mantric raps and Famo singing on two tracks on the collective's latest album, EGOLI, featuring on the frenetic Gqom house posse track Nayena and the trip-hop bi-lingual ballad Johannesburg.
What did you think about your Africa Express experience?
"I wasn't entirely sure what Africa Express was when I accepted first the invitation, it was a bit of a mystery to me until I arrived in Johannesburg, where I realised that they were a creative charity that had organised a 7 day musical workshop and a secret live show. I collaborated with a couple of artists while I was there that week and it was beyond my words, a beautiful, beautiful experience...I was very grateful for the opportunity"
Morena Leraba's eccentric style is truly idiosyncratic, deep rooted and indelible, nobody looks or sounds like this man. Psychic Garden got the chance to witness his remarkable abilities during the Africa Express workshops in Johannesburg. We watched him deliver hypnotic Sesotho vocals in the studio and performing his immersive mantra raps live on stage, which left a big impression on us. We met him again over a year later at the East-London Africa Express live show, 'The Circus', where we finally witnessed Morena performing in his full Basotho Shepard costume.
In recent years, Morena has been touring with his band at international festivals and events, while simultaneously making plans for a debut album. Pay close attention to this ascending artist and his creative journey, we will be bringing you plenty of updates when new music from Morena arrives. Before we can finally hear his debut project, you can watch this incredible Black Nation documentary to learn more about this enigmatic figure.
~ PSYCHIC GARDEN