[Music/Culture] An Interview with: Morena Leraba
An exclusive interview with one of the most talented emerging African artists of our generation; The mysterious and captivating Morena Leraba. A Mosotho shepherd, musician, singer and poet from Lesotho, the "Kingdom in the Sky" of Southern Africa.
Morena was born into an inherently musical environment, his home-district of Mafeteng is the headquarters for traditional Famo music, which has influenced him greatly from a very young age. He grew up working as a Basotho shepherd in the mountains, practicing Famo poetry with his shepherd friends, but he also went to University in the capital, he views this duality of traditional and modern culture as "the best of both worlds".
The character of Morena Leraba is a puzzling enigma in Lesotho and South Africa. Many people still cannot connect the dots about this mysterious Famo musician from the mountains. Everyone wants to know his true identity, and how he's managed to tour the world with a live band without releasing an album or having his songs play on the radio.
Morena Leraba is a nomadic experimentalist with a truly singular sound; dynamic fusions of Famo poetry infused with elements of electronica, dub, rock, jazz, house, and hip hop. Morena utilises the poetic potency of the Famo language, combining 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 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.
Morena Leraba's unique interpretation of Sesotho music is an otherworldly listening experience that bridges the gap between two realms, uniting the rich Shepherd culture of Lesotho with entrancing electronic music - blending the ancient poetry, village stories, history, spirituality, and folklore of the Basotho with futuristic sonic styles. Morena's music is constantly evolving. He describes his remodelled Sesotho sound as "The old and the new".
Since establishing himself as a musician over six years ago, it's only taken a handful of 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 2021, after a recent signing to the Black Major music label, the future is looking bright for the Shepherd King of Lesotho Electronica, with his debut album currently in development and a new EP expected soon.
We 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 short documentary of this AE musical residency can be viewed here.
Psychic Garden is proud to present our exclusive interview with Morena Leraba. Transcribed from six hours of phone conversations. We explored the artist's creative influences, musical journey, cultural heritage, and the plans for his debut LP...
What are the origins and influences behind your 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 gangster 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 SNARE or LORD TRAP or vice versa. I created the name as a kind of joke originally for a one-off project, but it stuck with me.
What led you to create the Morena Leraba character?
The answer for this question is very multi-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). So, I grew up in a deeply religious family as a good christian boy, but I was also hanging out with Basotho Shepherds, and 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 Christian 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 tongue. I dreamed of presenting the Mosotho Shepherd and Sesotho 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 and history, to transform the rich goldmine of Lesotho poetry and culture into an experience anyone could relate to through music. When I first created the character I chose to conceal my identity behind my balaclava and woollen blanket, I wanted to remain unknown, I still do.
As an introduction to Morena's music, we invite you to watch the 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 collaborator of Morena Leraba's. We spoke to Morena and Carl about the song and the concept of 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, I took Carl 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 South African 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 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.
At the start of the video, you see that I am burning down the roof 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,