The Lesotho musician has engrossed many with his distinct mixture of Basotho traditional music with modern sounds, and now he gears up to release his much-anticipated debut EP.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Photos by: Kgomotso Neto Tleane
In a world of music that has become synonymous with glamour and luxury, Morena stands out boldly. Decked in his full Basotho shepherd regalia with his face mostly covered, he remains an enigma but his music has been leaving many, both internationally and nationally, spellbound.
From Ha-Mojela in the Mafeteng district, south of Maseru, Teboho Mochaoa has curated a sound that marries Famo (traditional Basotho music) with electronica, dance, afro-house, folk and hip hop – and the rather unusual combination is disgustingly good.
Morena made his bold arrival in the music scene when his single “Impepho” (Produced by Brazilian collective Trap Funk & Alivio) won him and director Carl Houston Mc Millan the prestigious Jameson Video Grant worth R200 000.
The music video not only revealed him as an artist to watch but also shone an interesting light on the Basotho culture and heritage. Since then he has collaborated with Spoek Mathambo, Kashaka (Brooklyn-based producer), DJ Spoko and Andre Geldenhuys.
Watch the Impepho Music Video:
Meeting Morena at his Manager’s house, in Orange Grove, without the mask and the shepherd regalia is a bit strange at first but he has a way of making himself a familiar friend.
As he walks around in mismatched socks, with coffee in his hand while reminiscing about a night in the studio that lasted till the wee hours of the morning, it feels like a reunion after a short separation.
Blacklight: What made you daring enough to want to pursue this kind of music?
Morena: Initially I had this vision of wanting to make music but I didn’t want to follow the conventional route. I wanted to use my mother tongue, Sesotho, because my inspiration has always been traditional music from Lesotho. The music from home encompasses singing and poetry, then musically we have hand-made drums and the accordion.
I thought of taking the Famo sound and sonically merging it with electronica and dance music. In the beginning, it was a tough sound to sell because people were used to a certain sound and I was using the shepherd persona, a persona that is considered rural.
I understood that it was a going to be a hard sell because sometimes it’s hard for people to understand something new and also I had covered my face in images, videos and performances, and so people didn’t really know who Morena was.
Being unknown afforded me that opportunity to be anonymous. Then when I won the Jameson Video Grant and we shot a video for “Impepho”, people got a bit familiar with the music and me. In the video, I also had to pull down my mask and reveal myself a bit, but many people still don’t know me.
BL: Most artists want to be recognised and admired, what is so fascinating about being anonymous?
M: I became kind of obsessed with the alter-ego and I wanted to also be part of conversations around the work without having that pressure of being that guy who people happened to see on TV. Also, it was a strategy to create curiosity about the artist and it kind of worked because people bought into the whole shepherd persona.
BL: Did you explore other avenues before becoming an artist?
M: I studied Broadcasting and Media but dropped out and then ventured into Graphic Designing, which was a bit self-taught, and then I worked at Vodacom for three years.
While working there I was able to finance my earlier projects. Back then I was just interested in just the process of creating without the pressures of the industry.
BL: What was the defining moment when you realised that you are truly an artist?
M: You know it’s funny because you may have the content and the performances but at times you can still be unsure. You get to ask yourself, ‘Should I continue with this? Is it going to work?’ Then you meet people like Spoek Mathambo and Tshepang Ramoba (from BLK JKS) and seeing how they are interested in this work kind of makes you realise that you are doing something. Also to come to Jo’burg, after France, and seeing how people are so open to the music and the art made me decide to stick with this.
BL: You are quite a storyteller, what inspires you to write?
M: Morena Leraba simply represents the shepherds and the rural life. It’s a life that is not that much out there in the media because people perceive it as a life where nothing happens. The storytelling comes from my shepherd life, with my shepherd friends, but also going to school, so in a way, I’m caught in between these two worlds. The other side is the one your parents warn you against because they want you to finish school and don’t want you to end up as a shepherd.
But, I am really attached to the village life, even when I discovered the city and its new ways of thinking I was still a village boy at heart. I just saw the urban world as a great platform because there is the internet and other interesting stuff, and I use that as a vehicle to share my village stories. In a nutshell, Morena is a village boy with a rural perspective but as he travels cities and different countries, his world kind of expands but he is still a shepherd.
BL: Many people have been labelling you a hip hop artist, how do you label yourself?
M: It’s very confusing because those are just terms and sometimes you get stuck with them even as you evolve, as an artist. I was always doing the electro sound but the delivery was inspired by Famo music, from the tone to the style which has a bit of rhyming, a bit of rapping and flow, that’s why people mostly place me in the hip hop genre.
Actually, I don’t mind whether people think its rap, singing, hip hop or electro because I am creating this new sound and I also don’t know what it’s called. For me, it’s just like traditional Sesotho music mixed with modern beats.
BL: You still stay in Lesotho and you say it’s not as artsy as other countries, so what heralds you forward, as an artist?
M: Seeing other upcoming artists from Lesotho, you realise that there is a lot of talent but most people try to emulate the South African or American sound. People love it, they go to the shows and they download the music but for me, if we copy other people then they will always be better at it than us.
For me it was all about curating something different, using my heritage just to differentiate myself and to see how people will view it. When I launched my first song in 2016 the dance/electronica scene in Europe kind of pick up because the single was played by a few radio stations and seeing the interest from outside made me want to push it even more.
BL: Who are you beyond the music?
M: I am Teboho, a village boy from Lesotho. I don’t really do much, I am kind of lazy (laughs). I consider myself a creative and an activist of some sort because at home the art world is small and we are trying to inspire young people. I am also a self-taught illustrator, a lazy one (laughs).
BL: What’s the bigger vision?
M: Currently, the goal is music and releasing my EP. But I don’t see myself as just a singer. I love exhibitions and installations and so I am going to fuse that a lot with the music. I also want to find other forms beyond the music to tell stories. I still want to go back to school and study the history of art or maybe social anthropology but the most important thing is to keep telling the stories.