©St. Louis African Chorus, February 2003. All rights reserved.

Mohapeloa: The Man and His Music

By MOROESI SIBANDZE

Ahe, Sechaba se ratehang, bana ba Nkhaolise e mots’oana, Thuhloana” ..... are words said by Dr Joshua Pulumo Mohapeloa, as a greeting to the nation in the 1976 publication, “Meluluetsa ea Nts’etso-pele le Bosechaba” by Dibabrata Gosh. This book was dedicated “to the young generation of the Basotho, who can defy divisiveness and face the challenge Lesotho, ‘M’a Basotho, has offered to eradicate poverty, ignorance, soil erosion, disease and fear”.

“Meluluetsa ... “ served as Mohapeloa’s contribution towards the celebration of ten years of independence in the Kingdom of Lesotho. Uppermost in the minds of the people of Lesotho was the desire to serve the country with love and dedication. At the same time, they yearned for a meaningful direction. Perhaps a wave of re-awakening would set a basis for the entire country, and guide her towards the desired goal; and what a method to use but that of song! A selection of songs from Mohapeloa’s compositions was arranged in “Meluluetsa ...”, which was to equal the people’s need.

Lesotho, with her magnificent mountains, spectacular gorges, deep valleys and winding rivers, is a truly comforting abode - full of splendour. Lesotho’s Maloti Mountain range is a wonder. Rather baffled were the weather bureaux during November 1990 (a typical summer month) when snow fell, inducing temperatures colder than freezing in most parts of Southern Africa. Quite unpredictable? Yet, who knows, perhaps a white Christmas is no longer a dream?! Up there, one marvels at the beauty that nature generously gave. One feels the unmistakable presence of the Mighty Hand of the Creator of Life. One cannot be untouched by this divine feeling. Some have experienced it, have revelled in it and have shared it in no more than hushed tones. In Mohapeloa’s mind, this feeling overflowed and he lashed out a big shout! He was inspired by it to praise God for the wonders that exist in this country ... from the deep waters, the dark loam, the carpeted valleys, the bud (to which he tenderly likens youth), the heedless hare, the “sheep of His pasture”, the warriors and kings, the tapering mountains, the “hukuthu hu-hu” of the dove to the invigorating air higher up.

On Sunday 28 March 1908, Reverend Joel Mohapeloane Mohapeloa and his wife Candace Sehoroane (Matong), a former school teacher, welcomed their fourth son whom they named Joshua Pulumo. John Kaibe Santho, the first born son of the family turns 90 years of age in September 1991. Second was Karabo, who passed away as an infant. Third is Joel Thabiso. Born after Joshua Pulumo were Rosetta Mots’elisi Ts’episo ‘Maneo, Josias Makibinyane, Jonas Matlhole Sethabathaba, Lerato Phoebe (late), Harry Leboela (late) and Zacharia Maloisane Boipiletso. An intimate chamber ensemble could be completed within the circumference of that thatch-roofed hut at the Mohapeloa homestead at Molumong. Beauty and brains characterised Reverend Mohapeloa’s family. To cite a trio, Lerato’s flawless beauty earned her the name “No mistake”. Makibinyane went overseas and attained education far higher Western than his African country could give.

Joshua Pulumo Mohapeloa grew up and started primary education at Molumong in the Mokhotlong district. He received junior secondary education at Morija. His study for the matriculation certificate at Fort Hare (Cape Province) was interrupted by illness. He had to go home. At this stage, his father had moved from Molumong and was stationed at Mohalinyane in the Mohale’s Hoek district. The lesson to be learned here is the secret of peace - the ability to make creative use of distress. He used the long period of illness as an opportunity to draw upon an inner strength. “I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me, and set me in a large place” (Psalm 118:5). Like Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte of Nigeria, Mohapeloa harnessed his creative energies into writing musical compositions. His first book of songs was published in 1937, followed by further study for a diploma in music under Professor Kirby at the Witwatersrand University, South Africa. He received great support from his family. What started off as evenings of fireside singing and story-telling at home became the sampling of Mohapeloa’s early compositions, with his siblings as a handy choral ensemble to test his new creations. To them, this was a welcome change as JP’s previous pieces were filled with mouthing tongue-twisters, a game from which the would-be composer derived particular delight: “Ha e tsoele lebu pelo poli eo”, or “Khulu phutha thupa, thupa phutha khulu.”

At the age of 37 Joshua Pulumo Mohapeloa married Mary Stammiri. Four children were born out of this marriage which had lasted 35 years when Mrs. Mohapeloa passed away in 1980. Dr Mohapeloa remarried in 1981.

Over a hundred of Mohapeloa’s songs were published in book or pamphlet form. His music, whether spiritual or secular, has over the years been popularly enjoyed by adult and youth choirs in concerts and competitions, as well as on radio and television. The Sesotho hymnal, Lifela tsa Sione, abounds with works of the world’s greatest composers such as Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn also has J P Mohapeloa’s songs. Molimo ke Moea (John 4:24) is number 445 in the hymnal.

Mohapeloa made a significant contribution to African culture in general, particularly the Sesotho culture. He took great care in expressing the African element in his songs. He was scrupulous in the use of written and spoken Sesotho language. His work was recognised by the Queen of England, who awarded him the honour of the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). The Kingdom of Lesotho awarded him the Knighthood of the Order of Ramats’eatsana (KCOR). The National University of Lesotho also awarded him a Doctorate of Letters (D.Litt.).

The appellation “JP” connotes much adulation among the Basotho people, and the appellation refers to the foremost composer that Lesotho has had. He died in 1982 - the legend that was and still is. Pianist, singer and choir master, who has been described as “one of the most prolific, capable and inspired composers; musically gifted and versatile; facile and polished; meticulous.” JP’s work is vast and varied, and his fourth book remains to be published.

Dr Mohapeloa's songs were written in sol-fa, with the exception of only one that I know, the Anthem of the OAU - written, for obvious reasons, in staff. His works are mostly captured in books published by Morija Sesotho Books Depot and the Oxford University Press.

This article draws from an earlier interview with Professor J. M. Mohapeloa (J P's younger brother). In the past lovers of the works of J P have gathered together during the month of March (he was born on 28 March 1908) to commemorate his life and contributions. Presentations would include lectures, symposia, with past recordings played as samples. There would also be poetry reading and eulogies.

Moroesi Sibandze is executive director of the JPM Arts and Cultural Centre in Lesotho, and works with the Institute of Health and Development Communication at Soul City, South Africa. She grew up singing JP’s songs, and eventually became involved in a movement to popularize them. The St. Louis African Chorus recently teamed up with the Centre to provide technical assistance for a project of transcribing all, or selections of Dr. J.P. Mohapeloa’s compositions into staff notation. Student volunteers are being invited from music schools in the St. Louis, New Orleans, and New York areas to participate in this laudable project. Interested persons should be familiar with Sibelius 2 or Finale 2002, and should call the African Chorus office at 314-652-6800.

- Editor

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