Sereetsi’s confessions and the renaissance of the four-string guitar


Preparing for his eagerly anticipated debut album launch, folk guitarist Tomeletso Sereetsi breaks from the rehearsals at midnight and chat to Staff Writer THALEFANG CHARLES on his fascinating musical journey from the alluring streets of Francistiown’s Somerset to becoming the prince of the renaissance of Botswana’s exclusive folk sound

One evening, many years ago, a young boy saw an inebriated old man playing his guitar while passing by their house and followed him. The boy enjoyed the music coming from this dirty guitar old man and marched on with him.

The astonished young fella was so lost in the music and the cheeky performance of this travelling guitar old man that he obliviously passed his mother’s curfew – an offence that was usually punished by a beating.

But that night it was the boy’s lucky day, maybe because of his animated narration of the guitar man’s solo travelling show, so he fortunately got off with a warning, “Never ever follow guitar men again!”  Today the same keen young boy, now grown into a young man, is still defiant and following guitar men - that is the writer’s confessions.

But this particular guitar man, although playing the same unique four-string guitar like the dirty inebriated old man, is younger, suave and a teetotaler. It is just before midnight on a Thursday at Block 9 in Gaborone.  Guitarist Tomeletso Sereetsi is finishing his rehearsal for the launch of his debut album, Four String Confessions scheduled for November 6, at Maitisong Theatre.

The rehearsals started at 9 pm in the living room of his flat where he stays with his small family; partner Kagelelo Kemiso, their two children, Phenyo and Afrika, together with the children’s aunt, Lorato.

In all, there are 11 people in the room – musicians and hangers-on.  Sereetsi is at the centre of the living room fiddling with the strings of his  guitar. Unlike many sentimental artists, he does not have a name for it. Around him, sitting on the amplifier is his bassist Michael Mokgatitswane, drummer Wynton Senwelo, on the other corner and saxophonist Mbiganyi Kula standing next to the stairs and blowing some mean sax sounds. Pianist Kagiso Mangole, sometimes known as KayZee,  is conspicuously absent, apparently held up somewhere.

Poet, Phopho Phonchi who will be performing at the launch is working with the band tonight.  There’s also  US guitarist, Alex Pullin who is travelling in search of traditional music in Southern Africa.

The band waited for Sereetsi’s five-year-old daughter, Afrika, to retire to bed before they began the rehearsals because drums and drummers astonish Afrika and she would have missed her bedtime. But unlike Afrika, Sereetsi did not get the music from his parents’ house.

“I would say I met music on my father’s doorstep at Somerset in Francistown,” he begins his confessions. Sereetsi , aged 35, compares the Somerset he grew up in the 80s to New York’s Broadway.

“Where I grew up was like Broadway,” he says. “There were theatres all over, but in the form of shebeens. There was lot of music, dancing and singing in there.” It was in those action-packed streets where Sereetsi met the legendary guitarists of the four-string guitar that continues to inspire him to this day.

“Those guys toured around the shebeens with their four-string guitars, holding some small cup for the audience to throw in coins for a song,” he recalls.

He says he used to discreetly sneak into those drinking holes and sit to watch the guitarists. These included  the likes of Clever Sibanda, Shine Keitumetse, Adibaba, and Sibongile Kgaila.

The art in Sereetsi was sown in those “Somerset theatres” and when he reached secondary school at Donga he began to take it out in many forms.

“When I got to Donga and later at FSS (Francistown Senior Secondary School) I did theatre, poetry, story telling and scriptwriting,” he says. He even established theatre groups outside school as he says school theatre was not enough for him to express his creative talent.

One day, while waiting to be posted for the national service, or Tirelo Sechaba (TS) in 1999, Sereetsi and his small theatre group wowed a Swedish couple that was lecturing at Tonota College of Education. The Swedes rewarded them with a damaged guitar and that was how Sereetsi picked his first guitar.

The guitar was like a child’s most treasured toy and Sereetsi vividly recalls those moments when he learnt how to pluck the strings. “At long last I had my own guitar. Man, I spent sleepless nights learning to play that guitar.”

He travelled with the guitar to serve TS at Ramotswa. “In Ramotswa I stayed in a dilapidated house we called ‘Hollywood’ that was always full of creative people, actors, musicians. I had a glorious time at Hollywood. There were guys like film-makers Busang Motsumi, Ookeditse Phala, Kabo Ditlhakeng who are currently excelling in  various arts fields. They used to spend time at Hollywood,” he says.

One of those artists brought a guitar book that Sereetsi knew immediately he desperately needed in order for him to improve his guitar skills. The owner was not interested in selling; so Sereetsi had to “lose” it in order to keep it.

“I told that guy that I lost it and he said I must pay P300 and I happily paid him back because I really needed the book,” he confesses.

At the time Sereetsi was getting P420 as a monthly living allowance from the TS scheme and he knew that P300-book was a good investment.

Another confession comes from his University of Botswana days. Sereetsi confesses that he dodged classes making time for music. His first gig in a band was not even on guitars.

“I started playing drums for a Rock n’ Roll band called Wrust. I was their first drummer. The late Spencer Sekwababe taught me how to play drums,” he says. Sereetsi was on a learning journey. He says he joined the band for the thrill and lessons of being part of a band to earn the coveted reference of being called “band member”.

After hard rock gigs he quit Wrust and continued the journey to the jazz music. “I was always curious to know how stuff works. So after finishing with the rock n’ roll phase I moved into jazz and a bit into classical music. For me it was just to teach myself the components of each genre.”

Sereetsi reveals that it was during these years that he wrote Robete - one of the hits on his debut album that was released in May this year.It actually took more than 10 years for people to have chance to hear Robete because something happened that suddenly cut out the musical steam from Sereetsi and put him on a 10-year break from creating music.He looks up into the dark night, shaking his head before he says, “Eish boss, journalism happened.”In 2004, the then Mmegi Editor Mesh Moeti recruited Sereetsi and he started writing on these particular arts and culture pages.

“I was in the entertainment and arts section so I did not want to compete with people I was supposed to tell their stories. I chose to be an observer and sold all my musical instruments and even my small music studio equipment that I had at my house,” he explains. Due to his good work in the newsroom he proceeded quickly on the media corporate ladder and before long he had bigger responsibilities which made him fall into the working man’s trap. He could not find his way back to the music.

But soon the journalism fire in him began to fade away with a waning passion for breaking stories. He then started hanging out with musicians again and immersing himself in the sound.

It was during that time that he re-connected with the four-string guitar. The guitar was completely different from the six-stringed guitar theories that he self-taught himself so he decided to write down and map the four-string guitar chords.

While busy writing the chords in order to understand the four-string guitar, he accumulated more material and it dawned on him that he could put it in a book.

That is how the The Solo Four String Guitar of Botswana book was conceptualised. The book, which is a player’s manual showing chords, grooves and style, received raving reviews and it catapulted Sereetsi to a rising musical legend who travels around facilitating at musical workshops on this exclusive Botswana guitar.

So after the book, Sereetsi answered the critics who wondered whether he could really play the guitar that he wrote about in the book.

“My close friends and I knew all along that I have been playing and creating music,” he says. “So after releasing the book, critics piled pressure on me to play commercially and I responded with an album, Four String Confessions,” he says.

The album was an instant hit. It was a renaissance of Botswana folk’s music, a music that was about to drown into oblivion because the owners of this distinct sound were the unlucky lot that played only live shows at shebeens and never recorded.

Radio Botswana’s Batho Molema tried his bit to capture this sound and some of his recordings remain the only archived material of this music. This is the music of Dikgang Malete, Nduna Poiho, Andries Bok, Phunyaselesele, Kwataeshwele, George Swabi, Lepodise Sekokoane, Sam Raditsebe, Jonny Kobedi, Phika Raditsebe and Stika Sola to name but just a few.

Sereetsi fused this unique guitar music with the indigenous sounds of Borankana beats and various Setswana rhythms.

“I have put many elements from various cultures, there is jazz, rock and classical music in my sound but at the core of it all is the Setswana rhythms. And that’s why it is ‘Sereetsi & The Natives. It means Sereetsi playing the music of the people. It is my tribute to the artists who came before us and created these sounds,” explains Sereetsi.

The album is also packed with brilliant probing lyrics. He says the songs are personal hence the title, Four String Confessions.“I have made a conscious decision that I will never sing in English because I take great pride in Setswana.” And that is the passion that would soon make Sereetsi the king of Botswana’s neo-folk music inspired by unique sounds of  the four-string guitar.

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