Virtual exhibition brings Lesotho musical tradition and clay art to life

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The beginning of the television news broadcast on Radio Lesotho is signaled by an unforgettable, rather harsh vibrating noise, as if it were produced by a large bird. It is the lesiba, a musical bow. Lesiba was played by boys and men who looked after the cattle, before radios and cell phones began to replace the national musical instrument.

Nowadays, there is little apparent concern with maintaining interest in lesiba at school or at any other national level in Lesotho. The instrument’s unique sound – once reminiscent of a rural way of life – seems to exist in a disconnected and disembodied way on the radio.

And the people who still play traditional Lesotho instruments – musicians, instrument makers and innovators in their art – are rarely recognized or rewarded for their expertise.

But a collaboration led by the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town aims to draw attention to Lesotho’s musical tradition. The collaboration involves filming musicians and exhibiting related works of art. We have recorded musicians playing four instruments which are also depicted in clay figurines made by the late Lesotho artist Samuele Makoanyane (1909-1944).

Iziko South African Museum, in collaboration with Dijondesign (heritage consultants for the Lesotho National Museum and Art Gallery), has created a virtual exhibition of the delicate figurines.

They used photogrammetry – recording, measuring and mapping – to create 3D digital models of the sculptures. These digital models measure between 8cm and 18cm in height. They allow detailed and interactive exploration. The figurines are on display through the South African Iziko Museum. Lesotho’s new National Museum and Art Gallery will also feature them when it officially opens in 2022.

We also worked with the Morija Museum and Archive, Morija Art Center and Lesotho National Museum and Art Gallery to create a film. Called Music in the mountain kingdom, it documents the musical culture of Lesotho and accompanies the exhibition of figurines. Prior to the pandemic containment, we also planned to include live performances by musicians in the exhibits.

Makoanyane figurines

The seven exquisite and little-known clay figurines in the exhibition were made by Makoanyane in the 1930s. They were commissioned by musicologist Professor Percival Kirby of the University of the Witwatersrand, in order to document the musicians of Lesotho and their instruments . Manufactured in the centuries-old tradition of low-temperature pit cooking, they are extremely fragile. They are supported in the Kirby Collection of Musical Instruments at the South African College of Music.

Makoanyane lived mainly in Koalabata, Teyateyaneng district. It is about 89 km north of Lesotho’s capital, Maseru. To make the figurines, he worked from images from the 1934 Kirby tome, Musical instruments of the indigenous races of South Africa.

Clay figurine by Samuele Makoanyane representing a woman playing the moropa.
Kirby Collection, University of Cape Town

The figurines are registered in the Digital Humanities Collection of the University of Cape Town. They are named as: thomo musical bow, setolotolo musical bow, seketari (guitar), lesiba musical bow, lekolilo pipe, drum and moropa pipe.

The Morija Museum and Archives, Lesotho’s oldest and best-known museum, also has 33 Makoanyane clay figurines in its collection. The museum helped find living musicians to play on four of the instruments depicted.

The musicians

We recorded five musicians for the virtual exhibition. An older woman, Matlali Kheoana, plays the lekope (musical bow without reinforcement with oral resonance) and the sekebeku (jaw harp). The sekebeku is technically not part of the collection, but a modern-made instrument similar to the setolotolo in the collection.

Leabua Mokhele, an older man, and Molahlehi Matima, a younger man, both play lesiba (a musical bow without reinforcement with oral resonance). Malefetsane Paul Mabotsane and Petar Mohai, two young men, play the segankhulu (a single-string bowed lute with an oil canister resonator).

Although two instruments were dubbed, the performers played very differently. In the case of the segankhulu, they even built their instruments differently. Lesiba and Segankhulu always seem to attract younger and innovative players. But lekope is particularly threatened and Matlali Kheoana is probably one of the last performers of this instrument.

Music in the Mountain Kingdom, directed by photographer Paul Weinberg.

The live performances at the exhibition would have allowed the musicians to gain exposure and leverage their expertise. Other results could have included workshops and demonstrations at universities or as part of museum programs.

We are always working on creating learning and teaching materials for the study of Lesotho music. We hope that the repatriation of music and musical instruments through the exhibition and film will revitalize the interest of the Basotho and the pursuit of a sustainable indigenous musical culture.

The project would like to thank Steven Sack (independent curator), Jon Weinberg (principal consultant in Dijondesign exhibition) and Stephen Wessels (specialist in Dijondesign photogrammetry) for the virtual installation.


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