Famo music originated around the 1920s in the speakeasies of migrant workers from Lesotho trying to relax after working in the mines.
Lifela are migrant workers’ songs that express their working and living conditions as well as the nostalgia for home. As the music began to escape the mines, the compositions began to cover many other topics — from the social and economic difficulties faced by individuals and groups, to how violence and party politics has impacted Basotho life. Because of this, famo has acted as a record for Lesotho’s history.
Tau ea Matšekha, around the 1970s, became one of the first groups to break out from the mines and into the scope of the public. Forere Motloheloa’s opening riff on 'Ke Ikhethetse e Motle' is the same riff used in Paul Simon’s 'Boy in the Bubble'.
The nineties had a wave of new musicians enter the fray. Notable names included Manka le Phallang, Mahosana aka Phamong, Puseletso Seema and Mantša. These musicians became influential for artists such as Famole, Kholumo and Selomo.
It is unclear how the accordion became synonymous with famo music. Regardless, famo is composed of a variety of lifela sang to music mainly consisting of an accordion, a drum and occasionally, a bass. Famo was played in the speakeasies so as to attract more customers. At first, the music was being made by miners. This resulted in many of the groups consisting of Ma-Russia affiliates.
The development of gangs has run parallel to the evolution of famo music. The Ma-Russia of Lesotho originally began as a way to protect artists from bullying and support artists during times of bereavement and illness. However, later became associated with embezzlement, trafficking and illegal liquor sales. Reportedly, gangs have attempted to crack the music industry in South Africa and the taxi industry as well as the criminal underworld.
In 2010, a trial of 2 men accused (later convicted) of plotting murder, reported that the 2 men accused operated from a hit list which not only included rival musicians, but also a radio personality as part of an initiation into one of the gangs. This radio personality was thought to be promoting the music of a rival.
For more than a decade, local Lesotho newspapers have carried out recurring reports on the violence between several collectives. This has affected the lives of Basotho families living in both rural and peri-urban areas. In 2019, rising artist Likhau was murdered. His high-profile murder, being one of many murders associated with the genre, signifies how connected violence has become with famo music.
The violence between rival gangs has created a great sense of fear for the famo musicians. Some artists refuse to answer calls for interviews due to belief of ulterior motives. This has also affected villages. In some villages, people can’t wear blankets for fear of wearing the wrong factions’ colours in rival territory.
Makhele: Chorus normally followed by the chanting of lifela. Makhele songs have a chorus regardless of the format they follow. An example of structure would be chorus-lifela-chorus.
Masholu: Composed of a flow similar to that used in rap set to famo music. Does not have a chorus but instead, lifela is chanted throughout the song. Sometimes, masholu songs are purely instrumental and not accompanied by any singing.
Famo music is also associated with the use of proverbs within the titles of the songs and the lyrical content. An example of this is in ‘Mokhoka-khoale’:
He! Ntate Tšeole ba u neheletse mokhoka-khoale.
Ba u neheletse ntho e se ka ka letho.(chorus)
‘Nake ngoan’a leboli,
A k’u ba tlohele ba ntšale morao.
Ntho eo ke bonang lapeng la ka Tšeole, Feela ba tsebe ke ‘moulo ha ke thape.
He! Father Tšeole they are witch-hunting you
They have sent you the monster. (chorus)
My brother the child of Leboli,
Let them witch-hunt me.
What I see in my family Tšeole,
But they must know that I am a mule I do not get tamed.
This proverb (‘ba u neheletse mokhoka-khoale’ (‘ho nehella mokhoka-khoale’) sends a message to Tšeole, the vocalist, that an evil spirit is sent to him as bad luck until his death. Some of the villagers who are witches are to blame for his misfortunes: his daughter and his niece experience problems in their marriages. On the one hand, he is being made aware of the terrible situation he is in, while on the other hand, he is encouraged to accept it as his fate that ill-luck will follow him to his grave. It should be noted that this is the title of the last album he released before his death. This is the reason why his close friends feel that he was bewitched to his grave.
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