Born of a musical family, Mmaphala Letsatle’s existence has been characterized by melodic sounds since childhood.
Indeed, her very name is steeped in musical meaning.
“My name was lovingly coined by my dear father, a saxophonist and trumpeter. ‘Phala’ in Setswana means a wind instrument or any instrument that you blow into that creates a sound and ‘Mma’ can mean ‘mother of’ – therefore, mother of these beautiful wind instruments,” explains the 45-year-old proudly.
It is worth noting that it Setswana, there is a famous term ‘Leinalebe’ (assuming one’s own literal meaning and having a personality best described by one’s name). Hence Mmaphala’s name truly embodies the sound of her voice; she is her own wind instrument!
Despite her obvious musical calling, Mmaphala’s career took an unusual path.
After graduating from tertiary with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration, she ventured into the corporate world – a route taken by many of Mmaphala’s generation.
It was an industry she would thrive in for more than a decade. Nevertheless, although she enjoyed great success, music was never far from her heart.
“I had been with BTC for over 10 years in various capacities, with the last role I held being of acting Head of Product Management charged with developing and implementing growth and retention strategies for the product portfolio. However, I could no longer deny the yearning to fully explore the creative music industry.”
She would go on to enjoy a colourful journey under the tutelage of greats, including the late Momo of ‘OLELE’ fame, Ski Daddy Skizo, Solomon Monyame and many others.
“I started in earnest as a back-up singer for Momo and other local artists and as a lead singer for Unity Band, which played at numerous events. As part of the Streethorn Jazz team, I assisted in the Batswana Musical, the FNB All That’s Jazz featuring David Sanborn and Joe Sample,” reminisces Mmaphala, adding she was also part of the Be Mobile Jonas Gwangwa show held at the Majestic Hotel in Palapye a few years back.
Not to be outdone by her male counterparts, she took to turning discs and turntables, deejaying at Jazz and Old School events.
“At some point I was an on air radio personality on Gabzfm and introduced ‘Distant Drums’ to expose listeners to soul music from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, such as Zouk, Afro Soul, Salsa, Kompa, Kisumba and Calypso,” she recalls fondly.
Along the way Mmaphala discovered her acting talent and secured her debut role as an actress in McCall Smith’s critically acclaimed No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2007) as Jill Scout’s double.
This subsequently led to other roles including a part in a TV series the following year and a role in the local docu-drama, Morwalela in 2010.
Mmaphala pursued all these roles with music as the backdrop yet with no album to her name.
“There were so many along the way that nagged, encouraged and even pledged their support to me to release an album.”
Of her greatest fans, Mmaphala recalls precious moments spent in the company of her late father.
“Blasting music on the radio, he would exclaim, ‘Phale, one day we will cut a disc!’ It was a dream shared by my family and all would have a part to play.”
With a sigh of sadness, she continues quietly, “Unfortunately we lost both Mama le Papa before the fruition of the dream.”
The dream was finally realised last week, when, Mmaphala, joined by family, friends and well-wishers, launched her long-awaited 15-track debut album, ‘Sphere’.
Describing the album as ‘Setswana Soul’, she explains ‘Sphere’ was carefully crafted with traditional Botswana elements and instruments, placing it within the genres of World Music and Jazz yet still very niche in its delivery.
“When listening to each ballad, one is taken on a journey that is reminiscent of love experienced in all forms, from the love of a father, mother, a lover and for country,” says the singer songwriter happily.
For Mmaphala, the album’s title is extremely significant, telling Voice Woman it represents, “That inner place, inner space, inner voice; that inner guide where we find the answers to the questions that we need or at least where we find the guidance towards the answers. I feel that’s where God talks to us; it’s an inner space that is magical, mystical and spiritual. It’s a calm inner space that informs the bigger decisions of our lives where God talks to us!”
Through the album, Mmaphala takes her audience on a musical, lyrical and vocal journey that evokes and conjures up numerous emotions. Her voice is hauntingly beautiful, at times melodious, sad, melancholic and deeply emotive. In the end it leaves the audience wanting more!
It is a work of musical mastery, which Mmaphala rightly takes great pride in.
“It has taken so long to get to this point and it is surreal. ‘Sphere’ is the culmination of self-introspection and a musical exploration. I know for sure my folks, whom I have dedicated the album to, are smiling all the way up in heaven!”
Recorded at her XLT Studios, the album is available for purchase at Botswana Craft and newly launched Mmamontle store in Molapo.
“I cannot thank all that have journeyed with me enough. It has really been the labor of love and I cannot wait to share it with fans and new followers of my musical journey during live performances. Maybe sometime soon I will headline a show at the famous Botswana Craft. After all, they bought the album even before completion. Talk about a push!” she ends with a good-natured chuckle.