Smooth talk with a jazz legend

Leungo Mokgwathi
MUSIC MAKER: Boleseng and his treasured saxophone

When it comes to jazz A-listers, the legendary, Lister Boleseng tops the list for many local jazz lovers.

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Famous for his awesome ability with the saxophone as well as his silky-smooth voice, the Serowe sensation’s songs have stood the test of time, remaining as relevant today as when he first penned them, over 17 years ago.

Boleseng burst onto the entertainment scene back in 2006 with his debut album, ‘Life’s a journey’, a musical masterpiece filled with timeless favourites such as ‘O tlhokana le nna’.

With genres like gqom and amapiano enjoying mass appeal, many Jazz musicians have been seduced to switch tact, hopping off the soul train to ride the new trending wave.

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Boleseng, however, remains true to his smooth instrumentals.

The Voice’s LEUNGO MOKGWATHI sat down with the former soldier to learn more about his long-lasting career, and the music scene then versus now.

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Who inspired your love for music?

My grandmother did.

I lived with her in Rakops when I was in Primary School and that woman loved her radio.

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The radio was on throughout the entire day and that’s where I listened to different types of music and eventually fell in love with Jazz.

When did you learn to play the saxophone?

Although I am best known for playing the saxophone, allow me to make it clear that that isn’t the only instrument I can play.

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I am a multi-instrumentalist who happens to spend most of my time on the saxophone – however, I can also play other instruments such as the flute.

I learnt how to play these instruments in the early 80s when I joined the Botswana Defence Force (BDF).

I also was lucky enough to learn music in Los Angeles, California in 1992.

Take us through that journey at the BDF.

I joined the BDF in 1981.

I always had an interest in music, which is why I interviewed under the BDF Band and fortunately made it in.

One Colonel eyed me once and decided that I had the lips to play the saxophone, so they handed me one and I started learning.

I got really good at playing instruments, especially the saxophone, and by 1986 I was already part of other bands outside BDF which grew my love for music.

In 1986, I recorded my very first album in South Africa with one of the smaller bands under the BDF Band and that’s when I knew I had a calling and decided to pursue it.

When you first picked up that saxophone, did you anticipate this level of success?

Not at all!

I was really young at the time and I was just grateful for the opportunity to practice music, something I have always been into.

There wasn’t really an end goal until that time when I started recording albums and gaining recognition.

The acknowledgement from those around me got me thinking about taking it to an even higher, profitable level.

Tell us about your first album?

My first album, ‘Life’s Journey’ was released in 2006.

That was my breakthrough album because it consists of some of my biggest songs that are still, by God’s grace, relevant today.

The likes of ‘O tlhokana le nna’ and ‘Maikutlo a lerato’.

It took another ten years for you to release album number two, why was that?

First of all, I had no pressure to release another album because that one was doing really well selling copy sales and getting me gigs.

Secondly, I knew that I had to take time perfecting this one to ensure that it either matched or superseded my first album.

I remember after my first album, people would tell me that I set the standard too high for myself, but I wasn’t fazed because I was confident in my abilities to deliver the same level of quality.

The second album called ‘Moratiso’ was released in 2016.

We have seen a number of Jazz musicians ditching the genre for newer, ‘hipper’ genres. Have you ever been tempted to follow suit?

I never have and I don’t think I ever will change genres.

Although, I don’t have a problem bringing in elements of the more recent genres into mine just to give my fans something different.

I have always been into Jazz, it made me and frankly, I enjoy it a lot so I am good where I am.

What’s your secret to making music that leaves such a lasting impression?

I learnt from a very tender age, the importance of being observant.

As a musician, you’re a storyteller so you need to be aware of what’s happening around you, something which I incorporate a lot in my songs.

My songs tell stories of love, joy and struggles people encounter all the time which makes them relatable throughout different seasons.

Another key issue is consistency.

You need to be consistent in every beat, melody, lyric and arrangement to ensure that you don’t compromise the quality of your music or the standard you may have already set previously.

If you’re going to fluctuate, it gives you a bad record because your fans can never anticipate what they can look forward to.

I cannot stress enough how picky I am with my band because they make me.

I make sure to work with the very best in the game, and most importantly people who have the same principles and work ethics as me.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in your journey?

There have been so many, one of them being support from our people.

It took some time for Batswana to fully appreciate their own artists – maybe because international musicians dominated local radio stations, which is where most Batswana listened to their music.

I remember there wasn’t a single band that had recorded an album until the likes of Afro Sunshine and Kgwenyape did in the late 80s.

What word of advice can you give to upcoming artists?

Be patient.

I have realised that most of them are looking for overnight success; but regardless of how good you are, if you’re not patient, you can blow it all up.

Take your time to learn and hone your skills, never grow weary of learning because that is how you succeed.

Speaking of upcoming artists, any we should be looking out for?

It’s hard to mention just a few but Perion, Ezra Neethings and Sebaga Rabantheng are definitely some artists I really believe are going to change the scene.

Should we look forward to another album?

Most definitely!

As a matter of fact, my album was due for release at the end of May this year, but I unfortunately suffered a car accident which put the project on pause.

If all goes well though, I will have it released at the end of August.

It’s called ‘Pelo Yame’ and it has eight tracks.

I know you’re really big on family, tell us more about yours.

Oh yes, my support system.

At the forefront is my lovely wife, Nametsegang alongside four amazing children: Refilwe, Lone, Botsala and Mmabaledi.

I am also a grandfather to three.

Finally, thank God it’s Friday, what will you be up to this weekend?

I will be in Thamaga for the ‘Annual Jazz Festival with Lister Boleseng’.

It’s a fun packed day of engaging with community members at the Kgotla in the morning, playing football during the day and enjoying good music in the evening.

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