Biography

Mohapeloa family members c1910 (courtesy Tim Couzens’s book Murder at Morija)
Mohapeloa family members c1910 (courtesy Tim Couzens’s book Murder at Morija)

Joshua Pulumo Mohapeloa (1908-1982) was a member of the Bataung clan, born in Molumong in the eastern mountains of Lesotho on 28 March 1908. He was the third generation of a family converted to Christianity in the 19th century by the Swiss-French protestant missionaries from the Société des Missions Evangéliques chez les peuples non-chrétiens á Paris (SMEP), known in English as the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society (PEMS). Joshua Pulumo was the grandson of Rev Joel Mohapeloane Mohapeloa and his father was also Rev. Mohapeloa. His uncle, John Santho Mohapeloa, was also a priest, and father an uncle can be seen in the inset photograph taken in the early 20th century, around 1910.

Joshua Pulumo Mohapeloa (1908-1982)
Joshua Pulumo Mohapeloa (1908-1982)

Aside from some years in Johannesburg (1938-1943) J.P. Mohapeloa spent most of his life in Morija in the western lowlands of Lesotho. After receiving his elementary schooling in the Mokhotlong district, JP then attended the PEMS mission institution Morija Training College, also known as Thabeng School and later called Morija Training Institution. Here he studied music and music education, including tonic solfa and staff notation, and piano, and completed his Junior Certificate in December 1927. He entered the South African Native College (SANC) at Alice in the eastern Cape in 1928 (it is now called Fort Hare University) in order to complete his Matriculation, the school-leaving qualification. This was at that time the only place in southern Africa where a black person could do Matric. He hoped to go on and do a medical degree, but contracted tuberculosis during 1928, and by the end of 1929 was forced to leave the SANC. He spent the following year at Mohalinyane in the eastern lowlands, to which his father had just been transferred as Pastor. While recuperating here, he furthered his studies through correspondence courses, and also began writing down his first compositions, in tonic solfa notation, to his own Sesotho lyrics. His awareness and love of nature deepened during this time, as is clear from the words of his early songs. Nor was he just an observer, for both at Molumong and at Mohalinyane J.P. planted many trees, as a way of acknowledging the importance of the environment and the devastating effects of soil erosion.

A homestead in the mountains on the road to Sani (2011) – signs of soil erosion clearly visible
A homestead in the mountains on the road to Sani (2011) – signs of soil erosion clearly visible

At home and at school Mohapeloa was exposed to various forms of vocal music: folk music (often with a strong Bass), songs composed in tonic solfa by Sotho composers, European hymns, and the European choruses introduced by his teachers in Morija Training Institution. He also learnt folk tales, dances and games, and delighted in making up tongue-twisters. As his brother, historian Josias Makibinyane recalls in a biographical account written in 1987, “the Basotho ways, old and new, that he learned from home, at school, herding, and different kinds of jobs, are evident in many of his songs”. Mohapeloa started a choir at Mohalinyane and began composing for it, his work quickly spreading to other choirs and being gradually introduced into schools. By 1934, he had written over 30 songs, and Morija Sesutu Book Depot published his first songbook, Meloli le Lithallere tsa Afrika I (Sounds and Songs of Africa I) in 1935. This comprised 32 works.

Morija Sesutu Book Depot bookshop (2011) where Mohapeloa’s tonic solfa songbooks are still on sale
Morija Sesutu Book Depot bookshop (2011) where Mohapeloa’s tonic solfa songbooks are still on sale

Mohapeloa was aware of approaching choral music in a new way, here, and the mixture of the traditional and the modern in this book was hailed as original. As fellow composer Akim L. Sello put it in the Preface to Meloli book 1: “Mr J P Mohapeloa has opened a new way of progress, which we hope others, with eloquence, may follow and develop”. Meloli book 1 contains a number of songs based on folk tales, celebrating birds, animals, and traditional life. Two thirds of the songs are in four parts, SATB, while a third use five voices, the additional voice usually being Alto or Tenor.

Encouraged by the recognition of his first book (reprinted in 1953, ’77, ’83, and ’88), JP produced his second songbook, Meloli le Lithallere tsa Afrika Book II in 1939 and it was reprinted in 1945, ’55,’80, and ’96. Most of the pieces in Meloli Book II are for four voices but there is one double chorus, Jim, motsoalle oa ka (Jim, my friend) and one unison lament, Sika la Tholo, khaoho (Genealogy of Tholo, break). The last song in this volume, Coronation March, was originally composed (in English) in honour of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II in 1937.

At the end of 1936, the Morija Training Institution Choir conducted by B.N. Mashologu and presumably under the eye of the composer, recorded eight of Mohapeloa’s songs from Meloli book 1 at the South African Broadcasting Company (SABC) studios in Johannesburg. They must have been among the first Sesotho songs recorded for radio. Although the master recordings are lost, four tracks were issued by Gallo Africa under the supervision of Hugh Tracey on two LP discs, and a copy of all eight tracks was kept by the International Library of African Music in Grahamstown.

In 1939, Mohapeloa was given a scholarship by the Lesotho Director of Education, Mr O.B. Bull to enrol in the Music Department at the University of the Witwatersrand, Braamfontein (Johannesburg) as an ‘Occasional Student’. This meant that he studied part-time, taking courses or parts of courses given by Professor of Music Percival Kirby and lecturer W.P. Paff. His student record at Wits shows that he passed “History of Music A.1” in 1939, “History of Music II” and “Counterpoint & Harmony” in 1940, Counterpoint & Harmony” in 1941, and “Composition only” in 1942. He did not complete a diploma or degree, but the courses listed above would have expanded his knowledge and skills, as one can see from the details given in the University Calendars of the time. (One assumes that all these areas were covered, and that he attended all the classes.) History of Music I in 1939 comprised “The Phenomenon of Sound; the Media of Music; the Materials of Music; Musical Morphology; an Outline of Musical History through the Evolution of Musical Design [and] illustrated discussions of important works of the great Masters”.

The ‘Counterpoint & Harmony’ Mohapeloa did in 1940 was at the basic level: “Strict Counterpoint in two parts and Combined Counterpoint in three parts. Harmony: All harmonic resources up to and including the dominant ninth; treatment of the unessential. Harmonization of melodies and basses.” History of Music II covered “Musical Literature in detail up to the death of Schubert. Primitive Music; the Music of the Ancients; Mediaeval Music; the Epoch of Vocal Polyphony; the Development of Opera and Oratorio; the Age of Bach and Handel; the growth of the Symphony and the Sonata”. The Calendar for 1941 has the following under Counterpoint and Harmony at the more advanced level: “Strict Counterpoint up to four parts. Free Counterpoint up to three parts. Imitative Counterpoint strict and free, up to four parts. Double Counterpoint. All harmonic resources up to and including dominant and diatonic thirteenths. Chromatic harmony. Diatonic and chromatic treatment of the unessential. Harmonization of melodies and adding of parts to basses and inner parts, and ornamental harmonization of chorales.”

Mohapeloa was only allowed to study ‘Composition’ after three years, in 1942, and no details are given in the Calendar. Then, as now, composition teaching at university level usually developed out of harmony and counterpoint, with instrumentation and orchestration in addition (which JP may or may not have covered; there is no record of his writing instrumental music). There were probably many things, therefore, that he did not cover at Wits, such as aural training, free composition, music analysis, or keyboard skills — despite the fact that he had studied piano (or harmonium) at Morija with Florence Mabille.

A 34-year-old African composer steeped in Sotho folk music and missionary styles of choral writing (in tonic solfa) was clearly an unusual presence in the Wits music department of the 1930s. Kirby’s autobiography Wits End makes no mention of Mohapeloa, although Kirby mentions many other former students. Composer Stanley Glasser, who was an economics student at Wits at the time, nevertheless remembers that Kirby and Paff “were highly impressed with Mohapeloa as a musical phenomenon, remarking on his musicianship, originality and imagination of his pieces and somewhat puzzled as what best to do for him’ (Letter from Stanley Glasser to Christine Lucia, 8 June 2009). That Mohapeloa felt indebted to Kirby is also clear from the fact that one of the names he gave his first-born son was Percival.

Baithaopi Voluntary Society in 1956 (courtesy Leslinyana)
Baithaopi Voluntary Society in 1956 (courtesy Leslinyana)

During his time in Johannesburg, Mohapeloa ran a choir called the Johannesburg Traditional Choristers, and after he returned to Morija one of the choirs he formed was called Baithaopi (Volunteers).

Although he never formally became a ‘music teacher’, Mohapeloa informally educated many people through choir work. As his brother points out, in his work with a choir at Morija Training College alone he “produced a number of composers [including] J.Q Matsoso, L. Ntšasa, S.S. Polile and E.E. Monese”. In 1948 Mohapeloa joined the new African Music Society of Hugh Tracey in Johannesburg, under the category of ‘African Members’. (Other African members were Mosoeu Moerane and Benjamin Tyamzashe.)

In 1945 Mohapeloa had begun working at the Morija Printing Works as a proof reader, a job he stayed in until his retirement. In 1947 Morija Sesuto Book Depot published his third songbook, Meloli le Lithallere tsa Afrika Book III, containing 28 works, reprinted in 1966, 77, 83, and 88. Most of them are for SATB, and some are quite lengthy, for example the last one, Thoko ea Tlhōlo, a title that Mohapeloa translates as ‘Praise of man’s victory over ignorance’. At 102 bars and with several changes of key and time signature it is a magisterial song, celebrating the liberation brought to European countries by the ending of World War II and exhorting African countries to pursue their own form of liberation.

Mohapeloa's house in Morija with his grandson Mohapeloane (left) and churchwarden Philip Molise (2006)
Mohapeloa’s house in Morija with his grandson Mohapeloane (left) and churchwarden Philip Molise (2006)

Mohapeloa’s next songbook, also published by Morija Sesuto Book Depot, came out in 1951: Khalima-nosi tsa ‘mino oa kajeno (Shining xamples of today’s music). This contains only five songs, and they are in a style that Mohapeloa had been working towards in Meloli Book III, which to him was ‘modern’. They serve “as a record of the popular trend in musical development today”, as he puts it in the Preface. Nos. 1, 3, and 5 — Molelekeng (a girl’s name), Liphala (Horns), and Tšaba-tšaba (Watch out!) — are quite jazzy, while No. 2, Senqu – The Orange River is like an operatic chorus, and No. 4, E-eang ka khotso (Go in peace) is in a swaying, compound meter. All five have detailed dynamic and tempo markings, a new feature of this collection.

Lifela tsa Sione hymn 445
Lifela tsa Sione hymn 445

In 1955, Morija Sesuto Book Depot published a collection of church songs called Hosanna (Hosannah) that contained eight hymns by Mohapeloa. One of them, ‘Molimo ke moea’ (God is the spirit) also became hymn no. 445 in a new edition of the well-established Sotho hymnal Lifela tsa Sione (Hymns of Zion).

There were other publishers in Lesotho, and in 1963 Mohapeloa chose to publish six new works in the book Binang ka thabo (Songs of Love), published by Mazenod Institute, the Catholic Press in Mazenod, outside Maseru. These include four songs that he later republished in 1976, in a volume of twenty-five songs brought out by Oxford University Press in Cape Town, called Meluluetsa ea ntšetso-pele le bosechaba Lesotho (Anthems for the development of the nation of Lesotho). Meluluetsa includes three songs previously published in Meloli II: ‘TY’, ‘Mafeteng’, and ‘Maseru’ – these all being place names.

According to a list of songs Mohapeloa made for Yvonne Huskisson at the SABC in the mid-1960s, he had originally intended some of the songs that went into Meluluetsa to be published as Meloli Book IV, but he was inspired by Father Diprak Gosh, head of the Lesotho Department of Developmental Education and the Department of Education, to publish them with O.U.P., which must have meant a lot to the composer. The songbook was published in tonic solfa notation, however, without the texts translated, which meant that its circulation was still limited to African choirs: and despite the number of such choirs and their wide distribution in the region, they mostly do not purchase songbooks but rely, rather, on reproduced copies; and beyond such choirs, distribution in the rest of the world has been minimal.

Mohapeloa's grave in Morija
Mohapeloa’s grave in Morija

After Mohapeloa retired from Morija Printing Works in 1973, he taught music at the National Teacher Training College in Maseru, which was founded in 1975, and he was still teaching there in January 1982 when he died. He is buried in the graveyard outside Morija to the east, and in 2008 a tombstone was erected by the family. (It was sponsored by the Southern African Music Rights Organisation, of which Mohapeloa was a member.)

References & Further Reading

African Music Society. [n.d., 1948a]. ‘List of Members at 30th April 1948.’ Cape Town: University of Cape Town Museums and Archives, P.R. Kirby Collection, file BC750/A.

Coplan, David B. 1994. In the Time of Cannibals: The Word Music of South Africa’s Basotho Migrants. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Couzens, Tim. 2003. Murder at Morija. Johannesburg: Random House.

Gill, Stephen. 1995. A Guide to Morija. Morija: Morija Museum and Archives.

________. 1993. A Short History of Lesotho. Morija: Morija Museum and Archives.

Gosh, D. 1976. ‘J.P. Mohapeloa: A Brief Biographical Sketch.’ In Meluluetsa ea Ntšetso-pele le Bosechaba Lesotho, J.P. Mohapeloa, 11-12. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Huskisson, Yvonne. 1969. Die Bantoe-Komponiste van Suider-Afrika/The Bantu Composers of Southern Africa. Johannesburg: South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Kirby, Percival. 1968. The Musical Instruments of the Native Races of South Africa, 2nd edition. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

________. 1979. ‘Introduction’ [to ‘Bantu Composers of South Africa, The’]. South African Music Encyclopedia Vol. 1, ed. Jacques P. Malan, 85-94. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Lucia, Christine, ed. 2005. The World of South African Music: A Reader. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press.

________. 2007. ‘Travesty or Prophecy? Views of South African Black Choral Composition.’ In Music and Identity: Transformation and Negotiation, ed. Eric Akrofi, Maria Smit & Stig-Magnus Thorsén, 161-180. Stellenbosch: Sun Press.

________. 2008. ‘Back to the Future? Idioms of ‘Displaced Time’ in South African Composition.’ In Composing Apartheid: Music For and Against Apartheid, ed. Grant Olwage, 12-34. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Mashologu, Mothusi. 2009. ‘Through the Glass Darkly: Reflections on Morija in the Decade between 1945 and 1955, and the Precious Heritage of the Church of Basutoland’. In Mekolokotoane Kerekeng ea Evangeli Lesotho / Jubilee Highlights 1833-2008, ed. S. Gill et.al., 135-150. Morija: Morija Museum & Archives.

Mohapeloa, J.P. 1976. ‘Selelekela’ [Preface]. In Meluluetsa ea Ntšetso-pele le Bosechaba Lesotho, J.P. Mohapeloa, 13-14. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

________. 1988(1935). Meloli le Lithallere tsa Afrika I [Sounds and Songs of Africa]. Morija, Lesotho: Morija Sesotho Book Depot.

________. 2002(1951). ‘Preface’. In Khalima-Nosi tsa ’Mino Oa Kajeno [Shining examples of today’s music]: Harnessing Salient Features of Modern African Music, [2]. Morija: Morija Sesotho Book Depot.

________, transl. Mantoa Smouse. 2009(1988(1953)). ‘Gateway’ [‘Khoro’]. Meloli le Lithallere tsa Afrika I, 3-4. Morija, Lesotho: Morija Sesotho Book Depot.

Mohapeloa, J.P.[sic] and M.K. Phakisi, transl. Mantoa Smouse. 2009(1987). ‘The Eloquence of Song in Sesotho.’ Unpublished monograph. [initials on front cover should be J.M.]

Morija Sesuto Printing Works. 1907. Lipina tsa likolo tse phahameng [Songs of outpouring which uplift. Morija: Morija Sesuto Printing Works.

Olwage, Grant. 2003. Music and (Post)Colonialism: The Dialectics of Choral Culture on a South African Frontier. Rhodes University: unpublished PhD thesis.

________. 2008. ‘Apartheid’s Musical Signs’. In Composing Apartheid: Music For and Against Apartheid, ed. Grant Olwage, 35-54.

SABC. 1989. Ho lla noto [The sound of a note]: Composer J.P. Mohapeloa. Documentary made for TV3 series Mmino, broadcast 24.12.1989.

Wells, Robin E. 1994. An Introduction to the Music of the Basotho. Morija: Morija Museum and Archives.