Frank Leepa biography: brutal history, personal beefs and brilliant music

“Sankomota was a name I’d been playing around with for a while. It came from the stories told by Mathabatha (Sexwale’s) grandmother. Sankomota is a kind of David-and-Goliath figure in Pedi folklore. It seemed appropriate somehow…”

Frank Leepa in Two-Tone July/August 1992

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The cover image for Born for Greatness

To outsiders, music is a baffling business. Novelists regularly get it wrong, veering wildly between portraying the musician as a crazed monomaniac, and creating a character who’s about something else entirely with the instrument as a mere accessory after the fact – sometimes in the same book. But the practice of music is often equally baffling to those who live with and around musicians. Parents and family patriarchs often don’t see it as a job at all – but if it is one, it’s a disgraceful one. Some find it hard to believe that a band can really break up bitterly over whether a number is best played in A Flat or G, and must invent deeper, darker tensions. Others (who regularly change up their own jobs when career satisfaction diminishes) expect the same group of players to stick together for life, churning out the same repertoire simply to please them. Others again become adoring fans, who elevate their human musical heroes into supernaturally awesome Marvel ones, too good for any of their colleagues, spouses or friends…

You’ll find many of those memes somewhere in Mpho A. Leepa’s biography of her guitarist/composer brother Frank, Born for Greatness (https://gekopublishing.co.za/tag/born-for-greatness-biography-of-frank-leepa/ ), expressed either in her own authorial voice, or through the attitudes of others she recounts. The book first launched with a tiny print run in 2014 (http://kaganof.com/kagablog/2014/01/07/born-for-greatness-biography-of-frank-leepa/ ); it has been reissued and should now be more widely accessible in bookshops – and if it isn’t, you should be encouraging them to order it.

Uhuru II
A young Frank Leepa (r.) during the second incarnation of the band Uhuru

Because, despite all the partiality you’d expect from a book written by an adoring sister, it’s also a valuable historical document. There’s a huge lacuna where southern African music history written by those who lived it should be; Born for Greatness makes a real contribution to filling the gap.

The book tells the story not only of Frank Leepa, but of the Lesotho he grew up in: its political as well as its cultural milieu. We sometimes forget, today, that the monarchies apartheid South Africa tolerated within its geographical borders – both the independent and the incorporated ones – were tolerated because many of their rulers could be relied upon (and indeed were appointed) to be as reactionary and repressive as apartheid South Africa itself. The rebel royals among them were routinely deposed, imprisoned or assassinated, as they had been by the colonial authorities before.

1st album
The first, self-titled, Sankomota album

Mpho Leepa paints a chilling picture of repression in Lesotho, and its brutal and bloody impact on her own family, and contextualises the anti-authoritarian stance Frank Leepa lived and sang as defiance against far more than the apartheid regime over the border. She draws moving links between her brother’s lyrics and the events surrounding the persecution of her family.

Every legendary band – and Leepa’s Sankomota was certainly that – has multiple foundation myths. Mpho Leepa’s version tells us a great deal about her brother’s visionary and dynamic role in forming the outfit. What’s less prominent in her account is the influential role across Lesotho’s scene played by the legendary percussionist BJ (Black Jesus) at that time. When I talked to Frank Leepa for Two-Tone in mid-1992, he described BJ as the “father figure” of Lesotho’s modern popular music and told me: “We found we shared the same obsessions. He invited me to stay, found me rehearsal space and helped me out a lot.” Leepa’s working relationship with BJ – in and out of various iterations of bands called Uhuru and Sankomota, and later in the self-reliance oriented Sanko Foundation – lasted until the guitarist’s death in 2003.

Mpho Leepa’s account is brilliantly perceptive on the detail and texture of a musician’s life in Lesotho: the petty slights, exploitative managers, unreliable transport, collapsed gigs and all. It will ring true for anybody who’s ever encountered the southern African music scenes of the 1980s and 1990s. There are also some extremely useful addenda, which, while not exhaustive, go a long way towards mapping work, reviews and shows, as well as including extracts from Leepa’s own reflections on his projects.images

What’s missing is more on Leepa’s actual music: how it sounded, and the process by which it was put together. By the end, we don’t even know what model of guitar or brand of string he preferred – but in the story of a guitarist, such detail matters. That, though, is perhaps a story best told by those who worked with him – we do get a flavour of his relentless perfectionism from the recollection of onetime bandmate Laura Mhlanzi (Bezuidenhout). Sadly, what constantly intrudes is the author’s hero-worship, shading far too often into flat denigration of other people (particularly other women) in his life.

By the end of the 280 pages, it’s clear that there are two books within these covers. One is an important family memoir: stirring resistance history, tragic memories, joyous moments and, yes, interpersonal beefs too. The other is an equally important narrative about a great popular musician, whose achievement in shaping an instantly recognisable and highly influential African sound should never be underestimated. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QewADpS1_QM ) [For a complete discography, see https://www.last.fm/music/Sankomota/+albums]

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Leepa was a talented and imaginative guitarist and composer, something his solo 1992 show at the Market Theatre, Frank Leepa and Friends, began to demonstrate outside the confines of his various ensembles. (That gig included, for example, a moving reworking of a Johnny Dyani composition.) Now we need a researcher to take the foundations of that second narrative – well laid in Born for Greatness – and build on them to tell us even more of the musical story, so that it is not lost.

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