When I arrived in the tiny country of Lesotho in Southern Africa in 1975 I immediately started to look around for a local band. I had been a drummer in rock bands in Switzerland, a DJ at parties, and had a large record collection part of which I brought with me to Africa. There were no bands to talk about. I went to every club in Maseru where there were bands playing (not many!) and soon found the most amazing guitar player. His name was Frank Leepa. I just stood awed in the crowd watching this young genius playing with amazing grace and making it look so easy! At about the same time, and by a miracle I must say , a certain ‘Black Jesus’ had returned to Lesotho after having certain ‘problems’ in Germany where he had been living for many years. Black Jesus was a real character, he spoke fluent German (as I do) and had picked up the European mentality, and so we became very good friends. We both decided that it was time to form a local band and that this band woutd be the BEST EVER and would be the pride and glory of all the Basotho people. We asked Frank who was the BEST drummer in town and he suggested MOSS NKOFE. Finding a singer was the most difficult part. One night I heard TSHEPO TSHOI.A and immediately felt in love with his voice. lt had to be him! I remember being worried when I saw him drinking more than he should. Our first bass guitarist, I am sorry I forget his name, but I do remember that he was involved in politics. We also had an amazing Afro – American keyboard ptayer whg was stationed in Lesotho with the Peace Corps. This was the first formation of UHURU. Remember that we’were in the middle of the apartheid era, things were very rough, and dangerous too as you will see later on in this article.
We as a band were looking for a name that would 1) be easy to remember and 2) carry POWER so that the kids would be able to identify with the band, make them their heroes. The name UHURU meaning FREEDOM in the Swahili language came up and stuck from there on. (Many years later a reggae group from Jamaica called Black Uhuru became famous and we unfortunately had to change the name to SANKOMOTA to avóid confusion between the two bands).
Two big problems at the start: Where to practice and where to get instruments and equipment? Fortunately I had rented a large old house with a big patio in the valley betow the Holiday Inn in Maseru. It was far away from other buildings so that the noise of our practicing wouldn’t disturb the neighbors. My parents Ernst and Edith Schneider very kindly brought my drum set all the way from Switzerland by plane to Lesotho, and we purchased and ‘borrowed’ the rest of the equipment. UHURU was born! !t was 1975. Frank was very strict at the practice sessions and fiom the very beginning was the leader of the group. We decided to create a new sound an AFRO – ROCK sound. The only band from Africa who was known in Europe at that time was Osibisa. tn long talking and thinking sessions in Black Jesus’house we planned our future. The GUITAR would be the main focus of the band, as in other rock bands from Europe and North America, together with the powerful voice of Tshepo we had a winning formula (Frank also had a great voice and sang on many of the songs). I remember playing Jimi
Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ on the record player, and Frank playing all the guitar licks just like Jimi after only one listen!! At the start the band played several of my songs from albums that I brought with me, but with an African touch. I always encouraged the boys to create their own music, and it wasn’t long before they were writing their own songs (which later appeared on the Sankomota albums).
Our first concert will go down in Lesotho folklore history. I would Íove to hear from any of you who were there that night. lt was held on the patio of my house in Maseru, in the open air, at MIDNIGHT. lt was my birthday party: February 19th,1977. The band had been practicing for weeks and it was the talk of the town: a local band from LESOTHO the tiny Kingdom from Southern Africa who were going to break all the rules, who would defy history, who would become GREAT! I wanted to start the concert eartier because of the noise, and with the Holiday lnn directly in front of us across the valtey the sounds would be heard all over town, down to the border post with South Africa. Everybody who was anybody was therethat night, nearly 200 people. I even heard that the Chief of Police was there in ptain clothes. Atso in the audience was a talent scout from America looking for bands for an upcoming concert featuring Dizzie Gillespie. I decided that I wanted the musicians to come out one by one, move to the front, salute everybody and then start playing. The effect was dramatic. Moss the drummer was first, then the bassist, the keyboard player, Black Jesus on percussion and finally Frank and Tshepo. THE CROWD WENT WILD. lt was an awesome sight! For the first time ever ihe people of Lesotho could be proud, the young people could identify with their heroes, feel as ONE NATION. out of the ashes had. grown the greatest band EVER to come out of LESOTHO. The concert went on into the late hours of the nigth and every single person present that night went home with a deep feeling in their hearts.
Our big break happened the very next day when we were invited to be the OPENING ACT at the Maseru National Stadium for the visiting American Jazz musicians: Dizzy Gillespie and Monk Montgomery. There would be no money involved but it was going to be a massive concert with the international press, government officials form Lesotho, and the whole crowd from Maseru and surrounding towns. Of course I said yes and a local designer made up special colorful clothes for the band. On the day of the concert it was a beautiful sunny afternoon. Black Jesus was the first on the stage and came up to the microphone in front of the huge crowd and said ‘Good Evening’. He suddenly remembered what time it was (mid afternoon) and carried on’Good afternoon, good morning, wherever you are in the world’. Then the band came on one by one, with Moss beating on the drums. I told the band only to play dance songs, uplifting music, (no stow songs). By this time uhuru were playing their own songs, and many well known songs of the time by other African bands. They played the concert of their tives, and had the whole crowd dancing and singing. Remember that this was our first major public appearance; so many people were hearing the band for the very first time. The next day the SOUTH AFRICAN DAILY RAND printed a full color photo of UHURU on their front page, with a headline mentioning the stadium concert. ln one single swoop we were known ALL OVER SOUTHERN AFRICA. It was a marvel, really. UHURU became an overnight sensation. Poor Dizzy Gillespie, he completely underestimated the crowd, played slow songs boring many of the young people in the crowd who were not used to jazz sounds but more liked African rhythms. People started to shout ‘Bring back Uhuru’ during his show. I was very embarrassed because he was an important visiting musician! (I was standing back stage during the whole of Uhuru’show).
The next few months the band started an active concert schedule, playing up and down the country. Sometimes we would arrive in heavy ra¡n, late for the concert, and the crowds would be waiting patiently for the music to start. The concerts went on for HOURS and Uhuru played all the local hits of the time plus their own brand of Afro – rock featuring Frank’s amazing guitar licks. There had been several changes in the lineup. Our excellent keyboardist from America suddenly left the country, I think that the Peace Corps found out that he was playing in a local band and became upset. Our political bass guitarist also was soon replaced by Pitso Sera, later Maruti Selate (who later travelled with me to England). Uhuru started to write their own songs, and soon had enough for their first album.
I remember one particular concert where I was very angry with Black Jesus. It was in an auditorium in a hotel in Maseru, but not the Holiday lnn. Two things happened that night: Tsepo could not sing and could not play, so Frank had to take over all lead vocals on all songi(the others all sang back up, Moss had a very good voice). In order to step in for both Tsepo and hirnself, Frank went wild!! He played the most amazing show with his guitar, playing behind his back like Jimi Hendrix, playing with his teeth, etc. We were all so surprised as Frank up to that point in time, had never been a SHOWMAN, but he certainly was that night, and his reputat¡on spread even further. The other thing that happened was that BJ (Black Jesus as We called him) had decided that the wanted to put on a fire display, inside the hotel auditorium! I said ‘no way’ but he insisted on this crazy prank. I had been inside a terrible fire at the Monteux concert with Frank Zappa & The Mothers of lnvention (remember the song’Smoke on the Water’ byDe’ep Purple). Well, in the end he toned it down a bit and there was no big flames. He lighted some oil or some inflammable substance next to the stage to create a ‘mood’ for the audience and the show.
I travelled to Johannesburg and met up with Warner Brothers executives. When I walked into the office the music manager put the first album of a brand new group on the sound system: AC / DC. Three of the top people from’Warner Brothers flew to Maseru and we put up a hastily arranged concert in a club near to the airport. The boys were brilliant that night, and the record company people were impressed!.
Then one by one thq troubles started. The following years until I left the country in 1979 were very exciting. Uhuru had travelled to Bloemfontein in South Africa for a concert and were already known over there. Because they ptayed in the btack area of town Black Jesus went with them and he was their manager. (Black Jesus and I had an arrangement in order to best help Uhuru: In the townships and black areas where he could safely travel HE was the manager of the band, in the white areas where I could safely travel such as the white owned record companies in Johannesburg, then I was the manager. ln fact, I was the manager the whole time, but we always consulted all decisions with the band at our meetings). However, on another big concert in Bloemfontein, the equipment and band were stopped at the Maseru border post and the band could not pass, and had to cancel the concert. We had printed up some UHURU T-shirts black on a white T-shirt, but somehow during the pressing process the letters ‘Uhuru’ came out twisted! lt looked so good that we made more! I remember a youngster being stopped at the border crossing and ordered to remove his Uhuru shirt!.
There were a very limited number of places for the band to play in Lesotho. After playing all the clubs several times, after playlng all the clubs around the country, there was nowhere else to go! We could only play in other countries, South Africa being the nearest as it surrounds Lesotho on all sides. We did however travel to Swaziland. I went with the band, together with my ex wife Cecity Anderson. We played several highly successful concerts there but with little money, just enough to cover the cost of our trip. However a much bigger concert presented itself when a big promoter from South Africa invited the band for some large (stadium) concerts. By this time UHURU were well known all over Southern Africa, the press would regularly arrive at Black Jesus’ house which was the centre of operations. My house was used for practicing only for the band. Of course we accepted and the boys went off with, Black Jesus to Joberg and played four highly successful concerts. Then ALL HELL BROKE LOSE! As the band were entering their fifth selLout concert, THE WHOLE GROUP WAS ARRESTED BY THE SOUTH AFRICAN POLICE!! They were looking for Black Jesus. By some incredible quirk of fate he was not on the bus at that mogrent, just the boys in the band. They were all taken in front of the magistrate and BANNED FROM SOUTH AFRICA. The boys were sent back on the very next flight to Maseru!! THIS CAUSED A SENSATION. For the second time UHURU was on the front page of the South African Daily Rand with the title something like ‘Band from Lesotho kicked out of S.A.’. It was a huge story carried by the news all over the world, even The New York Times carried the story!! lt was on the 5 o’clock radio news in South Africa, all the news channels carried the story! Why was the band arrested? Because of Black Jesus’ big mouth. He would rant and rave about the white South African government ‘throw all the whites into the ocean’ was his favorite expression, and of course the news interviewers loved this kind of talk, which would be impossible to say in the white controlled government of the time. Lesotho was an independent country, sd’one thinks that they could speak their mind. People would arrive from all over Southern Africa and’ask ‘Where does Black Jesus lives’? and would be shown to his humble home. People would expect some large towering important person, but found a short humble African who would not even open his mouth until he had prepared a large joint for all to smoke! So the word had gotten around about Black Jesus and the South African police were looking forhim. Several days after the concert he called me from the border very late at night (the South African side) and I had to go alone by car to collect him and bring him home. I was really sweating, but nobody knew his real name, so he was not as yet on the wanted list, and was able to leave the countrythát night. A policeman walked over to look at my car (a small two seater sports car belonging to Mr. Anderson, the owner of 50 Minute Dry Cleaners). Then he let us go and we quickly returned to Lesotho.
After this incredible publicity we organized our second Stadium Concert in just 5 days! The whole city of Maseru turned out to welcome back their now infamous heroes: UHURU! lt was one of their best concerts ever.
Questions were asked in the Lesotho parliament about Uhuru. Who are these boys, are they a political force, and are they dangerous to us? Fortunately, my ex wife Cecily Anderson had a girlfriend whose father was a Minister at that time (l think Minister of Culture) and he stood up in our favor and told the whole of parliament that this was NOT a political force, but a young band of musicians from their own country, and that they should be proud of the boys. So all was fine on the Lesotho side, but on the South African side there was no entry because their passports were stamped. And to get to other countries you had to fly through South Africa…
We had an offer from a promoter in North America who wanted to bring UHURU for a large tour of the United States. This was my dream and I was so happy to receive the news. There were several conditions, but unfortunately we could not meet them. Also, at that time, because of lack of concerts, the boys were becoming restless, sometime they would not come to practice. I think that the fame and gone to their heqds! Also, there was no money, or very Iittle money. The big money was to be made outside the country. I was very disappointed when the American tour fell through…
The biggest blow of all was when a reggae group from Jamaica called BLACK UHURU became famous. Until today they still play the worldwide concert circuit. So the record company said that we could not use any more the name UHURU, and we had to choose a new Rame. SANKOMOTA was used in one of Frank’s songs and this became the new name of the band. I again was very very disappointed. !t had taken soooo long to build up the name UHURU so that every kid in the street new it, and now we had to change it and start again from zero. In 1979 I left the country and returned to my native country England.
I returned again to Lesotho a few years later in 1982 and worked at 60 Minute Dry Cleaners for one year. By this time I was pleased to see that SANKOMOTA had recorded two albums using a mobile studio brought in from South Africa. Many of the songs on these first two albums were the ones that the boys played in their first years of existence. I was so happy to see my name in the dedication list on the album cover. Please listen to these songs, they are all classics and show the great talent that UHURU had!
In 1983 I moved to Peru, South America, where I still live until today. My proudest moment was when I travelled from Peru to England on holiday and saw SANKOMOTO advertized at the famous venue TOWN & COUNTRY CLUB. My boys playing in London! Wow!!Whata great success. l waited for them outside the stage door and they were so happy to see me. They had been playing at large open concerts in Holland and other European countries. Just great! At some point, Tshepo was chosen as a backup singer to sing with Hugh Maseketa and went on tour with him, and even played in Madison Square Gardens in New York City!!! Can you imagine? From our home in little Lesotho to the most famous stadium in the world!! INCREDIBLE!!!
Well, that is my story of the greatest band ever from Lesotho. I would be so happy to hear from any of you readers who can add to this story. You can reach me at the e-mail addresses below.
Peter E Schneider, ‘Pete The Beat” – Lima, Peru, May 2009
I am looking for any more information about the EARLY DAYS of UHURU. If you have any photos please send them to me. Also any stories to fill in the gaps on my story. My contact is:
firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
I am still in the music business with a very popular REGGAE SHOW called ´RADIO REGGAE’ broadcasting weekly from my studio in Lima, Peru. It is heard all over Latin America on FM radio stations and on the web. The show is co-hosted by world famous Afro-American DJ ‘MAKEDA DREAD’ from the World Beat Center in San Diego, California. Our web page is: www.radioreggae.net
(note to radio stations: we give our two hour weekly reggae show FOR FREE. Please contact me if you wish to put the show on your station)
Finally, I have some sad news: Both Frank and Moss died of illnesses some time ago, and my great friend Maruti who was with me in Bradford, Yorkshire, for several years, also died when he fell from a balcony. The end of an era. Sad, very sad.
However TSEPO TSHOLA is doing well and has had great success as ‘The Village Pope’ in South Africa with many albums and photos. Look him up on Google.
Somebody should make a movie of their story. It would be a worldwide success!!
Peter E. Schneider, Lima, Peru, May 2020
A comment of Tefo from Soweto:
My name is Tefo from Soweto, but leaving in London since 1974, I went schooling in Lesotho Maseru, as my parents were Basotho from Mafeteng. My uncle was deported from S, Africa by S, African system, so my uncle introduced me to Frank, but we called him Semengoana that’s his really name, we leaved very close to one another, my uncle worked with Frank’s father in prison, so my uncle asked me to teach Frank guitar so I did, even reading music, as my uncle use to be a Catholic priest, were he learned all instruments and reading music, so he taught me before he was deported from S,Africa, when Sangkomota came to S, Africa a lot of S, Africans used to send me messages that a guy from Lesotho playing in a group Sangkomota plays exactly like you, it sounds just like your guitar, because when I left with Iphintombi I was very known, because I was one of the first session musician in Soweto. Actually my uncle worked with the youth of Maseru teaching them music and those guys in the group it was my uncle putting them together, and he played saxaphone in the group. So I have a good history of Frank’s family because we were very closed with his family.
If you wish please send us your videos, photos and music of the band. Also your comments and articles are very welcome!