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A lesiba player in Lesotho. Photo: Tsiklonaut
lesibaplayer - A lesiba player in Lesotho. Photo: Tsiklonaut

Musical instruments of Lesotho

This article was ori­gi­nal­ly writ­ten for Music In Afri­ca and sha­red with #Aux­Sons as part of a media part­ner­ship agreement.


Leso­tho has a proud heri­tage of tra­di­tio­nal music. Although the strength of this music usual­ly lies in the use of expres­sive, dyna­mic vocals accom­pa­nied by com­plex poly­rhythms and dances, there are also a num­ber of tra­di­tio­nal ins­tru­ments that have become syno­ny­mous with the sounds of Baso­tho folk music[1].

These ins­tru­ments are played by musi­cians of any age or gen­der, but his­to­ri­cal­ly would depend on the avai­la­bi­li­ty of the mate­rials nee­ded for their construc­tion. Some ins­tru­ments could only be made, and played, at cer­tain times of the year, while others were built to be played all year round and to withs­tand chan­ging wea­ther conditions[2].

Against this back­drop, two main ins­tru­ments have emer­ged to cha­rac­te­rise the sound of tra­di­tio­nal Baso­tho music. This article pro­vides an over­view of tra­di­tio­nal musi­cal ins­tru­ments in Leso­tho, focu­sing on the lesi­ba and the mamo­kho­rong.


The lesi­ba

The lesi­ba is regar­ded as Leso­tho’s natio­nal musi­cal ins­tru­ment. Also known as the ‘herd boy’s gra­mo­phone’, this unique ins­tru­ment is offi­cial­ly clas­sed as a ‘strin­ged-wind’ instrument[3].

The lesi­ba consists of a flat­te­ned quill atta­ched to a long piece of sinew string, which is itself stret­ched over a piece of hard­wood. The wood acts as the reso­na­ting sur­face for the string. Howe­ver – unlike most strin­ged ins­tru­ments – what is unique about the lesi­ba is that its string is not plu­cked, bowed or struck in any way, but rather reso­na­ted by the player’s mouth. As the player holds his hands around the quill and inhales or exhales against it, the string vibrates against the wood and creates the ins­tru­ment’s dis­tinc­tive sound. Voca­li­sa­tion tech­niques can create har­mo­nies in a limi­ted, though emo­tive, scale[4].


Although somew­hat sim­plis­tic in appea­rance, the lesi­ba can be chal­len­ging to play and is often des­cri­bed as a ‘per­so­nal’ musi­cal ins­tru­ment. If two players share the same ins­tru­ment, they will each adjust the quill, and tigh­ten or loo­sen the string to allow the ins­tru­ment to reso­nate accor­ding to the players’ indi­vi­dual voices. In recent years, the strings – tra­di­tio­nal­ly made from ani­mal sinew or twis­ted hor­se­hair – have been construc­ted from nylon and thin metal wires. There are a num­ber of birds that the quill of the ins­tru­ment is made from, inclu­ding hawks, geese and owls ; the key is to find fea­thers that are strong enough to remain rigid yet soft enough to allow vibration[5].

While it is cus­to­ma­ry for Baso­tho boy her­ders to play the lesi­ba for their own per­so­nal amu­se­ment and to soothe their cat­tle, there have been some notable uses of the ins­tru­ment in popu­lar musi­cal. Let­se­ma Mat­se­la used the lesi­ba in his moho­be­lo dance song ‘In the Time of the Can­ni­bals’, and South Afri­can jazz legend Sipho ‘Hots­tix’ Mabuse fol­lo­wed suit on ‘Tha­ba Bosiu’, which appea­red on his influen­tial 1996 album Town­ship Child [6].


The mamo­kho­rong (sekhan­ku­la)

The mamo­kho­rong, which is also known as the sekhan­ku­la, is one of the latest inclu­sions in the fabric of tra­di­tio­nal Baso­tho music.

This bowed mono­chord ins­tru­ment, some­times refer­red to as a ‘single-string vio­lin’, is usual­ly construc­ted from a five-litre tin can reso­na­tor. A stalk, or long piece of wood, is inser­ted into the tin can, and a wire is strung bet­ween the end of the stalk and the base of the can. The wire is then played with a fric­tion bow, and the player controls the pitch by stop­ping the notes on the wire with his thumb and index fin­ger. Like the lesi­ba, the mamo­kho­rong is ano­ther ins­tru­ment tra­di­tio­nal­ly played by her­ders to enter­tain them­selves, but musi­cians such as Kabe­lo Mako­lo­metse have consi­de­ra­bly rai­sed its pro­file within Baso­tho music[8].

There are two ways to play the mamo­kho­rong : either by hol­ding the reso­na­tor over one’s head, or by hol­ding it against the waist with the stalk balan­cing on the shoul­ders. The sound the ins­tru­ment pro­duces is the same in both cases, even if the bowing and stop­ping tech­niques dif­fer slight­ly. A bow made from cow or horse hair is requi­red for fric­tion, and players will smear the bow with pine resin, tar or Euphor­bia basu­ti­ca (vin­ger­pol). Tuning the ins­tru­ment requires a player to unders­tand the tone and range of his or her own voice, and players will some­times press and dent the sides of the reso­na­tor for fine-tuning purposes[9].

The sound of the mamo­kho­rong has been like­ned to that of a ‘cra­cked vio­lin’ or a metal­lic ver­sion of the Ethio­pian masin­ko. The size, shape and qua­li­ty of the tin great­ly influences how the ins­tru­ment sounds, while the size of the bow and the velo­ci­ty with which it is played deter­mines the ampli­tude. As the ins­tru­ment is played, the resin on the bow is gra­dual­ly deple­ted, which also affects the sound[10].

The music com­po­sed by mamo­kho­rong musi­cians is usual­ly cir­cu­lar in form, consis­ting of a repea­ting verse-cho­rus-verse-cho­rus struc­ture. The songs tend to deal with topi­cal issues and per­so­nal expe­riences. The ins­tru­ment usual­ly com­ple­ments the voice, or sub­sti­tutes the melo­dy in place of the voice, while the most pro­fi­cient players weave sero­bele whist­ling and praise poe­try into their performances.


Resources and citations :

This article was ori­gi­nal­ly writ­ten for Music In Afri­ca and sha­red with #Aux­Sons as part of a media part­ner­ship agreement.


Mpho Molikeng



Mpho Molikeng is a Lesotho-born multi facet artist. He is a curator, actor, musician, poet, painter, storyteller and cultural activist. Molikeng plays a number of African instruments such as lesiba, mamokhorong, setolo-tolo, mbira, djembe and others. In 1995, he studied Fine Arts with Bloemfontein college. He also studied Drama at Soyikwa Institute of African Theater in 1998. In 2016, Molikeng was the co-facilitator at the Music In Africa Instrument Building and Repair Workshop. As of 2017, he was a visiting lecture at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa.


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