Famo sounds like some African step-cousin of zydeco. The music is filled with plaintive, reedy accordion runs built over a foundation of stuttering bassline (guh-duggah-duhduh-guhduh) and thumping basso kickdrum, then filigreed with bright guitar flourishes and fluttering synthesizer trills. These last two instruments—the guitar and synthesizer—are unnecessarily rococo additions, however. Accordion, bass, and drums are all you need. Layered over this three-piece shuffle-stomp, the vocals take the form of: A) breathless Sesotho raps, the words all fused into one Germanically-constructed superstring, or B) melodic moans that follow along with the accordion line.
It is, perhaps, an acquired taste.
It is always important to be on the same page as the man with the machine gun.
But when there is a live famo band playing in a warehouse that doubles as a slasher film backdrop, then one must go, even when it is late and one is in one’s pajamas and the man at the door is casually shoulder-slung with heavy firepower. Live music is incredibly rare up here in the eastern mountains of Mokhotlong district, where the passes snow over for days and the only way into and out of town is via missionary-flown Piper Cub.
To be precise: the man with the machine gun is not the first person to meet us at the door. The first people we meet at the door are collecting cover for the band and they try to jack up the price. But then, as we haggle, the man with the machine gun comes over and ends the discussion.
We will pay the same price that everyone else did, he says, and not the quoted price, which was double.
“Kea leboha, ntate,” I say, giving him the tripartite Sesotho handshake, because it is always important to be on the same page as the man with the machine gun.
Despite the fact that the warehouse-barn-abattoir is mostly empty—the small numbers in our party have almost doubled the crowd—the band is burning through their set. The singer wails into the mic and flops onto the ground, his lyrics beyond distorted through the blown-out P.A. The drummer bludgeons his kit until a cymbal stand topples over. His bass drum keeps sliding out from under his right foot, metal supports slipping over smooth concrete, even though the drum is held in place with several small boulders. An unsecured cymbal flips off and rolls away after a particularly vicious crash hit and an audience member returns it to him. The accordionist is busy not caring and the bass player is busy not caring, while at the same time slathering his dirty-dirty bassline all over the floor. The dancers—because the presence of a dance team is another famo fundamental—are three men in matching t-shirts, wrapped in traditional woolen Basotho blankets, doing coordinated hop-skips, shoulder-dips, and one-footers, all the while swinging their wooden molamo in beer-dazed ecstasy. These are people deep in their métier.
Here in the warehouse-barn-abattoir, the crowd is deep Basotho. Everyone is in blankets and gumboots, all the dudes are molamo-wielding shepherds, everybody is straight-up country. While the camptown here in Mokhotlong district is quite remote, it is the regional hub and thus modernized to an extent. (Point: there is an ATM in the camptown. Counterpoint: people withdrawing money often arrive on horseback.) The people in the crowd tonight are distinctly non-modernized, though. They are grizzled and backwoods, in from the outer villages where they don’t run power lines. Everybody is staring hard at us, unflinching, just staring.
That is, until my friend Reid gets up to dance.
Any remaining semblances of propriety are hauled into the street and shot at dawn.
When Reid gets up to dance, borrowing my wooden molamo—the intricately decorated shepherd’s cane that was made for me by a Mosotho friend, which I brought along tonight because it is de rigueur to bring one’s molamo to a shindig like this—well, when Reid gets up to dance the people in the crowd are no longer just staring, they are bug-eyed and leg-slapping, hooting and ululating. The crowd is genuinely jaw-dropped that lekhooa is not only dancing, and with a legit molamo no less, but lekhooa actually seems to know the steps.
This is because we practice.
Reid’s dancing cracks open the floor. Any remaining semblances of propriety are hauled into the street and shot at dawn. We are all up here now, these deep Basotho up and around us, doing the hop-skip and the shoulder-dip and the one-footer, doing the scoot-scoot and the double stomp and the clackety-hop. The locals are doing the tooth-whistle and the bird chirp too, since Basotho are—by birthright—the most creative and dexterous of whistlers. This acrobatic whistling is another famo essential, and is beyond the capabilities of any makhooa.
The dancing goes on for some time. At one point I split off from a wild pseudo-conga line and head to the adjoining public bar to grab two quarts of beer to share with our party. While I am waiting to pay, a man sitting at the bar asks me: “Are you a promoter?”
I glance toward the warehouse-barn-abattoir, then back at the man on the stool. I tell him that I am not a promoter, although I am enjoying the band.
He arches an eyebrow. “I think you are a promoter.”
I raise my beers toward him and head back to the music, nodding at the man with the machine gun as I enter. The bottles are passed around, down our row of folding chairs, throughout our group, and then into other rows and off into the night.