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Tshola, Tsepo (South Africa)  
Tsepo Tshola

IT was one of the most anticipated albums of 2002 and 'A New Dawn', the just-released new offering from Tsepo “The Village Pope" Tshola, more than delivers on its promise to return this much-loved artist to the centrestage of the southern African music scene.

At once warm, intimate and personal, 'A New Dawn' is not only a return to form for the man who first captured the public’s imagination as the leader of seminal eighties Afrobeat group, Sankomota. It marks, as the artist says, a “whole new face" for Tshola, shifting the singer onto fresh musical ground and cementing him in a lyrical foundation that is poignant, moving and riveting.

It’s no surprise that 'A New Dawn' is so powerful' particularly in its messages. Tshola describes the 11-track offering as a great statement of humbleness for me

It’s a humbleness that is born out of the singer’s recent recovery from 17 long years of addiction to both drugs and alcohol that saw Tshola, with the help of the Musicians and Artists Assistance Programme SA (MAAPSA) spend three months at the Tabankulu Recovery Centre in the Cape last year.

Genre: African, gospel / spiritual
As Tshola himself so poetically states: “One thing rehab does is take out the arrogance from an addict’s life. Indeed, the arrogance of a drugged or a drunk person is ridiculous and I really see 'A New Dawn' as a statement of humbleness. It represents a completely fresh start for me.

It took a lot of courage to go public about it (the addiction) but I have - and this album is a tribute to my new life, to everyone who has helped me and to the fans who have believed in me through the past 17 years.

Additionally, beyond his well established (and expanding) fanbase, (album title) also carries a powerful message for other people struggling with addiction. “I am a recovering addict," Tshola explains. “And this is one album where the truth has to shine through in clear terms. It’s not about pulling punches because that is like being a coward. I want other addicts to be inspired and think ‘here’s a recovering addict and here’s how he thinks and this is the fruit of what he’s been able to achieve."

And what gorgeous fruit 'A New Dawn' is indeed! Just short of a dozen tracks, the album showcases Tshola’s always compelling, utterly unique voice in dazzling form throughout as well as a vivid musical vista that transverses Gospel to subtle afro-jazz moments, traditional music-soaked material, afrobeat tracks, funk-flowing repertoire and more, all coming together in one great package.

Tshola is eager to pay tribute to the collaborative nature of 'A New Dawn'.

Again revealing his ability to be far more selfless and less self-centred than before, Tshola largely stood back from the songwriting and production process during the album’s production. Hugh Masekela, Blondie Makhene, Khaya Mahlangu and Khotso (surname) are just some of the heavyweight musical talents who have lent their creative minds to the project. Explains Tshola: “This time around, I decided I would get my friends to write songs for me. I mean I have always been writing my own music but I thought that it would be great to get another ear and different input. I approached people like Hugh (Masekela) and of course Frank Leepa who I worked with in the group Sankomota for years. We also then called on the producing talents of people like Blondie, Khaya and Khotso to play a role as well. It became an album that allowed my dear friends to take the best out of me and I must say that I have never seen people working so I harmoniously on someone else’s project."

In terms of songwriting, Leepa contributed “Kithi Githi" and “Makolilo" which Tshola composed together with his old bandmate. “It’s been some time since Frank and I wrote together. Being together again it was that spiritual bond all over again. I mean I started my music career with Frank so he’d play one note and I’d know what the next note was going to be! The connection is very, very strong and I think it shows on the songs that appear on the album."

Of course Tshola’s relationship with Masekela (who wrote the bulk of the rest of the album) is one of the most profound he’s ever had. Talking frankly about their past together, Tshola simply states: “Hugh and I were druggies together but when he went into rehab and became a recovering addict, I was still in denial. He wrote me a letter, a very nice letter, when I was still in the throes of my addiction. He never stopped believing in me. So one day I called him and said ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. I need help now."

Masekela wasted no time in booking Tshola into Tabankulu Recovery Centre, and the singer remains eternally grateful for his friendship with the icon.

The ease with which this personal relationship translated into a wholesome, creative coupling was astonishing, Tshola says. “Sometime after I had gone in, Hugh and I started talking about the changes that come after recovery. Hugh said to me that he never thought he’d work as amazingly well as he has done since he became clean. So when I got out of rehab I realised that I wanted to take the energy I had and put it somewhere. That was last year and so we began to talk seriously about working together."

The result was Masekela signing Tshola directly to Chissa Records, currently in a deal with Sony SA.

Tshola says Masekela’s role in (album title) is the stuff of the deepest creative relationships. “Hugh gave his all to this album, from day one to the last day. From songwriting, to producing and performing with his horn and as a singer, his input is invaluable."

But much of the album’s wonderfully intimate and personal feel lies in Tshola stretching his creative boundaries. After all, during his years with Sankomota and as a solo artist, “The Village Pope" was renowned for his pronouncements on social and political issues of the day, not for necessarily revealing personal moments.

Album opener, “You Inspire Me" is a case in point, about Tshola’s new, fearless approach to making music. “When Hugh first brought the song to me I said ‘you know what - I have never written or sung a love song" And Hugh replied, ‘about time too' The song is about a girl who takes the best out of me. It’s a selfless, humble, unarrogant song and it’s great. Tshola readily admits that it’s ironic that now he’s clean and sober, a love song becomes part of his repertoire. “What it says to me is that I’ve got my feelings back, I know how to love. I’m in touch with myself and reality and it’s amazingly beautiful."

Other songs are just as affecting and carry just as strong threads of authenticity. There’s the cautionary tale of “Kithi Githi" - definitely an album standout. “Joala" is direct and to the point. A tale about a drunkard who stands in danger of losing everything, it features a praise singer from Lesotho, adding immeasurably to the song’s impact. On a slightly lighter note, yet just as impactful, are “Makolilo" which has Tshola seeing birds, and through them, nature, for “the first time in the longest time" and “Nonyana" which uses the analogy of birds eating seeds out of a field to demonstrate the need for vigilance over one’s life. “Lucky" is one of (album title)’s most spine-chilling songs as Tshola gives thanks for being where he is now: clean, sober and with a new album about to hit the retail shelves.

Even the one cover version on 'A New Dawn' a version of Solomon Linda’s “Mbube" - has a personal resonance for this father of two teenage sons. “The lion is back!" Tshola says. “You know, I wanted to do the song because I love it but it’s also about me coming back to life and roaring again. It’s the sober lion unlike the drunk lion who never knew if he was a lion or a hare."

Of course, like any great Tsepo Tshola album 'A New Dawn' has its fair quota of uplifting, rousing Gospel songs, quite natural for the son of a preacher man. “Ntate" and “House of the Lord" are two excellent examples while tracks like “Indlala" (a Masekela-penned track about Africa’s lack of food and hunger) as well as “Shame" (about the shame of a society that does not do enough to prevent rape) return Tshola to the social commentary ground he is a master at.

As 'A New Dawn' reveals, Tshola has been through some life-altering experiences, yet the singer still retains his sense of humour. Of the month-long recording process (at CSR Studios in Gauteng) he says, with a raucous laugh: “The discipline of being back in the studio was too sobering! Reality came back in but I coped and the results speak for themselves."

“If I think back two years ago. Well, I don’t think I would be alive. For me to be recording, releasing and promoting a new album is just a miracle and a personal triumph and I am thrilled to be in this place."

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