In Conversation with Tshepo Tsotetsi

During the month of love, the main focus is generally on relational love. However, there is a different kind of love that needs just as much attention and that is the love of self. To love another is to first love self, because no empty well has quenched dry throats nor have barren trees fed hungry stomachs. One cannot give that which one lacks and so in an attempt to become well, one has to go back and reclaim the pieces of themselves they’ve left behind. One also has to bear in mind that hindsight is a good teacher, and so when you know better now, don’t condemn your former self, instead, forgive yourself and forge forward in love, grace and truth.

This is the overarching theme of Tshepo Tsotetsi’s solo piano debut album titled Forgive Yourself. After a very intimate and gripping offering at Hidden Spaces, I was fortunate enough to meet the multi-instrumentalist and delve into the life that has carved this stupendous album.

IG: @tshepotsotetsi

First things first Tshepo, what’s the story with the satin? How does the satin link with the theme of the album?

For many years when we performed at gigs we dressed in black and white and I asked myself whether we dressed like that because we wanted to or was it the standard in some way? So I started to rebel against that dresscode. Mind you, I am nowhere near fashionable, so when the time came to set up a look for the album I thought to myself, well piano music is already serious in itself so how about I present it in a way that isn’t as a serious, and satin came to mind. It has no connection to the music but you can’t look at the at the promo photos and not be curious about the project and that’s what I wanted.

Some of the people who come to my shows don’t even come for the piano (music), they just saw this guy that’s rocking a pink satin two-piece with a cat on his lap and got curious. So they come to the show trying to figure the pink thing out and when they get to the show the piano is kokoting and by then it’s too late to back out. Now they’re in their feelings, teary-eyed, and open to having a conversation, which is what I wanted to do with the music. My aim with this album is to spark a conversation.

I thought the conversation would have been sparked by the album being a solo piano album when we all expected to hear you on the sax. Why did you decide on a piano album?

I knew people would be surprised by me putting out a piano album; that was the desired effect. People saw me play keys but they weren’t entirely sure if they were cool with it. They knew me more as a saxophonist, although I play many instruments, so they’re still trying to figure out when this whole pianist thing happened? And that’s what I wanted because it meant we (the audience and I) can spend more time together while I show them what it is I’m doing.

So the plan was indeed to confuse the masses?

My plan was to create a space with the audience where I could come and say things whenever I need to and let them in on what I’m thinking about. I don’t mind if you don’t like what I’m thinking about but please come and check it out first, hence the satin theme. My whole idea is not to create music that is liked by everybody, but I do want it to talk to somebody. I also want to be able to share my thoughts through music and if you happen to not like what I’m thinking about at that point in time, that’s fine; we’re still cool.

How did you come up with the album?

The music on the album existed already. Some of the songs I had performed previously but never released them to the public. The thing is I write songs with many faces. One song can have 6 versions, e.g., orchestrations, a band version, an acoustic version, etc; which means that you and I can talk for years over the same music because over time, I can show you the different faces of the same song. That’s why I call myself the prefect of the musics.

Why do you call yourself the prefect of the musics?

Because I believe I am. You know in this world, if you wait for people to approve of what you think you are, you’re going to wait for a while.

What does it mean to be the prefect of musics?

It means being a person who’s getting setup to make a lot of change. I want to educate. I want to make information easily accessible. I know there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know and that’s why I’m always so excited about sharing and acquiring information. I know that for me to be half as dope as I am, someone had to put me on, even if it was just by giving me a different view on things or simple advise like “ntwana, eventually you must stop smoking”. It doesn’t seem like much and you might even wonder how cigarettes are related to my music but at some point my health was on half clutch for a while and applying that simple word of advice was the best thing I did for myself. Ever since I stopped smoking and started drinking less, I haven’t had health issues which means I can spend more time doing what I love.

IG: @tshepotsotetsi

How did you get into music considering that in most black communities music wasn’t, and for some it still isn’t, seen as a sustainable career, how did you convince your parents to study music? 

I told them that I loved music and I was going to make it work; I’m here to ask for their support but if they weren’t willing to give it to, I would still pursue music. To be honest, at the time I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, all I knew was that I wanted to play music for the rest of my life and make a living out of it.

Has music treated you well?

For sure! I’ve had some happy days with music, like real happy days; where I saw that my efforts were bringing me good results.

Who have you enjoyed working with the most?

Msaki. When she books you, she trusts you. She creates a beautiful working environment, and such environments make you want to play more music.

You having had happy days in music, also implies you’ve had some not so happy days, can you tell me about some of those?

The career is weird man because if you don’t know exactly how you want to move in the space, you rely on someone calling you and needing your services which can be frustrating and disheartening. I have also had unpleasant encounters with colleagues who made work unbearable, as if working in a group isn’t hard enough on its own.

Is working in a group still hard for you even after so many years?

Yes! Just because I’ve been doing it for a long time doesn’t make it any easier; it’s like playing music. People think we are these god-like characters and we are talented, and we just wake up and make art. The reality is that I practice every day and it’s a lonely thing. It’s nice and I like it because I know what it does for me but it’s lonely. It’s hours a day where I sit alone and figure things out. I play many instruments so I’ve got to put in the work every day. But I love it. I don’t feel like it’s punishment, it’s more like bootcamp. If you want to get better at something and stand your ground wherever you are, you have to be great at what you do.

What keeps you going in those lonely hours with no audience applauding you; when it’s just you and the instruments?

I want results so I’m all about method. There’s a method so I can calculate how far I’ve come, and measure my progress. I can see how far I still have to go to get to where I want to be and that gives me the drive to keep going.

You’ve taken time to conduct a self-audit and have come out on the otherside with beautiful music to share. What gave you the courage to look inward?

I remembered my dreams.

Which stage of your life was this?

I was young. I wrote Beasts Head when I was 15, and back then I was writing on inspiration alone (laughs), I hadn’t gotten the technical knowledge of music yet. Years later I listened to the initial recording of the song and thought to myself ‘oh boy, how am I going to play this’. I had to relearn and practice my own composition, not because I’m a genius or anything but because the music that came to me in my teenage years was by divine inspiration. I was writing big songs at a young age, and I could never be arrogant or boastful about it because I knew it wasn’t just my capabilities that brought about those songs; something bigger was at play and that kept me grounded.

You constantly encourage people not to be afraid to suck at anything, in fact you encourage people to be bad at stuff initially until they get better at it, and you share some of your experiences. Where did you get the courage to be so open about your shortcomings?

Life is too short to live a lie. 

I don’t misdiagnose my reality. I know exactly where I am and I know that to get to my desired future I need to work really hard and be innovative. And the truth is I am going to miss some stuff, miscalculate at times, and fail at others, but I need to keep learning and moving forward. I need to expose myself to realities that are different to mine so I can do really dope things.

Did you know that you could upgrade an international flight to first class for about eight thousand rand? Let’s say a standard ticket costs R20k, add R8k, and enter a world of luxury for 12 hours. Treat yourself to that. You’re gonna reach your destination refreshed. Your head will be thinking at ease. Ease allows you to pick up the phone, talk to someone, and have things happen. When things are hard, our goals are shorter and our view narrower. Ease shows you that you can have a mushroom cream pasta that costs R36 to make but it’s nice food, it’s beautiful. Ease makes things nice. I play expensive instruments now and I can feel and hear the difference. When I played cheaper instruments I had to work harder.

Why was that?

The mechanism of the instrument was cheap and so the playability of the instrument was hectic. You had to do things to make things sound a certain way. Buy a R20k bass guitar, that thing does everything you want it to. It’s expensive, the detail on it, it’s customized for the purpose it serves. Ease.

Ease makes you take things that are supposedly hard, attainable. But for you to get to a point of ease, you must sacrifice your possible comforts for a certain period of time so that you can get to the ease; because in the ease inherently you’ll be working harder but you’ll also be working smarter, so you might end up spending more time with your family and thus striking a life balance. But we have to acknowledge that that balance comes from an imbalance where you were pushing your body, not getting as much rest as you should, not having money for spoils because you are directing your funds towards your plan, and it’s necessary to get to the next level. Grind until you get to the ease, and then the ease will make everything you have hustled for for the past ten years happen in a phone call. 

Some people lie to themselves about where they are. They want to maintain a lifestyle that is far beyond their means, but they believe they can fake it til they make it; which is dope but don’t fake for too long. Fake until you enter the spaces you aspire to be in, once you’re in, observe and learn. Look at what’s going on, eavesdrop, and copy. Take what you’ve seen in the world of ease and bring it to your world. 

Let me tell you how lower income households set themselves up for failure, they look at something and conclude it’s expensive. Who said it’s expensive? Look at how you can get geared up for a matric dance but you can’t do that for yourself, even when you’re earning a lot of money. Take a look at the way you’ve programmed yourself and you’ll see that the confines are maintained by you. They were given to you as a child but you maintained them. You made sure they remain real and true. And they could just as easily be broken down by you.

Do you have gigs in the pipeline?

Yeah! I’m going to do Vaal soon, then Durban, and possibly Cape Town.

Funny enough my first gig in Cape Town wasn’t great, the audience was going about their business. As I was playing I remembered that their response was actually normal because they didn’t know me. So take the first L and move on. As I was playing, in my head, I was already seeing the next six shows at the same venue, they won’t be the same. Right now I am not at that level yet and that’s okay. But at least I can see the distance and I can calculate what I still need to do to get to the level I want to be at. Even with my current audiences, I’m patient with them because we are still getting to know one another.

Are you nervous or anxious about your next project?

No. In fact, I am very confident about it.

Really? Most people are usually nervous about their second project especially if the first project was successful. Why are you so confident?

The thing about the environment I am building is that if you don’t like the second album, you will definitely like the third or fourth album.

Do you think there’s hope for our generation to be better people?

Yes. We just need to cut out the things that are distracting us.

What’s distracting us the most?

Pain. A lot of people are in pain. A lot of people have lost their loved ones. A lot of people have seen what it’s like to live without hope. Some people are living in generational poverty. It is difficult to dream when all you have been exposed to is survival, struggle, and trying to overcome daily hurdles.

Whose responsibility is it to change this narrative?

Us. All of us. And we must be honest. We must say honest things. We must act honestly.

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