Music like a rainbow
The multiethnic members of Freshlyground are the worldwide ambassadors from the rainbow nation of South Africa. Grouped around Zolani Mahola, the exuberant lead singer with a girlish charisma, the band of six black, “coloured” and white musicians quickly became South African radio favorites after hitting the scene in 2002. What’s more, Freshlyground’s European festival appearances have been a potent corrective to prevailing foreign stereotypes of South African music. In their politically tinged, sun-filled, good-vibe pop songs, they join folklore from the Cape with reggae grooves and high-spirited, almost Celtic-sounding melodies, bringing together broad traditions from across the south of the African continent. And, at Shakira’s side, they are the ideal lineup for the official song of the World Cup, “Waka Waka,” although they fell into this collaboration rather by chance.
Musicians of different complexions joining to raise their voices in opposition to the still-present racism in South Africa might appear to be a scheme. This is not at all the case, as drummer Peter Cohen explains: “A pre-conceived scheme would have to include theory and strategy, but we found each other very naturally and organically. It wasn’t like white and black musicians were cast to be put on stage together. South Africa has eleven national languages, but we only use the idioms that we ourselves speak – that is, Xhosa, the language of our lead singer, Zolani, from Eastern Cape Province, and English. And we don’t pick our musical ingredients for the sake of diversity, either. There has to be a personal connection.”
The University of Cape Town provided the germ cell from which Freshlyground grew. Zolani Mahola, from the Eastern Cape, studied at the university’s acting school. Keyboardist Aron Turest-Swartz, a fellow student from Karoo, experimented musically with his friend Simon Attwell, from Zimbabwe, who is an accomplished player of the flute, saxophone and, above all, mbira (thumb piano), with its characteristic native sound. More or less coincidentally, the three took the stage together and improvised. The ensemble soon expanded. It took in the bubbly violinist Kyla-Rose Smith of Johannesburg, who had studied jazz. Guitarist Julio Sigauque, of Mozambican descent, infused the band’s sound with a lusophone color. The Cape Town rhythm men Josh Hawks and Peter Cohen brought with them their experience working with the top-flight South African pop acts Johnny Clegg and Mango Groove.
Within three years, the band with the sunny sound had become a favorite with South African listeners and the 2005 “Doo Be Doo” a hit across the national radio dial. Smith says proudly: “We aren’t pioneers – there were mixed bands in South Africa before us. But we’re always blown away by how many different kinds of people we gather together among our fans. All ages, all colors, all classes. And that’s really rare in our country.” On stage, their winning formula looks something like this: Mahola, a bundle of energy with a throaty, impulsive voice, sings cheeky songs about disappointed love and disappointing men, while flute, violin and guitar weave the music around her. And when township jive comes to the fore, the band can let loose with an infectious Zulu dance.
With their third album, “Ma’Cheri,” Freshlyground took off internationally as well. The band brought its positive energy to European festivals and shared the bill with Hugh Masekela and other stars. At the 2006 World Cup they exuded the sweet anticipation of the 2010 tournament to be hosted by their homeland. South Africa’s World Cup is now in full gear, and Freshlyground has played a key role in creating the official FIFA anthem. Serendipity had a hand in this, too. Cohen recalls: “We mixed our new album last February in New York. A guy named John Hill was working on this Shakira song in the same building and he stopped by to see our producer, Fab. He said to him, ‘Hey, I need a little South African input.’ Hill played the song to us and we gave him our ideas for a few passages. He was excited. We flew back to South Africa and didn’t hear anything for months. Finally we got the news that some of the parts we’d contributed had made it into the song.”
Freshlyground sees a great success in the Colombian–South African combination, as well as a fitting link to the future. The next World Cup, after all, will be held in South America. Additionally, the chorus in “Waka Waka” harks back to a Cameroonian hit from the 1980s by a band called Golden Sounds. “That makes a sort of triumvirate,” says Smith, “a South African band and a Colombian artist collaborating and using a Cameroonian song. I think it’s fabulous, because it reflects globalization and, at the same time, the fact that this is the first African World Cup ever and that we should include the whole continent in the celebration.”
Including the whole continent – this is also the theme of their new, fourth opus, “Radio Africa.” In Africa, radio is still a rich and important source for all kinds of music and information, despite the growing dominance of visual media. “It’s nice to think that our album is being conveyed all over Africa by the radio stations and that we can embrace the continent in this way,” says Smith. “And, more than on the earlier albums, we included traditional African instruments like the mbira and the marimba,” adds the band’s new keyboardist, Shaggy Scheepers. “Since we also have members from Mozambique and Zimbabwe, you could say that our sound and the band itself represent all of southern Africa.”
Diverse subjects are packed into the often danceable songs, such as the plight of the some 40 percent of the South African population who are unemployed as well as the rampant greed in post-Apartheid society. And with the rollicking “Chicken To Change,” the band calls on Robert Mugabe, dictator of neighboring Zimbabwe, to finally step down. “I don’t think we’ll be invited to play in Zimbabwe anytime soon,” Cohen says. “But who knows – maybe he’s dancing to our song right now.”
Even though Freshlyground sings for FIFA, it does not shy away from criticizing the federation’s business practices. Cohen sizes up the situation: “A lot of fast money is leaving the country. Economically, we aren’t going to profit from the World Cup one bit,” he says, “but South Africa made a deal with FIFA and the conditions of the contract were clear long before it all got going. I don’t want to make excuses for anything, but we aren’t talking about children who didn’t know what they were getting into. Hopefully, our country will be stronger after the World Cup. Still, I have my doubts. We’re going to have some beautiful new facilities, but I’m afraid there’ll be a whole lot of horror stories that only come to light farther down the road. As far as nation-building goes, the most important thing is for our team to do well in the tournament.” Despite persistent press criticism of the Bafana Bafana Boys, Freshlyground stands loyally behind its team, even holding out hope that it could reach the semifinals, provided it gets off to a strong start and can rally the vuvuzela horns to its cause.
And of course, they have desires for their nation which go far beyond football. “I hope for a country without violence, without prejudice,” says Cohen. “For a community that’s educated and not poverty-stricken. Those are the most urgent problems – education and fighting poverty. And it won’t be possible to solve the HIV issue overnight, either.” Smith takes a similar view: “We need a revolution in the minds of the people. Attitudes have to change. A lot of people are still dragging the baggage of Apartheid around with them, the historical wounds. We have to use our intelligence to get past that and move ahead.”
From an interview of the author with Freshlyground.
Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)
Production / Performance,
Shakira featuring Freshlyground
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Public Viewing, Pop and Poetry
(11 June 10 - 11 June 11)