Multiracial pop group Freshlyground shows South Africa how it's done

McClatchy NewspapersJune 20, 2011 

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Freshlyground knows how to cater to its audiences.

"We have different set lists," said flute and saxophone player Simon Attwell of the internationally acclaimed Cape Town-based band. "We get kind of groovy for the blacks," he said in an interview during a break from rehearsal, "and we keep it quiet and respectful for the whites."

The other members of the seven-piece group can't hold back their laughter. Attwell, despite the deadpan delivery, is joking.

The band — which collaborated with the Latin pop superstar Shakira on "Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)," the official song of the 2010 soccer World Cup in South Africa — doesn't adjust its shows to please anyone.

The multiracial group, which will begin a U.S. tour Friday in Northampton, Mass., often is seen as a symbol of how far South Africa has come since apartheid ended in 1994. With its blend of Afro-pop, soul and dance music, Freshlyground has crossed successfully into the musical hearts of all races in South Africa, a country that still struggles with race issues despite its mix of mostly blacks and large minorities of whites and mixed-race people, known here as "coloreds."

Lead vocalist Zolani Mahola's smooth vocals sail over the band's warm and grooving tracks, which make it difficult to resist the urge to dance, or at least to tap your foot. Its energetic live show features lots of dancing, onstage and off.

"They're very popular and they're doing very well," said Antonia Heil, who covers music for Cape Town Magazine, an online publication. "There's not a band, I think, that you can compare them with that is on the same level."

But while the official end of apartheid is fading further into history, South Africa still struggles with racial and economic disparities. Many South Africans would identify with Attwell's joke about presenting different set lists to different races.

Drummer Peter Cohen said the band didn't dwell on the fact that it was multiracial, but neither did it fail to notice the unifying effects its music could have.

"When we have a totally mixed (race) crowd in front of us and they're loving it, it's a good feeling," Cohen said at the band's cozy Long Street practice studio, which was crowded with a gaggle of equipment and colorful wires.

"It's a good feeling to bring people together through music, but it's not easy."

Freshlyground's members — who include violinist Kyla-Rose Smith, guitarist Julio Sigauque, bassist Josh Hawks and keyboardist Shaggy Scheepers — said they were still aware of some separation in live audiences, particularly at festivals.

In one day, the band has played at a "colored festival, then we played to a black crowd in town and then we did a corporate for a completely white audience that evening," Attwell said.

"That was when it kind of got a bit weird," he said, "when you're actually doing three in a day and the response is all the same but there's still this radical separation.

"But I mean, there will always be people who like R&B more than rock, and people who like rock more than R&B. I think, as an artist, if you can bring people together, it's a very satisfying thing."

The band's ability to straddle the country's racial barriers certainly has contributed to its fame.

"That's kind of the first thing that people hear about us," Mahola said. "People are very interested in that angle."

"And for me, it’s cool," the singer said. "I mean, we are South African" at a time when the country is post-apartheid and looking toward the future, she said. "And it feels good."

(Blum, a student at Penn State University, reported this story for a class in international journalism.)

VIDEO FROM SOUTH AFRICA

See video reports from Penn State student journalists in South Africa.

ON THE WEB

Freshlyground’s North America tour schedule (scroll down the page)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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