You’ve probably heard of Freshlyground from their incredibly catchy collaboration with Shakira “Waka Waka (This is for Africa)” during the FIFA World Cup in 2010. But they’re no one hit wonder.
For over a decade Freshlyground has been an essential part of the South African music scene, with their album Nomuvula going multiple-platinum, and the band winning a MTV Europe award for Best African Act in 2006. And don’t forget President Barack Obama once described the band as one of South Africa’s gifts to the world.
Founded in 2002, Freshlyground is skilfully led by South African frontwoman Zolani Mahola, who grew up in the black townships outside Port Elizabeth during apartheid. The band is based in Cape Town, one of the trendiest arts-and-music cultural hotspots of Africa, but members are from South Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
The term “world music” has been used to cover so many different non-North American styles that it can seem virtually meaningless. However, Freshlyground brings new meaning to the term in a different sense: music to bring the world together. To me, Freshlyground represents a new generation of healing hope and promise for the southern African region, whose fascinating post-colonialist identity has been emerging on the world stage. Freshlyground is visual and musical proof that blacks and whites can work together in South Africa to create beautiful works of art, even after a long history of oppression, tragedy under apartheid and colonialism.
Stylistically, the band smoothly incorporates elements of various traditional African folk music such as kwela with more contemporary pop genres, led by Mahola’s soothing jazzy vocals. The lyrics also achieve interesting balance of appearing relatable and personal on the surface while being loaded with political connotations. One of the band’s earliest hits, “Doo Be Doo,” exudes political hope for society, with lines like “Did you hear the news today / People have agreed to give their love away / I can’t wait to be there in line / Politicians have agreed to honour and obey / They’ll come down and listen to what the people say.”
Meanwhile, “Pot Belly” seems to provide a fun response to Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” with choruses like “Even though I have fat thighs, flabby arms / A pot belly still gives good loving”. The title track off their newest album Take Me To The Dance sounds like a dance number that Peaches started writing, and then had Austra take over:
I had the privilege of catching them perform a few years ago in South Africa’s neighbouring country Namibia, formerly known as South-West Africa, at a giant music festival where I had hoped to become familiar with the hottest and latest African music in the scene. As it turned out, it was an Afrikaner rock festival. I was surrounded by generally friendly Afrikaner music lovers, but the presence of the occasional beefy guy wearing shirts that declared “Super Boer” made me feel slightly uncomfortable as a person of colour in a sea of Afrikaners in a country that had just gained independence from its apartheid system only in 1990.
I sat through act after act of Christian country rock and Afrikaner boy bands, until Freshlyground finally came on the stage, one of the only mixed-race bands on stage and at the festival in general. Their positive enthusiastic energy, their lively innovative sound and their catchy tunes was a breath of fresh air for me in those desert mountains, a warm welcome to an exciting new music world. Soon this welcome will be brought to the Jazz Festival for Ottawa to enjoy.
Freshlyground will be playing at the Ottawa Jazz Festival as part of the OLG After Dark Series on Wednesday, June 24, 2015 at the Laurier Avenue Music Stage, Marion Dewar Plaza at 10:30PM. Tickets are $20 and can be purchase online. Your festival pass or day ticket also gets you into this show.