Monday, 20 April 2009

One-on-one with Freshlygrounds

I have no plans to go solo, says Zolani

THE first time Freshlyground played in Nigeria was at the first edition of the Soundcity Music Video Award staged last year at the MUSON Centre, Onikan. The Lagos audience were impressed with their perfromance.
The following day, the seven-man band held the audience spell bound at the first edition of the Lagos International Jazz Festival held at Studio 868, Victoria Island, Lagos. Again, their gig was greeted with applause from the excited crowd. Carried away by the surprise acceptance by the audience, the band nearly missed their flight back home that night; they hurriedly left the stage.
When Freshlyground was listed as part of the 40 bands for the recently held Cape Town International Jazz Festival, I saw it as another opportunity to meet one-on-one with the group that is fast winning the hearts of South Africa and beyond. Luckily, there was a slot for a chat with the artistes in the festival programme.
Unfortunately, only the lead singer, Zolani Mahola and violinist, Kyla Rose Smith were present at the media parley held at the Southern Sun Hotel, Cape Town. But from all indication, it seems the ladies speak for the entire band. “She is our spokesperson,” Kyla said jokingly, pointing at Zolani, who was sitting next to her.
Freshlyground was formed in early 2002, and is made up of seven talented and tested musicians from South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Fronted by the diminutive but dynamic Zolani, the band exudes a live performance energy that has been the bedrock of its success. The experienced rhythm section of Peter Cohen (drums) & Josh Hawks (bass) is complimented by guitarist Julio Sigauque, keyboardist Seredeal Scheepers, Simon Attwell (flute, mbira, sax and harmonica) and violinist Kyla Rose Smith.

ZOLANI had met Aron at the University of Cape Town, where he was also studying drama, but it was three years later that she watched him and Simon performing at The Armchair, a small smoky venue in Observatory, Cape Town’s suburb of eccentricity. She got up on stage and lyrically improvised to their tunes... and that is it — Freshlyground was born.
Just recently, rumours started making the rounds that Zolani, whose distinctive voice contributes much to the band’s unique sound, is planning to dump the group that brought her to limelight to pursue a solo career in music. Meeting Zolani this afternoon was an opportunity to get the matter straight.
In a swift tone, the singer denied the rumour saying, “I’m enjoying being in a collective. I never planned making music my thing, so, going solo looks more serious.”
Rather than go solo, the petit singer prefers looking outside music.
“I’ve always loved acting, so, I would rather develop my acting skills,” she says.

THOUGH from diverse backgrounds, between them the band members weave a musical magic that is highly infectious and undeniably groovy.
“We do most of our compositions together. Sometimes, somebody comes up with a chorus and we all work together to get the verses. Sometimes it could be during our rehearsal; one person will just start playing something and before you know it, we have a song,” Kyla informs.
Though, as the lead vocalist, Zolani seems to be playing vital role in their compositions, yet she insists the credit is for the whole band.
“Normally, I have poems written down. Sometimes, I take it to the guys and say, ‘look, I have something here,’ and we work together to develop it. So, it’s more of a group work, but there are some songs that I actually composed.”
For a band with members from different cultures, do they have occasional flare ups? Oh sure, but Freshlygrounds has a way of dealing with the challenges.
“We do a lot of talking; in fact, we talk more than we play. We understood the fact that we are coming from different backgrounds, so, we needed to allow everyone to have a voice; it’ importune to give everyone a platform to express themselves,” says Zolani.
“We’ve learnt to hold our tongues,” Kayle adds. “We are sort of middle class, so, I don’t think there’s much of gap; the experiences are similar. We are making it being musicians and it’s not difficult.”
The diversity, which many view as a disadvantage, has become a plus to the band. “The different sounds you hear from our songs is informed by the different places we come from. Most of our songs are composed by the whole band, so, you get to see our different backgrounds in the songs,” Kyla notes.
For Zolani, changing the sound of the band in an effort to appeal to the international audience, is a no go area.
“If we have to change our sound to go international, then I don’t want to be part of it.”
According to Zolani, winning the hearts of many South Africans is one of their greatest achievements so far.
“In the beginning, we were struggling with credibility; people not recognising you. The hurdle of getting people to love and identify with our music is one of our greatest challenges.”

FRESHLYGROUND launched their debut album, Jika Jika in 2003 under their own Freeground Records label, the immediate success of which firmly cemented the band as one of South Africa’s most successful young acts. Their second, Nomvula, followed in July 2004 and was recorded and produced by JB Arthur and Sibusiso Victor Masondo.
The album sparked interest from Sony BMG Africa, who signed the band and released Nomvula in September that year. Radio quickly picked up on the single Doo Be Doo and the catchy song went on to become a crossover favorite amongst a diverse spread of stations and their listeners. The major success of the track was followed by the singles I’d Like, Zithande, Things Have Changed and the title track of the album Nomvula.
The album sold 300 000 units in South Africa alone — earning it multi-platinum status. The success and broad appeal of the band was celebrated in November 2006 when Freshlyground won the MTV Europe Award in the category Best African Act. The award placed the band firmly on the international music map and earned them further recognition on home soil as significant South African cultural exports.
However, the success of Nomvula was followed by Ma Cheri — their third studio album, released in September 2007. The album release was followed by a major South African tour attended by over 25 000 people across four cities. The tour was self-produced by the band and supported by Volkswagen South Africa. No doubt, it successfully raised the performance and production standards of local touring, putting the band on par with international acts in terms of production scale and value. Ma Cheri has sold 80 000 units to date in South Africa and the single, Pot Belly is another major crossover success, and is play-listed on all South African radio stations.

FIVE YEARS on Freshlyground is a still a sensation. In South Africa, audiences of every race cram in to see them. At the recently Cape Town held jazz festival, the band nearly pulled all guests, especially the younger one to Kippies Stage, where it performed on the opening. Hip black teenagers sing to their lyrics. White kids emulate their moves. The very presence of this band in South Africa is a promise for a harmonious future. But they don’t sit still for the picture. Meanwhile, Freshlyground is currently in the studio working their fourth studio album due for release late 2009.

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