One of the things I miss most about South Africa is the music. It’s not that I can’t find South African music here in Canada (or order it online via Amazon). No, it’s more the pervasive musicality of the place: music is everywhere, and an enjoyment of it — regardless of whatever different musical preferences and ideologies may be at play — is pretty much ubiquitous. With this ubiquity comes a kind of ‘ambient awareness’ of new music; it’s almost impossible not to be exposed to the latest ‘street sounds’ by sheer virtue of being there (I put that in quotes deliberately, being fully aware that my proximity to the ‘street’ was as questionable in South Africa as it is here).
One of the new acts that I missed — legitimately, I think, since they only started to release records long after I’d already left — is Freshlyground . They’re a geographically and musically diverse outfit based in Cape Town. Stylistically, I’d peg them somewhere along the vectors of world music, dance, a little rock and folk, a smattering of vocal jazz (like all musicians, they themselves tend to stay away from characterizing ‘what they do’ in interviews). The most immediately recognizable references are, of course, South Africa’s pervasive marabi-kwela-mbaquanga heritage, embedded here in bright, positive pop confections that, on occasion, seem to mine the same fertile ground that made Mango Groove  so brilliantly effervescent in its day. Freshlyground also occasionally adds hints of kwaito (South Africa’s house-based dance/rap hybrid), which seems to currently be undergoing a kind of resurgence. The similarities to Mango Groove, in some sense, don’t entirely end there (a mixed-race band with a strong, soprano lead vocalist, etc.) but at the same time, there’s enough of a departure here that this is not that.
Freshlyground have released five records to date. I’ll focus on the most recent two here, which I think are their most mature efforts to date — and each offers specific insights in its own right. Both showcase a band that is at or near the top of their game, compositionally and performance-wise; both are beautifully engineered; both are clearly records made to signal, “We would like to appeal to an international market.” In 2010, Freshlyground had their first global breakthrough moment when they collaborated on Shakira’s immensely popular (and seasonally short-lived) “Waka Waka ,” one of the key songs of the soccer world cup held in South Africa that year. I can’t say how that international breaking-through business has been going for Freshlyground since then — I admit I didn’t take special notice of them on “Waka Waka” (in fact, the exact level of the collaboration is a little unclear to me) and only happened upon them recently, quite by accident on Youtube while scratching around for older treasures from kwaito’s first run, such as Bongo Maffin  and Arthur Mafokate  — but I understand from what I’ve read online that they’ve toured the US and — I’m assuming — Europe.
Radio Africa, released in 2010, has to be seen as the band’s attempt to capitalize on their biggest hit to date (with Shakira), their attempt at a breakout record. It’s an excellent album, assembled with careful sequencing/curation and achieving a cohesive ebb and flow. The first single from it, “Fire is Low” (video below), gently and prettily showcases many of the best aspects of this band: a kind of loose, full-band afro-pop groove with a distinct South African rhythm and bass line; a picked (acoustic?) guitar that wouldn’t be out of place on a Dave Matthews track; horns straight out of a Cape Town jazz ensemble (as powerful as Fela Kuti’s erstwhile brass section, but somehow gentler, cleaner, more musical, less of a call to arms — the difference, perhaps, between salsa and Cuban son); and lead vocalist Zolani Mahola’s frankly glorious voice above it all, soaring yet also firmly anchored by the band’s plaintive harmony vocals. “I feel silence is best enjoyed with an open heart beating next to you. But for now, be my darling and whisper your words to the rolling moon.” The lyrics have a more or less sophisticated quality throughout and mostly avoid the more careless clichés pop often resorts to when the rhymes don’t come easy.
Zolani Mahola’s voice deserves some further discussion. There’s a sweetness and range to her that reminds me of Dolly Parton (in the best possible way — she’s one of the purest sopranos in popular music), but coupled with a powerful back-of-the-throat growl that gives Gwen Stefani a run for her money. There are songs where her sure-footed phrasing also reminds me of the young Billie Holiday (and I cannot really think of a greater compliment to give to a vocalist). There is an ever-so-slight ‘pitchiness’ to Mahola’s vocals at certain moments which, to me, seems not so much a failing but rather an interesting reminder of the idea that South African vocal ensembles (church or not) oscillate almost imperceptibly between western and pentatonic scales in their harmonizing. This gives multi-part harmonies sung by South African groups a dense, other-wordly quality (just think of when you first heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo )1 . But that almost imperceptible ‘otherness’ can also come out in soloists, especially when they’re as foregrounded as Mahola is on these songs. I find the added texture quite enjoyable (it does, in many ways, remind me of ‘home’) but it may surprise other listeners.
Radio Africa shines particularly brightly in its not-so-obvious moments. Nothing is filler here; you couldn’t single out a single track that seems superfluous or gratuitous. Slower numbers, like the superb “Baby in Silence,” sound like modern indie rock from a compositional perspective but flow gently and elegantly in the hands of this band. One of Mahola’s gifts is that she can also sing music that isn’t, in any overt way, “African” and imbue it with depth, feeling and rootedness. The reverse experiment is also musically interesting, such as when “Vula Amehlo,” half-sung in Zulu (the title means “Open your eyes”) turns out to be an indie pop song with only a very light smattering of African folk. Radio Africa is full of almost-surprises like this, but the most surprising thing is perhaps that it remains excellent throughout without any missteps or jarring throw-aways. It’s worth noting that it is also a political record, to an extent: tracks like “Chicken to Change” and “Working Class” are not afraid to call out (or poke fun at) southern Africa’s current issues in that it’s-a-problem-but-this-song-can-still-be-a-party way that’s unique to African music.
Freshlyground’s latest, Take Me to the Dance, was produced by Steve Berlin , member of Los Lobos and producer of a wide range of well-known artists including Angélique Kidjo and Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, giving him a certain ‘world music cred’ (though to be honest, the rest of his production discography has a distinct adult contemporary skew). While Take Me to the Dance is certainly also a good record, I sense that the sympatico between the band and their producer was maybe not as immediate as their connection with Fabrice Dupont , the producer of Radio Africa, whose previous credits include Shakira, Jennifer Lopez and Santigold (in a sound engineer capacity). Call it a strong suspicion based entirely on listening comparatively to the albums, but it’s clear to me that Take Me is somewhat less successful as an album while still featuring some very strong music. Berlin, I think, may lack some of the bang-on pop instincts that harnessed the band’s sensibilities and carried the previous record from triumph to triumph — the quotient of ‘unusual’ pieces here is higher, and the overall ebb and flow is less well curated. There are, in fact, a couple of tracks I could do without: I struggle with “The Message” and “Not Too Late for Love.” These are sonically competent but are marred by ham-handed songwriting and lyrics and should have been weeded out during sequencing.
The highlights on Take Me are “Nomthandazo,” an excellent neo-kwaito number with folky guitars and flutes; the title track, another dancefloor tune whose Afro-disco-ness and decidedly strange video (see below) somehow conjure up memories of Grace Jones and Roxy Music for me (both in a really good way); and “Shake It (Just Like You Wanna)” which has an almost Nigerian, feverish Afrobeat feel that would do Fela proud. The dance numbers really stand out on this album while the more classic South African or indie-inflected tunes often don’t really have enough for the ear to hold on to — where one of Freshlyground’s reliable characteristics previously seemed to be their way with a catchy tune, it’s hit and miss here. This is pure speculation, but I imagine that Fabrice Dupont’s influence pushed the band’s rock tendencies firmly back into pop territory on Radio Africa while Berlin’s instinct would have been to showcase them in their own right, resulting in a less successful record overall.
The classic, whimsical Freshlyground sound breaks through on “Party Time,” a wild, wonderful and to-the-point satirical piece about politics and living together in South Africa. “It’s awesome in South Africa but the people are a little tricky, aha aha aha.” Indeed.
Having said all of the above, I would highly recommend both records. One of contemporary South Africa’s best acts without question. If you had to pick only one of these records, it should be Radio Africa, which — unfortunately — seems hard to get at the present time (Amazon doesn’t seem to stock it, not even from third-party sellers). You can, however, order it from the band’s website. Finally, I would also urge you to hear their earlier efforts, particularly Ma’ Cheri which has many of the same qualities I enjoy on Radio Africa.
What I mean is not that South African choirs sing pentatonic scales, but that they exploit to good effect a slight uneasiness of pitch which is caused by living in two different musical worlds at the same time. I’ve heard ‘western’ musicians comment on the ‘horrible pitch’ of South African choirs, a reaction that is deliberately ignorant of the ‘problem’s’ lineage — and doesn’t allow for the possibility that this is a unique, enjoyable feature of South African music. ↩