This article by Evan Milton first appeared in “Wanted” magazine (Business Day), in November 2012.
Freshlyground are seven musicians who hail from three southern African countries. They’ve released four studio albums, and are on the eve of releasing a fifth and, yes, for the 2010 World Cup, they helped Shakira sound more African on her borrowed Cameroonian hit. They’ve performed to inaugurate presidents and open parliaments. They’ve shared stages with Stevie Wonder at Nelson Mandela‘s 46664 concert in America, with Oliver Mtukudzi at HIFA in Harare and with Hugh Masekela in New York’s Central Park. They received South African Music Awards for Best Group and Best Album, amongst others, and were the first ever South African act to win an MTV Award (“Best African Act” in 2006), and were banned from entering Zimbabwe after using the ZAnews satirical puppets in a video satirising rulers that cling to power. Freshlyground are about music but, a decade after they formed in Cape Town, they’re about far more than just that.
Time travel back to early 2005. In Khayelitsha, a retail chain has a flagship outlet bringing “convenience store” shopping to township residents. In 2004, Freshlyground had released “Nomvula”, after playing to open Parliament; sharing stages with African guitar legend Oliver Mtukudzi in Zimbabwe and alongside Miriam Makeba at South Africa’s incarnation of the North Sea Jazz Festival; and touring Europe. “Nomvula” would go on to sell double platinum status and offer the evergreen “Doo Be Doo” which, interestingly enough, was not initially slated for inclusion on the disc.
The Khayelitsha supermarket has a front section dedicated to music sales, where red plastic squares show the numbers 1 to 20 emblazoned, beside a slot for a CD. It’s meant to be the shop’s – or the chain’s – “Top 20”, but there’s a snag. The manager knows his market, and he understands the politics of product placement. Each and every slot, from 20 up to number 1, sports a copy of “Nomvula”, and no-ones’s complaining. Down the road, and across a dusty alley, a soon-to-be-edged-out spaza shop has its own version of product placement: packets of cigarettes and crisps and airtime vouchers pegged to the mesh above the counter. There’s a cheap cassette-radio player on the counter, and it’s playing “Zithande”, one of the album’s sleeper gems. Freshlyground are global stars, yes, but they have a massive fan base back home, and it criss-crosses ethnographic and demographic classifications the way a catchy melody hops from airwaves to lips.
Over and above the cross-continental tours and red carpet events they’ve played, the band cite their 2011 South African tour as a highlight. “It was called ‘Love No Hate’, sponsored by Nedbank, where we traveled all over South Africa, mostly to small towns – places we had never been to like Colesburg, Upington, Thaba Nchu, Klerksdorp,” says Smith. “We played 30 dates, with a community outreach element to the tour where we played seven extra absolutely free concerts in townships across the country.”
Freshlyground are singer Zolani Mahola, violinist Kyla-Rose Smith, flautist and saxophonist Simon Attwell, guitarist Julio Sigauque, keyboardist Seredeal “Shaggy” Scheepers, bassist Josh Hawks and drummer Peter Cohen. Five South Africans, with Sigauque hailing from Mozambique and Attwell from Zimbabwe. Each band member also fulfills additional roles in managing and marketing the band, and keeping its creative juices flowing. Ten years on, with countless shows and even more rehearsals, that is not always an easy task.
“It’s been ten years of sleeping, eating and thinking Freshlyground,” says Mahola, although using phrasing far more colourful than this printed quote. “Most of our music was written as part of a jam session and we were feeling a bit staid, a bit stuck in the mud. We needed a spark, and Simon came up with the idea that eventually led to the new album – to ‘Take Me To The Dance’.”
“If you work for long enough as a group of creative individuals, you stop being creative,” says Attwell. “You have your automatic ‘go to’ places. Not only in methodology, but also creatively. In the practice room, someone would come up with a riff and I would know within a few minutes exactly what Kyla was going to play, or how Josh and Peter would take it, or how Zo would sing – and they would know the same about me. We needed something that forced us to express ourselves creatively again. Over our band break last year, everyone had to come up with five new ideas, whether it was singing a tune or making a melody or piecing together a fully-fledged assembly of beats and rhythm and melody and lyrics. Then we shared those…”
“We tried lots of things before that, like making a list of songs we like,” says Sigauque. “Or bringing five songs by other artists, that we could imagine Freshlyground doing. We wanted to see where our taste was the same, and where it was on a different path. Ten years is a long time. We wanted to know: ‘What is Freshlyground, and what do we want to be doing?’ We had to ask, ‘Do we want to be together still?’ We are all musicians, it is what I do, but we had to say, ‘Is Freshlyground the best way?’. January was a holiday, but everyone was also working; trying ideas and then emailing stuff to one another. Some of the ideas made it; some of them didn’t. But we did find out what Freshlyground wants to do with music now, and for the next while.”
Pause, now, to consider the end result: “Take Me To The Dance”. It ranges from the electro-glitch edged and sensually sweaty dance-beat of the title track to the heartbreakingly anthemic “Won’t Let Go”. There are “Shake It”, “Mina Nobhiza” and “Chain Gang”, riffs on the trademark Freshlyground sound which combine upbeat African-born elements into an internationally-appealing pop-aligned sound, but with more substance to their imagery and character. There’s “Nomthandazo”, standing proud with one foot in the jangly southern Africa of bushveld and savannah, and the other happily planted in the beat-bass of global dance. There’s “Not Too Late For Love”, a song of achingly sweet universal appeal, that could only, ever, have come from the daily ups and downs of life eMzansi. In short: it is without doubt an album by Freshlyground, but there are some interesting departures in style that might unsettle their less adventurous followers.
“Being a creative person is about reinvention,” says Smith. “We’re not just this ‘rainbow band’ we were once sold as and, a decade after we started and eighteen years after democracy, we had to find out who we were again. We are seven very different people, with different trajectories and different personalities. Also, in a big group, you can hide behind other people – you can not say things, because you allow six other people to talk instead. Using this new process, everyone had to say something, and put some ideas into the group. It went well, and then it got confusing. We had seven totally different ideas and directions. Then we decided, ‘Stuff this; let’s just record the music we’re hearing’. That’s when it really worked.”
A working band has many facets and phases: creating, recording, releasing and touring. The new Freshlyground album sees another reinvention in how it will be released. In November, “Take Me To The Dance”, will be launched exclusively through Pick ‘n Pay shops across the country, and at a better price than most CDs. Following a ‘phone call and a pitch, the Ackerman empire’s decision-makers said “it works for you and it works for us”, called it a “no brainer” and gave the green light. In part, Freshlyground‘s decision was fuelled by dissatisfaction with the record company model, and problems like people reporting no CDs to be found in shops, albums being repackaged and listed under incorrect names in distribution catalogues and placing and order for a version of their “Radio Africa” album with “Waka Waka” as a bonus track, only to receive countless complaints from fans who bought the disc to discover… no bonus track.
Ultimately, though, to understand Freshlyground, and its members, one must turn to their music. Pressed to identify a favourite on the new album, Mahola chooses “Take Me To The Dance”: “It’s such a cool pop song, with this guitar riff that comes from Julio and Simon playing around recording at home. We had a few versions: stripped down, a full band version… One day I took it and was playing around, very clumsily on my Mac, piecing things together, and I sang this line, ‘Take me to the dance’. It’s a typical example of the different ways of songwriting we have, and of how getting to know an instrument, or new technology, can create things that stick.”
“We were mucking around, and Julio doodled a sound for the line-check while I was just getting the sound and the levels,” adds Attwell. “Months later, going through our files, there was this four-bar phrase that we looped and put to a groove, and added some hand-claps. It took on this cool quality. I think I saved the early version in our Dropbox as ‘Radiohead-ish’. You never when an idea will come.”
Sigauque grins and adds, “I love it too. Thanks to the recording, I didn’t even have to play guitar on that song. There’s something nice about the spontaneity that we’ve kept, and how the rawness stays there. And then Zo came along and was wonderful, singing lines over that.”
“In opposition to the way those songs happened, from our ‘ideas session’, I’d choose ‘Partytime’,” says Smith. “The original plan came from Zolani, with this crazy idea that had about twenty voices with weird harmonies. We were sitting in the control room with Steve (Berlin, ex of Los Lobos, who has worked with R.E.M., Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Crash Test Dummies, Sheryl Crow and Rickie Lee Jones amongst others, and produced of “Take Me To The Dance”). He said, ‘Let me hear’. Peter was there, playing box, Shaggy played one drum. All of us in one room, and we just recorded it. Much as sometime us all just jamming wasn’t working, there are moments – sparks of inspiration – that come in that setting, where we reinforce our ideas as a collective, and there’s definitely something magical in that. I love it; I love the lyrics and the layering; and I love it when a jam comes together.”