Singing back the old times

It is not only love or a car that can be brought back to life by being refreshened but music too.

Freshlyground, a 7-piece multi-cultural and multi-racial South African ensemble whose stuff is a mixture of what South African music was during the days of Sophiatown, does just this as they refreshingly sing back the past.

The members drawn from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique include Zolani Mahola, Josh Hawks, Aron Turest-Swartz, Kyla Rose Smith, Simon Attwell, Justin Tonkin and Saz Peter Cohen, met at the University of Cape Town in 2002.

These are the people who unleashed the song Doo Be Doo which was South Africa’s and indeed the region’s most played single in 2005.

That song captures generations past, present and yet to come. The beat brings with it a whole gamut of sound and vocal beauty.

The voice behind that song belongs to the Xhosa-speaking Mahola who hails from a small Eastern Cape town and the haunting keyboards were provided by Aron Turest-Swartz, an Afrikaner from the semi-desert area of the Karoo in the Western Cape.

If you listen carefully, you will catch the fine mbira sounds from the deft fingers of Simon Attwell who grew up in Zimbabwe where the instrument is respected and linked to the spirits.

Simon was a member of the Harare Symphony Orchestra.

Josh Hawks and Peter Cohen came with vast experiences from their time with groups such as Johnny Clegg’s Savuka, Mango Groove and Bright Blue.

The other two – Kyla-Rose Smith the violinist-cum- dancer has a hip-hop background and Julio Sigaque from Mozambique is technical drawing student who came to Cape Town to take up jazz studies.

The group was born when Maholo ran into Aron who talked her into coming to see them play and see whether she could be part of the rag-tag outfit.

Indeed, she went, saw the band playing in a small dingy room in the Observatory area of Cape Town and was drawn onto the stage when the group was playing Nomvula (Rain).

She jumped onto the stage and exploded lyrically, putting her own words to the tune.

That unplanned and unrehearsed scene saw the creation of what has become the region’s band of the moment whose lyrics are fresh and irresistible.

Her entry brought some freshness to the group’s jazz tunes, which she infused with kwela.

After struggling for a year, the group released its debut album, Jika Jika in 2003 and then Nomvula that is scathing hot came in 2005.

Somewhere in the song, Maholo talks about her upbringing, her relationship with her father and where she is now.

She also sings about HIV and Aids, social strife, troubled love affairs and to a very lesser extent about politics.

South Africa and the region have accepted the group although in the early days, the public was sceptic about an outfit of young people from diverse background coming together especially after the split of similar groups – Juluka of John Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, as well as Mango Groove.

The use of a violin and a flute made the situation even worse because these were regarded as elitist and not for black people.

Even Attwell who plays these instruments admitted in an interview with South African press that he sometimes felt unease playing before a black audience.

“I used to feel very uncomfortable playing the flute to a black audience, feeling very white and not quite cool enough. Most of our contemporaries are black singers or grungy white rock bands,” he said but added that he knew they had something when a primarily black, Jo’burg audience went mad for their music.

In a big way, Freshlyground is like a racial bridge builder that plays before racially mixed audiences everywhere in South Africa.

“It’s amazing how surprised people are when a white girl can dance, or even half dance,” Smith said.

“We’re still so divided. It’s so scary how much people have absorbed, and how much we don’t talk about it. I do think that everybody wants to get together, but they don’t know how to do it,” Mahola told a Sunday South African paper.

The group’s breakthrough saw Sony BMG Africa, signing them on and the radio caught on with the song Doo Be Doo going all way out.

Then came tours to Aichi Expo in Japan and Germany for the 2010 Soccer World Cup handover ceremony and a tour of South Africa last month.

But it’s yet to be seen whether the group will have more staying power than other multi-racial and multi-cultural groups that came before them.

As of now, let them sing the past back.

November 2006
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