15 May 2007
Singer Zolani Mahola has been a busy woman of late. “Doo Be Doo”, the chart-busting track that charmed millions of South Africans, has also propelled her band Freshlyground into the international arena.
Freshlyground was the opening act for UK pop star Robbie Williams’ South African tour in 2006. They followed that up by giving the world a foretaste of the 2010 South African vibe at the Fifa World Cup closing ceremony in Germany, before scooping the 2006 MTV Europe Music Award for Best African Act.
Earlier this year they were chosen by the South African government to perform at the unveiling of Parliament’s new logo.
In between, they’ve been doing gigs for their loyal local fans and travelling the world from Joburg to Japan, getting their passports stamped in Belgium, France, Zimbabwe, Holland, Italy, Mozambique, Germany, Namibia and Mauritius along the way. Phew!
As to why the band is such a hit with the global audience, Mahola remains modest.
“I think that it is the same reason non-South Africans have fallen in love with Bongo Maffin, Johnny Clegg, Bayethe and Simphiwe Dana, to name only a few. There is life in our music! There is a depth of feeling in the expression, a certain joy that many other cultures have perhaps lost.”
Freshlyground’s sound is distinctively southern African, yet defies classification, combining elements of kwela, folk, jazz, indie rock and Afro pop. Its eclectic nature gives their music broad appeal, enabling them to cross cultural boundaries.
The way the band members, coming from contrasting musical and racial backgrounds, seem to blend so effortlessly has also caught the attention of the international media. Both Time magazine and The Washington Post have labelled Freshlyground the personification of South Africa’s “rainbow nation” ideal.
While that may seem like a lot of pressure to put on the performers, Mahola takes it in her stride.
“It is something to be proud of, for sure, although it also feels very normal,” she says. “It feels to me like people should be in harmony with each other. We don’t have to all be friends, but I think there is a basic humanity we all share that is unlearned as we grow up. The illusion of separatism is a human construct, I think … Of course we are different, but that difference is something to celebrate; not to use to keep us apart.”
Each of the band members – who hail from South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – contributes something different to the sound. The Eastern Cape’s Mahola attributes her own musical style to the traditional Xhosa ceremonies she took part in.
“There is a lot of theatre and music involved in many if not all of the rituals,” she explains. “I try to bring a celebratory quality to my style of singing and to the lyrics, of course.”
Born in Port Elizabeth on 19 July 1981, Zolani Mahola was raised in the townships of Kwazakhele and New Brighton. She believes it is the heart of the people that is the Eastern Cape’s most valuable asset.
Some of her favourite memories are of childhood Christmases, “. family coming to PE [Port Elizabeth] from all over the country, all the kids in the family playing together. I remember being taken to the beach around those times, braais, Happy Valley … fun times.”
Mahola first attended Kama Primary and later St Dominic’s Priory and Trinity High School. It was at Trinity that she first got involved with a drama group and realized that “being onstage was a very comfortable and energizing space”.
Her road to success, Mahola says, “started with someone having faith in me, which gave me the courage to believe I stood a chance in this field. That first someone was my drama teacher Isobel van der Linde.”
Given new confidence and a firm foundation in her performance art, she left Port Elizabeth to study drama at the University of Cape Town.
It was as an actress that many South Africans first got to know Mahola. She starred in the series Tsha Tsha as Boniswa, a character from rural Peddie in the Amathole district.
“I really enjoyed playing that character because she was so strong and self aware,” Mahola says. “She was a good example to girls and young women growing up in an environment that often does not give value to their emotional well-being or to their dreams. She was able to show girls around the country that actually it is possible and necessary to put themselves first, whether it be in terms of a sexual relationship, career-wise or even in a family setting.”
The role of Boniswa also drew on her own experiences. “There is a certain strength or toughness in the personality of the character which I think that perhaps most township girls share.”
Despite losing her mother at a very young age, Mahola had an excellent role model in her father.
“My father did the best he could under very difficult circumstances. I love him. Nomvula (the title track from Freshlyground’s current album) is indeed a tribute … It is a ‘thank you’ to the people who brought me into this world. That said, I think it is a universal song, even though it contains very specific details about my life. There is something in the mood of the song that people really connect with, regardless of whether they speak isiXhosa or not.”
Sung in isiXhosa and English, the lyrics of Mahola’s songs range from catchy, upbeat and fluffy to introspective and sad, but they are always relevant to people’s lives. Zithande, for example, tackles relationships and HIV/Aids. And it’s something that Mahola feels very strongly about.
“It hurts that people are disappearing. It hurts that kids cant be kids any more in many situations … that they have to take on and see things that no child should be exposed to. It hurts that a woman can be faithful all her life and be infected by a husband who has multiple partners.
“A lot of it is sore,” says Mahola, “but I believe that people are becoming more aware, and with the greater availability of anti-retroviral medication, we can only hope for the best. The Treatment Action Campaign is one organisation that has done a lot of work on destigmatising HIV/Aids, on gender relations and on challenging government to make treatment more available to our people.
South African realities
“It is important that all of us get involved, from government to businesses to the entertainment industry to mothers taking care of children orphaned because their parents were infected and died.”
The reality of South Africa, its sorrows as well as its joys, infuses the music of Freshlyground – and that is what has earned the musicians their adoring fanbase.
“I take a lot from people,” Mahola says. “As Brenda [Fassie] once sang, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, we learn humanity from those around us, they help to make us real in a way.”
- The band is working hard on recording material for a new album, due out in September. In line with their plans to release internationally, Freshlyground has signed with Sony BMG Africa.This article was first published in Eastern Cape Madiba Action, winter 2007 edition. Republished here with kind permission of the author.