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Freshlyground Perks Up South Africa

Hit-making Afropop group builds following across country's racial divide


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — With a mix of races, languages, nationalities, ages and even genders — not to mention catchy tunes — Freshlyground is a quintessential southern African band.

With years of steady gigs and studio albums under their collective belt, the seven-member Afropop group has become a part of the national music scene with crossover appeal, selling to both South Africa's black and white audiences. The group is building an international following as well. Their new album, "Radio Africa," is scheduled for release here May 1.

Lead singer Zolani Mahola and drummer Peter Cohen met with GlobalPost shortly after mixing the album in New York. During this period between finishing the album and waiting to find out if they'll get the sort of radio play and subsequent sales they'd like, they joke nervously about their ability to determine which songs will resonate with listeners.

"Our albums have been quite eclectic — a marketing person's nightmare. 'Doo Be Doo' was so big, and we nearly didn't put it on the record," says Cohen of their breakout hit single. "Nobody in the band felt it was a turning point, which it was."

That song was on "Nomvula," their 2004 disc, and helped them earn awards for MTV Europe's Best African Act and Album of the Year at the South African music awards. Mahola says she doesn't mind the categorization, "as long as we're best at something."

Mahola writes nearly all their songs, in both English and Xhosa. She is sometimes inspired by current political events.

While reading a story about "some African dictator — no, something close to a dictator," she began thinking about how leadership lets us down on this continent. "These lyrics started coming, these melodies started coming."

They describe the new album as more raw, African and cohesive. And decidedly less pop. There's "an anxious love song," as well as "Big Man," a commentary on the increase of consumerism and "material pollution."

It's not hard to see the parallels to the situation in South Africa. "[Controversial ANC youth leader] Julius Malema was getting incredibly out of hand, and nobody was reining him in," said Mahola. "I thought the vibe of a lot of the things he was saying was quite destructive. That song is like a warning, an outsider warning that damage is coming."

Freshlyground has always thrived in live performances and looked to audiences for feedback. They played a couple of gigs at Joe's Pub in New York's East Village in February, and will play in several European festivals this summer. While their core audience is South African, Cohen says he loves playing abroad.

"It's nice playing to people who don't have a preconceived idea. And you're fresh," said Cohen. "We get to play a lot of festivals [in Europe] with a built-in audience. We're good at that situation. We seem to turn people on live."

Petite and charismatic Mahola, and the ease with which she relates to her band members onstage, accounts for a lot of that live appeal. She says she never intended to have a music career. Mahola was studying drama at the University of Cape Town when one of her peers overheard her singing in the hallway and introduced her to some friends who were looking for a singer for their punk band. It's hard to imagine the beckoning, soulful voice screaming onstage instead of singing, but Mahola says it was a lot of fun while it lasted.

Cohen, on the other hand, played in bands from a young age, in part as a way of searching for his identity as a white South African growing up under apartheid. He had a seminal moment at age 11 listening to Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."

"It sounds kind of naive and simple, but it was a huge thing for me to realize that this guy, who's a genius to me, wouldn't have the mandate to vote [in apartheid South Africa]," he said.

Music has always been an equalizer, and Freshlyground also trades on quality relationships.

"There's a good connection. We wouldn't still be together if there wasn't," said Cohen. "Between love and gigs we'll be OK."