South African band set to make it in America

Boston Globe, June 25, 2011

They were already big at home, in South Africa. Very big, in fact: born of a jam session on the small Cape Town scene in 2002, the seven-member Freshlyground has enjoyed, with its gently Africanized pop fusion, a string of local hit songs that convey sweetly earnest themes of uplift and harmony.

But it was in a studio in New York City in early 2010 that Freshlyground had the chance encounter that would catapult them into the global spotlight, as they happened to be mixing their latest album, “Radio Africa,” in the same building where producer John Hill was working on Shakira’s official anthem for soccer’s 2010 FIFA World Cup, the planet’s biggest sports event, which was to be held a few months later in South Africa.

“He heard there were a bunch of South Africans three floors up,” Freshlyground drummer Peter Cohen says on the phone from Cape Town, remembering the impromptu session that ensued. “We recorded through the night. Then we never heard from him for months – until three weeks before the song came out, and we were delighted.”

The song was “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa),” which saturated world airwaves during the Cup. Not atrociously corny as sports anthems go, it was credited to Shakira featuring Freshlyground; and with its almost suspiciously perfect multiracial lineup, the Cape Town band offered a better image of harmonious post-apartheid South Africa than any tourism board advertisement could.

But if the World Cup effect may have helped raise Freshlyground’s profile and spur its current 17-date North American tour – which visits the Brighton Music Hall on Monday – “Radio Africa,” the band’s fourth and musically richest album to date, goes well beyond mass-market pop fare.

With members from South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, the band draws on instruments, language, and rhythms from all three countries. The winsome frontwoman Zolani Mahola sings in Xhosa and English. Simon Attwell, a white Zimbabwean, plays flute, kalimba, and the mbira or “thumb piano.” Julio Sigauque, from Mozambique, can unleash vicious Central African dancefloor guitar grooves.

Songs address lovers and parents, but also take on South Africa’s current scourges of unemployment, corruption, and crime.

“I had your baby in silence/ I never thought about the violence,” Mahola sings on one sorrowful, spare track that evokes love, abandonment, and maybe abuse. “Big Man” calls out politicians who have succumbed to materialism and corruption.

And “Chicken to Change,” an uptempo guitar-driven track that denounces Zimbabwe’s authoritarian ruler Robert Mugabe – underscored by a mocking video made with a South African TV satire show – has gotten the group banned from Zimbabwe.

“We loved going there and had great shows there,” Cohen says. “It’s amazing how quickly Mugabe’s henchmen acted.”

Given the recent history of South Africa and its neighboring region, a measure of attention to politics may be inevitable, even for what can sometimes sound like a happy-go-lucky pop outfit.

“We are a very political nation,” Cohen says. “I’m the oldest in the band and I’ve gone through the darkest years of apartheid, into the euphoria of elections and change. It’s been incredible. We are proudly South African. But we do have comments, about poverty, education, HIV… . We can’t be afraid to talk about these things.”

“We want to say things but we don’t want to preach,” he adds. “We’re just trying to get by as well.”

Freshlyground is doing better than just getting by. Even if its blend of pop and traditional material makes it an uncomfortable fit in the rock or “world music” marketing categories, the band has become a South African radio mainstay and earned local industry awards.

“We’ve managed to bring a lot of South Africans together, from different ages and different races,” Cohen says. “And that’s something we are very proud of.”

But the South African market is still small, though it is home to a growing range of rock, electronica, and modern traditional acts. And Cape Town, where the band is still based, is even smaller; beautiful but provincial, away from bustling Johannesburg.

So even though Freshlyground has had scattered US shows in the past, Cohen says they are approaching the current American tour like rookies, humble and hungry. They are open to new collaborations, new producers, and new opportunities that might just turn up in the same way that “Waka Waka” was born.

“In South Africa, we can play the same songs and people go crazy,” he says. “In America they might walk out! It’s unlikely, though. We tend to give a lot on stage and people appreciate that.”