South Africa tunes in to racial harmony

'Freshlyground,' an ethnically mixed band, fuses culture, language, and sound to unite listeners weary of crime headlines.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

To find the sunny, hopeful, postapartheid "rainbow" nation that South African politicians talk about, close your eyes and turn on the radio. There, you're likely to hear a group called Freshlyground and their delicious mixture of African jazz and R&B, and lyrics in English and Xhosa.

Possibly South Africa's most well-known up-and-coming band, Freshlyground is a breath of fresh air in a society struggling to put its ugly racial past behind it. Its seven members are as diverse as the society they come from, a group of blacks and whites who seem to have moved beyond race.

"There are quite a large number of young South Africans who grew up in a multiracial society, who were unencumbered by apartheid, and music is starting to reflect that," says Richard Nwamba, host of the Africa Connections show on SAfm radio network in Johannesburg.

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Reaching out to one other

Today's music-lovers are less interested in politics, says Mr. Nwamba, but they still want to make a better South Africa.

"The fact that Freshlyground is so successful shows that a lot of blacks and whites want to reach out to one another," he says. And the fact that the lead singer of Freshlyground, Zolani Mahola, is black "shows that society now accepts blacks in position of leadership, in terms of culture."

But the members of Freshlyground – the name of a popular South African pepper-grinder – say they're just a band.

"Everyone likes to sit in the sun and listen to good music," says Aron Turest-Swartz, the keyboardist. "People are hungry for positive stuff, positive energy, having an uplifting experience. I think that is the commonality."

Freshlyground's sound is so different from other bands – a blend of Afropop, R&B, and jazz fusion – that many music stores don't know where to put their albums. The African section doesn't quite work, because many of their songs are in English. The English-language section isn't right either, because they sing in Xhosa, too. Many stores solve this by putting the albums out front, because Freshlyground is selling so well.

With South African radio stations playing mainly American hits – many of them stuck in the primordial ooze of the 1980s, a time of fond memories for white South Africans – Freshlyground is one of the few South African bands that gets airtime. Many popular bands here find that success only comes by mimicking American musical trends, particularly rap and R&B.

Peter Cohen, Freshlyground's veteran drummer, says that after so many years of being cut off from the rest of the world, South Africans have decided to drink it all in. But the growth of South Africa's black middle class means that there are more opportunities for musicians, and more support for music in general.

Freshlyground's lyrics are a revolution of a gentle sort for a country tired of headlines of violent crime, government corruption, and corporate misdeeds.

When young South Africans sing along to "Doo Be Doo," an intensely idealistic song named for its infectious chorus, they are imagining a world that doesn't yet exist, where politicians "have agreed to honor and obey," neighbors greet each other as sisters and brothers, and enemies become friends. When they sing along with singer Zolani Mahola's tune "Pot Belly," they are celebrating the curvy, non-fashion-mag human form.

Seeing rhythm, not race

A Freshlyground stage show is surprisingly vibrant, with band members taking turns to dance in a variety of African styles, and Ms. Mahola is often credited with "teaching white people how to dance." She laughs. "Of course I didn't do that. That's what they are, that's what they listen to."

The truth is, very few people point out the band's racial composition, she adds.

"A lot of people confront that issue [of race] in South Africa, because our past is still so much a part of our present," says Mahola. "But when we get on stage, what we see is all these people dancing to the same rhythm. We just wanted to be regarded for who we are, instead of for race, or color."

• Listen at www.freshlyground.com

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