Freshlyground, the popular South African Afro-pop group, is a band that is constantly being pushed into boxes by the suits above. And like their eclectic brand of music, they keep popping out. From their burst on the international stage with their World Cup collaboration with Shakira to their multi-cultural roots, they are a band that has come to represent their country, whether they like it or not.
“We don’t really think about that stuff too much,” says Cohen. “People still—and not only in South Africa but all over the world—-people like to see something mixed and working because I think there is Apartheid in music, just by virtue of taste.”
Freshlyground has emerged as the type of band one might expect to arrive in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Its members hail from all over the continent, from Mozambique to Zimbabwe to Johannesburg. The band is like a snapshot of the place in which it was formed, Cape Town, with its bright mix of cosmopolitan pop fusing with the many styles from all over Africa. Their songs exhibit a cacophony of languages, mixing English, Xhosa and Afrikaans.
One can imagine a big wig recording executive listening to one of their albums, looking at a promotional photograph of the band, snapping his fingers, a light bulb flashing on in his head. “I know how to market this,” he would say. “They are the Rainbow Nation.”
Cohen is wary of such a reading of the band, recognizing that what some may view as a gimmick, simply did not start that way.
“We never had a selection process when we carved out Freshlyground,” says Cohen. “There was no criteria…it just happened—a very organic process. I guess that’s why it worked. There is a certain amount of honesty…Some people might think that it was really thought out—you know let’s get this [person] and let’s get that [person].”
Organic is a word that keeps coming up when talking about Freshlyground. What seems now like a packaged marketable brand of music began, as most bands do, as simply a few musicians jamming together. Freshlyground formed in 2002 when keyboardist Aron Turest-Swartz began jamming with flutist Simon Attwell, violinist Kyla-Rose Smith, and guitarist Julio Sigauque, according to the Washington Post.
The band was far from the multi-colored group it is now. It was not until Turest-Swartz spotted singer Zolani Mahola in a musical stage performance at the University of Cape Town—and later invited her onstage at one of the unnamed band’s early gigs—that the band found its identity. Turest-Swartz is no longer in the band, replaced by Seredeal Scheepers.
But Cohen speaks little about the formation of the band, mainly because, he was not there for it. Though Cohen joined the band early on, before any record releases, he ended what must have seemed for the band, like an endless carousel of drummers. Cohen was the fourth (and final) drummer the band used.
Like most things with Freshlyground, Cohen’s entrance was more chance than calculated decision. Bassist Josh Hawks brought Cohen in as a session musician to fill in for their drummer at an upcoming gig. After the gig, Cohen stuck around and what began as a temporary arrangement became more and more permanent over the following six months.
Hawks and Cohen are the two oldest members of Freshlyground and stalwarts of the South African music scene from the days before Apartheid ended. Hawks played bass guitar for Johnny Clegg, one of the few South African musicians to cross over into the global market.
A white South African, Clegg, headed one of the few multi-racial bands in South Africa during the ‘80s and ‘90s,Juluka and Savuka. His bands were composed of primarily black musicians and he was interested in Zulu culture, often performing in tribal garb.
Cohen enjoyed stints with other important South African bands of the time such as Bright Blue—famous for the struggle song “Weeping”—and Mango Groove, another band noted for its multi-racial members and fans.
The elephant in the room—Apartheid—is impossible for any South African—white or black—to ignore. It is an event experienced so universally and yet so individually that to skirt the issue does a disservice to the story being told. This is especially true for Cohen, whose history, whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, hinges on that elephant in the room.
His own realization of Apartheid’s skewed morality came, interestingly enough, not from a South African but from an American, Stevie Wonder.
“I remember being 11 or 12 and hearing Superstition [by Stevie Wonder],” Cohen tells me. “That was the first time for me when I started thinking, if this man was in South Africa, my country, he wouldn’t have the right to vote. It started me down that path. I got fed up knowing everything was wrong.”
Cohen admits that the multi-racial nature of the bands he has been in was not his primary reason for getting involved. However, the experiences have had their effect on him.
“It’s some way of finding my own identity in South Africa,” says Cohen. “It’s been a very cathartic experience for me to get involved in African music. Obviously, with the Western influences that I grew up with, its hard to make those two types of music sit together [Western and African]. Its not easy.”
Freshlyground has a story similar to many bands that “make it.” Their success is some magic combination of luck, talent and being in the right place at the right time.
Cohen confesses that the members of the band didn’t think that Freshlyground would last more than six months. Now, eight years later, they are on the verge of international superstardom, due to their now unavoidable collaboration with Shakira, “Waka Waka (This time for Africa).”
The band’s collaboration with Shakira, made famous by its prominence during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, may seem like one of those forced partnerships conjured up by recording executives—a move designed to combine the global marketability of Shakira with the local flavor of a South African band. However, the collaboration was a happy accident that Cohen describes as “typically Freshlyground.”
The band had been mixing their most recent record, Radio Africa, in New York—a record which achieved Gold status within two months of its release and is now nominated for four South African Music awards. While they mixed the record in an upstairs studio in Alphabet City, producer John Hill—noted for his work for such global acts as Christina Aguilera, Kings of Leon, and M.I.A.—worked downstairs on the now ubiquitous Shakira song.
Knowing little about the band but hearing of their South African roots, Hill introduced himself and asked them if they had any ideas to add to the song. Hill left the band to play with the song and returned several hours later to listen to what they had come up with.
Cohen confesses that while Hill told them that he liked the material and to record it all, no one in the band knew what to make of his reaction.
“He never sounded excited. He’s kind of low key”” says Cohen.
After the band gave Hill the recorded material, in typical big-shot recording producer fashion, Hill told the band, “You’ll be hearing from me.” The band never did and it was not until a few weeks before the beginning of the World Cup that the band received an innocuous email from Sony Music Entertainment informing them that, not only had the track made the World Cup Official album, it was also the official theme song of the tournament.
While Freshlyground’s work with Shakira was no more than being in the right place at the right time, it is too easy to chalk up the band’s success to such conditions. Freshlyground is first and foremost, like most South African musicians, a working band.
By the time the band had their chance encounter with John Hill in New York, Freshlyground, like most South African bands at the time, had spent more than a little effort trying to exploit the media coverage that was coming to South Africa for the World Cup.
“We were up to our eyeballs in World Cup stuff,” says Cohen. “We were starting to feel like an Ad band, pitching to [Sony].”
Freshlyground is a band that’s aware of the expectations that surround them. Because of their wide popularity in South Africa and the mixed nature of the band, corporate and government public relations workers often try to use them champion causes or draw attention to events.
Cohen says the band feels far from exploited though. In fact, he would go so far as to say the band exploits those situations. In a country where those in the music industry struggle to make enough money to forgo their day jobs, Freshlyground takes work where they can get it.
“What I mean is that if work comes our way for those reasons, its not a good reason not to do it,” says Cohen.
This past March, the band headlined the Concert and March for Quality Education in Cape Town. In 2005, the band performed at the opening of the South African Parliament in a ceremony celebrating ten years of democracy. More recently, they have been involved in the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. They, very publicly, took part in the Tutu Tester, a project aimed at testing more than a million people for HIV in South Africa.
While Cohen feels it is important for the band to use their public profile to spread positive messages, he is also wary of the band spreading itself too thin and diluting their influence.
“We get approached nonstop [to take part in charities]” says Cohen. “You got to be careful with that kind of stuff. You can’t try and do a million things and not really get any of them right.”
Because HIV awareness is one of—if not the—most important causes in South Africa, Cohen and Freshlyground felt it was the cause that made the most sense for them to put their focus on to get right.
The band has found themselves back in their old digs in Cape Town, juggling gigs and a loose recording process unlike any they’ve experienced before. For the first time, the band has rejected the traditional trajectory of recording a record—writing phase, recording phase, and mixing phase.
Instead, the band has decided to work on songs more casually, recording and writing simultaneously as they work things out, a move that Cohen feels has been dictated by the changing music industry.
With the proliferation of the internet and a music distribution system that encourages single songs, Freshlyground is taking an approach echoed by many in the music industry, South African and American.
“We’re recording but we’re not setting out to make an album anymore. The industry has shifted and we feel with an album…you only get a shot every two years. If we record a song every two months and put it out, we’re doing a lot more casting of our lines. It seems a more efficient way to work these days.”
Like all bands, Freshlyground is always trying to evolve, with the changing curve of music and their own maturity as artists. But, with a sound as eclectic and diverse as Freshlyground’s is, Cohen finds it hard to pinpoint what direction the band’s music is going with their new approach to recording.
“[Record executives] want a tagline and…I don’t think we’re every going to reach that place,” says Cohen. “It’s going to be the life of us or the death of us. Let’s hope its the former.”