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Freshlyground perks up South Africa

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

Members of the South African music group FreshlyGround, winners of the Best African award, at MTV Europe Music Awards 2006 show in in Copenhagen, Nov. 2, 2006. (Alex Grimm/Reuters)

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.