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Freshlyground perks up South Africa

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

“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.”