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A nation divided, but under a groove

South Africa's hot band is interracial and their music is enjoyed by both blacks and whites, but usually at separate concerts.
Freshlyground flutist Simon Attwell, bass player Josh Hawks and lead singer Zolani Mahola.
Freshlyground flutist Simon Attwell, bass player Josh Hawks and lead singer Zolani Mahola.Craig Timberg / Washington Post
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Zanele Mazibuko has always hated the violin. And the flute? Forget it. For a child growing up in the black township of Soweto, she said, those instruments represented a distant world of white privilege, beyond a seemingly uncrossable racial divide.

But last week, something began to change her mind. It was a live performance by Freshlyground, one of South Africa's hottest bands, which features both a violin and a flute -- not to mention five white members out of seven. The music, a fusion of rock, jazz and Afro-pop, sounded "black," Mazibuko said, delighted and amazed.

"The music they play, it just goes together. How do they manage it?" marveled the trim government worker, 31, who was breathless from dancing. "You expect whites to go this way," she added, stepping to her left, "when we go that way."

The racial mix of Freshlyground would draw little notice in Europe or the United States. But in a South Africa still struggling to unite its fractured population after centuries of rigid discrimination, the band has become a sensation, drawing audiences in both traditionally black venues and traditionally white ones.

After the band finished playing at the private party Mazibuko attended, whites, blacks and coloreds -- the term here for mixed-race people who dominate the Cape Town area -- lined up for the members' autographs.

Mazibuko saved her highest praise for Kyla Rose Smith, 23, the petite, brunette violinist who grew up in a white suburb of Johannesburg playing classical music. In many numbers, Smith boogies in tandem African-style steps with lead singer Zolani Mahola, 24, who grew up in a black township near the coastal city of Port Elizabeth.

Mazibuko said of Smith, "Whoever is teaching her to dance is good."

With sales of the band's second album, "Nomvula," topping 100,000 -- making it double platinum in South Africa -- their success has generated some grumbling.

Bongani Madondo, a music writer for the Sunday Times newspaper, reported last month that black rockers from the townships regarded the new wave of multiracial bands as inauthentic, with the black members no more than "brown sugar grains added to (s)punk up the buttermilk." While praising Mahola's performance, Madondo wrote that she was "still seen as belonging to a white, jazzed-up vaudeville act."

Band members said people's comments to them often reveal unease, or perhaps just unfamiliarity, with the kind of racial mixing displayed in the band's act.

"It's amazing how surprised people are when a white girl can dance, or even half dance," Smith said.

'Still so divided'
South Africa remains a country where, despite the end of legal segregation in 1994, blacks and whites live mostly separate lives. Cultural expressions -- music, dance, theater, books, food, sports, TV programs, churches -- continue to be seen as either black or white. Despite some progress, the society remains much as the architects of apartheid, which means "separate" in Afrikaans, intended.

"We're still so divided," Mahola said. "It's so scary how much people have absorbed, and how much we don't talk about it. I do think that everybody wants to get together, but they don't know how to do it."

At times, music has provided a way. Johnny Clegg, a white singer and guitarist who pioneered multiracial groups and whose music was banned from the radio, became so engrossed in Zulu culture in the 1970s that, backed by a mostly black band, he often appeared on stage dressed as a tribal warrior. During the 1980s and 1990s, the multiracial band Mango Groove was popular with black and white audiences, though performance venues often were segregated.

What's new about Freshlyground is the apparent ease of their collaboration. For the band members in their twenties, apartheid is a matter for the history books, and playing together has never been an intentionally political act.

The older members, such as bassist Josh Hawks, 35, who faced police harassment while playing in a mixed-race band in the early 1990s, and Peter Cohen, 44, who played with Mango Groove, said they were enjoying the freedom to play, unhindered, for South Africans of all races.

"They want to feel we can live in harmony," Cohen said. "There's a bit of a Kodak moment happening for people."

Freshlyground formed in 2002 as a nameless jam band when keyboardist Aron Turest-Swartz, 26, started playing with a flutist, a violinist and a guitarist. All were white, and the music showed little hint of developing a breakout sound. Then Turest-Swartz saw Mahola, a fellow drama student, in a musical stage performance. Soon after, at a small gig, the still unnamed-band invited her on stage.

"She just took the mike and started improvising," Turest-Swartz recalled. "It was amazing."

Mahola's arrival transformed the band. Most members agree they would never have caught on without her talents and her willingness to sing with white musicians. But Mahola said she always felt natural.

"I get bored with being with the same type of people, eating the same kind of food," she said. "I like to mix things."

Soon the group began looking for a name and asked fans to vote on various possibilities at performances. The winning suggestion, by Turest-Swartz, was inspired by a pepper mill label.

The name has since led some fans to suspect that the mixed nature of the band was a marketing gimmick. But at that point, although Mahola sang half the songs in Xhosa, one of the country's 11 official languages, they were considered a white band that happened to have a black singer.

Then, in 2003, the original guitarist was replaced by Julio Sigauque, 30, a music student from neighboring Mozambique. He increasingly added African licks to the band's songs and gave Freshlyground a new look on stage.

Breakthrough concert
The breakthrough came a year later, when the band began playing concerts in South Africa's black townships -- a development that initially unnerved band co-founder Simon Attwell, 27, who grew up in Zimbabwe.

"At first, I felt very uncomfortable up on stage, a white guy playing the flute in front of a black audience, feeling very white, not quite cool enough," he recalled.

But to the amazement of Attwell and other members, their black fans danced, cheered and even sang along to lyrics they clearly knew. The trick was that Freshlyground finally had a deal with a major label, Sony BMG Africa, and their songs were getting radio play. One catchy tune, "Doo Be Doo," suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Other hits soon followed.

Some of Mahola's lyrics have dark themes about AIDS and struggling families, but the songs are personal, emotionally direct and, frequently, exuberant. They are also only lightly political in a country whose artists often have been consumed by racial struggle.

With Mahola's intimate and often theatrical style on stage, the band seems to be playing music for the fun of it. Occasionally, Freshlyground even plays a frenzied version of Britney Spears's ". . . Baby One More Time," done in the klezmer style of Jewish pop.

"I love them," said Jenny Kriel, 45, a Cape Town city worker, after another concert here. "They're the new craze in Cape Town."

But more often than not, it is a craze still experienced separately. In a single day last month, Freshlyground played before a nearly all-white audience in suburban Johannesburg, then, hours later, to a nearly all-black audience nearby in Soweto. Mixed crowds still happen less often than band members would like.

Yet as Freshlyground's fan base diversifies, its members increasingly long to be viewed beyond the lens of race, purely as musicians. Mahola said she has grown weary of being praised by fans for teaching white people "how to groove."

When one black fan told her that after a recent concert, Mahola said she replied, with a touch of irritation, "We've taught each other how to groove."