Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Freshlyground in Chicago

Xolani Mahola
The refrain of Shakira's “Waka Waka - This Time For Africa” may have become the musical icon of South Africa's 2010 World Cup, but it was the buoyant joyous energy of featured South African band Freshlyground that moved that tune into territory beyond a lightweight sports event anthem.

Freshlyground performed June 30th in Chicago as part of the city’s renowned “Music Without Borders” outdoor concert series at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millenium Park. We reveled in a lovely summer evening accompanied by the sounds of these seven musicians hailing from Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique, with lead singer Xolani Mahola's soaring vocals in English and Xhola weaving in and out of a textured, effervescent pop.

Simon Attwell & Josh Hawks
A few days before the concert, violinist Kyla Smith and I conversed by phone about the origins of the joyous force behind the group’s sound. The group’s name, she explained, came about because their music is "fresh, organic, from the ground, from our land.”

Their melodies resonate with the wide variety of sounds that reflects the musical backgrounds of the different members. As Smith explained, "we love Stevie Wonder, there’s an old school pop sensibility among the seven of us, also a bit of a folk music interest, a little of everything." However, South Africa is always present in their compositions. Smith gives me an example of to me how they incorporate for example, elements of maskanda, a style of South African music particular to Zulu culture by allowing the violin to imitate the sounds that the guitar resulting in what Smith called a "weird hybrid Irish fiddling."

One of the things that had struck me about their music was the relentlessly positive energy it shares, and I wonder if this is a conscious decision on the group’s part. Smith responds that it reflects the group and their land’s spirit: "we are optimistic and it’s good to spread a little bit of love and optimism though music. A lot of the opposite is done the world over, it’s refreshing and it’s great to bring that positivity to the audience."

I admit that listening to their recorded songs, I sometimes yearned for just a bit more edginess and gravitas. However, last week as the undulating aluminum walls of the Pritzker Pavilion turned colors to match Chicago’s dusk, everything in the world felt just right and Freshlyground’s bubbly South African pop matched that feeling perfectly.
Kyla Smith




Report by Catalina Maria Johnson
Photos by Phil Onofrio

Heads up, NYC, Freshlyground is coming your way, performing at SOB’s July 6!
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