Mzansi Unitedby Roger Young / Images by Sydelle Willow Smith / 14.12.2011
It didn’t seem like anything was happening at the Gugulethu Sports Complex, the parking lot was strangely empty. But there was something happening, Freshlyground had come to the end of a nationwide tour celebrating a career of ten years; 28 gigs, 6 of which were free, including this one. And while people trickled in through the pedestrian gate around the back, past the many security guards, cars, it seems, because of some obscure by-law, were not allowed to park inside the complex during events. But it doesn’t look like the event has been marketed to car owners, with most of the people walking up to the sports hall being around high school age.
Freshlyground rose to prominence at the tail end of Simunye fever. Advertisers were constantly trying to convince us to move around in correctly racially proportionate groups. To this day Simunye guilt stills hits when people realize that they are in a room full of people comprised of only one race group. And, expert pop aside, Freshlyground’s Zolani likes to make a point of stressing the rainbow nation makeup of the band. They are, of course, from all different parts of the country, of all different races and minorities. They work together harmoniously and joyfully, a big bright positive pop machine. One must remember that pop doesn’t always have to be good music; it’s a confluence of cultural conditions and situations on top of the music. There are a thousand catchy songs splintered along the wayside. Pop has to capture a moment, not only through songs, but also through the image of the band itself. Freshlyground would never have got anywhere without their sparkling and genius pop songs, but they certainly got further because they were the perfect Simunye package. Is Freshlyground to blame that they are seen this way? They did not, after all, set out to become a Simunye band, even if they did not discourage the packaging.
The hall itself is half empty. As the gig is free no alcohol is being sold but, nevertheless, there are about thirty policemen standing in a line at the back, and more on the balcony by the lighting rig, it has a strange effect, a portent to violence when none seems possible. The people who are on the basketball court are pressed tightly and close to the stage, and mostly teenagers; presumably those are their parents sitting in the stands, dressed up like it’s a church social. Interspersed among them are small clots of white people in Birkenstocks, if there was ever a signpost for German Tourist this is it; Birkenstocks at a Freshlyground gig in Gugs, no white South African would come out here, when the chances of FG playing on a wine farm near them soon are practically guaranteed.
It’s evident from the start that FG are in tour mode, the band seem weary, the only energy coming from the first few rows of the crowd. When Zolani and Kyla (perpetually dressed as if she’s just starting first year, in 1997) break into a coordinated dance move, it feels, planned, rehearsed, and a little forced, like Freshlyground: The Musical. But after 28 gigs in just on a month, this is bound to happen. The moment they play “Pot Belly”, however, the kids go wild, every chubby girl squeezed into an improbable dress presses forward, the boys for the most part getting out of their way, while through the hall drifts an almost choral, low key, sing along. A young girl in a stretched tube of denim, does the bum shake in slow motion while rubbing her stomach, truly into it. When “Dooby Do” comes around (and however much you hate them for writing this song remember this, FG have to perform it at every gig, they have, you see, been punished enough) Zolani, obviously the actual dynamo of the band, hardly has to sing the chorus, the crowd takes over, but FG know this and they drop the music so the audience can fill in the gaps. “Dooby Do” is the quintessential Simunye song, it’s catchy, it’s meaningless, and no one needs to understand anyone else’s language to be able to sing it. The Gugs Sports Center laps it up; even the parents are coming down from the stands now, doing a form of creaky air punch to the “waaaayay” bits. There is a warm homely feeling in the air, almost nostalgic but very much in the moment.
“Chicken to Change”, the upbeat political-lite, Zimbabwe song, has the hall breaking out in celebration, the song itself an almost parody of the Freshlyground sound, one big part Mango Groove, one tiny part African Footprint, as performed by children on a sugar rush. It’s the mix of the faintest whiff of once removed political expression with that big band afro sound that shows the deft hand of the Freshlyground pop machine. Had this been a song about a local politician, no-one would be dancing. It’s the idea of political awareness without any of the risk. But it’s still a flashy number and all over the hall, small dance offs bust out, girls in tights and flared minis are being latined around by boys in skinnies with a hint of bedazzling. All the moment needs is streamers to fall from the sky, through the pastel lights.
Zolani dedicates “Things Have Changed” to MaBusi and her voice goes to a different place, away from pop becoming more rootsy. Halfway to the back of the hall a large circle of spontaneous dance breaks out, almost at the same time as the band breaks out into a semi congo line that looks planned, but feels for the first time, genuine. It could just be the feedback from the crowd that has inspired this, the raw joy of a bunch of kids who have finally forgotten the eyes of the cops, their parents, and have let their need to dance take over. The German tourists jiggle on the sidelines, tentatively trying out the moves. Finally I relent to Freshlyground, the cynicism is stripped from my eyes. I’ve always known they were a good pop band based on their successes but now I understand why, they harness rhythms and wrangle them to a middle ground where everyone can dance. A further rush of fuzzy warmth hits me when Zolani announces the competition winner and invites the local girl up to sing a song with her. The whole affair is overridingly nice.
For the encore they break out “Waka Waka”, and I remember what Freshlyground have become, Shakira’s backup band. “Pot Belly”, “I Like”, and “Dooby Do” are their early material; even “Things Have Changed” is from 2004. The most recent album’s most memorable track is the Zimbabwe song. Watching Freshlyground now is watching a relic from another time, a time when talking about unity didn’t point to how un-unified we are. The mood on the ground is different, younger bands are talking about the darkness of our times and, because they highlight the positive, Freshlyground find themselves becoming increasingly irrelevant. Pop music is the confluence of good songs that also express perfectly the cultural moment, neither of which FG have had or done for a while. While playing their old hits to school kids and inspiring German tourists to try dance like Zolani might be fun, it won’t be enough to regain their hold on the public imagination.
*All images © Sydelle Willow Smith