Headlining the 2014 Barefeet Festival (Revolution), Freshly Ground inspired awe in an intimate performance that the audience will never forget. This is a short account of one writer’s experience with the band that day.
I sat in the hotel lobby waiting for them to arrive and was beginning to get a little nervous. Banks, hotels and all sorts of fancy places make me uncomfortable. A waitress walked up to me, as if smelling my discomfort and anxiety.
“Can I get you anything?”
“Could I please have some coffee?” I said. When the coffee came, I began to do a little math in my head, worried about how many cups I’d have to drink before the band arrived and how much premium the Intercontinental added to the price of their coffee.
Zolani walked through the entrance near the reception when I was halfway through my brew. I could see her not too far away from me. I crossed my legs and tried to be cool. She walked in the opposite direction, bidding the other band members later. Barefeet Theatre’s Adam McGuigan and Kyla walked in with another lady I didn’t recognise. She and Adam came towards me while Kyla followed Zolani. I was still trying my best to be cool. The other lady was Kerry, the band’s manager. We shook hands and she led me to where I’d interview Freshly Ground.
With six albums under their belt, South Africa’s Freshly Ground have established themselves as one of the most original bands on the continent. Their distinctive sound has taken them around the world and even bagged them a FIFA World Cup theme song. This time their travels had brought them to Zambia for the 2014 Barefeet Festival, a performance arts spectacle using music and theatre to raise money for vulnerable children.
When I walked into the Savannah Restaurant of the hotel, not all the band members were present. Kerry told me Zolani, their lead vocalist went back to sleep because they had to be up pretty early that morning to make a radio appearance. Peter, the band’s drummer and Keith, their sound engineer were the only ones at breakfast.
Peter reminded me of a middle aged action hero, a Max Payne that played in a band instead of taking the law into his own hands. He wore a pair of beat up Converse canvas, a plain green t-shirt and sported the type of grey speckled stubble I associated with most badasses.
Freshly Ground’s sound isn’t badass, but they do have elements of going against the norm and taking names musically. They refuse to be put in a box and conform.
“We have a very eclectic sound,” Peter said. We have varied musical backgrounds, from Bob Marley through to the Beatles,” You can hear some of their influences more than others. Their sound is still predominantly African, with melodious flutes and even the mbira punctuating their songs.
The band was the perfect choice for the 2010 FIFA World Cup official song with Columbian pop sensation, Shakira. The two collaborated to recreate Cameroonian band, Golden Sounds’ song, Zangalewa for a new generation and announced that it was time for Africa.
“We were in New York, mixing Radio Africa and a guy downstairs approached us after he’d heard our music,” Peter said about the collaboration. It turned out the guy was from Shakira’s management. Peter said the band didn’t actually meet Shakira until much later. Each music house would send mixes and recordings back and forth to create the song. Though the meeting only came later, the chemistry was undeniable.
The chemistry of the band itself is also something that’s undeniable. They don’t all originally hail from South Africa, but fate and a love for good music brought them together. Julio, their lead guitarist is from Mozambique.
He joined Peter for breakfast and spoke a little about why they agreed to be part of the 2014 Barefeet Festival, Revolution.
“Most of these kids are talented. I think music is a very powerful tool for voicing out issues,” he said. He believes in initiatives that teach people how to fend for themselves or learn new skills. His opinion was that initiatives like Barefeet should maybe expand all over the continent.
The band has seen many parts of the continent, but Julio said his favourite gig had to be one at Kirstenbosch Gardens (Keith, the sound man, had to tear his face from his iPhone to spell this out for me. He had been present the entire time, but seemed to be into whatever his screen was beaming). The show had over 10,000 people and was over capacity.
“There were people hanging in the trees,” said Julio smiling as he reminisced. He had a fruit salad on his plate and cocked his food to one cheek as he talked to me in his Portuguese tinged accent. He was really friendly when he spoke.
Freshly Ground were one of the first African Acts to be awarded by MTV. The band won the award for Best African Act in the 2006 MTV Europe Music Awards. Still, the band members remain — excuse the pun — grounded.
“I don’t do interviews during breakfast,” (perhaps I was wrong), “No, I’m just kidding!” (I was right after all). Josh plays bass guitar and does some backing vocals too. Despite his joke, he was the wordiest of the band. He shared Julio’s sentiments on what they were bringing to the festival. “Music has the universal power to cross boundaries, religion and race,” He also spoke about the band’s process for creating their art. “We used to just get in a room and play music together. Zo writes some of the music too,”
Josh was very methodical as he cut through his breakfast. His fork and knife clinked on his plate in unison with the rest of the hotel guests in the open air restaurant. Kyla, their violinist and backing vocalist joined the guys for breakfast right before I left. I was really looking forward to their show that night.
When Zolani came on stage, the rest of the band had already gotten the crowd ready with a little instrumentation. Big Simon opened with their signature flutes and Shaggy’s fingers danced giddily on the keyboard. It was all very surreal and the audience was loving it all, taking every note and chorus in joyfully and stretching their arms out to the stage. It truly was a memorable performance.
As soon as the band’s performance was done, I snuck backstage to seek out Zolani. I could hear and see a security guard in my peripheral trying to stop me, but I ignored him and sidled on.
She was sitting on the grass behind the stage and chatting with Kerry. I introduced myself, sat down next to her and asked her about building band chemistry.
“Because we do a lot of shows together, we do a lot of travelling; a lot of eating together,” she chuckled. Their stage craft had been perfected over the years and they all seemed like best friends. At one point during the performance, Zolani and Kyla danced until they laughed and just toppled over.
With all the immediacy of the internet and the goldfish attention spans that humanity has developed, it can be hard for bands like Freshly Ground to stay relevant when they don’t churn out pop records every other week. Zolani said that sort of thing is always on her mind. The M.C of the show had introduced the band with their hit song Doo Be Doo from 2004’s Nomvula.
“If Zambians still [only] know us for that song,” Zo asked, “then are we still remaining relevant?” It didn’t seem to faze her much though. She was confident in the band’s sound and their ability. (Freshly Ground’s newest offering is called Don’t leave me.) With over 10 years in the music business, a number of awards and global tours, they still remain grounded.
For more about on the 2015 Barefeet Festival visit their Facebook page and read more about Barefeet Theatre.
Benny has perfected backstage wandering and intruding celebrity breakfasts. Follow @Benny_blow. Read bennyblow.blogspot.com
This article originally appeared in Issue Twelve of Proflight Zambia’s Nkwazi Magazine (Nov/Dec 2014)