Freshlyground have staked out unique territory on the South African music landscape. A multi-racial pop band that filters traditional and local musical ideas through savvy, often quirky, international pop and rock production, the band is a true reflection of contemporary South Africa, a place of inherent contradictions. The band formed in Cape Town in 2002, with members from South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, and from the start followed their own path, avoiding the limitations of established genres. Their fourth release Radio Africa (2010) raised their international profile and led to US touring. Along the way, the band hooked up with producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos fame. Berlin traveled to South Africa and went into the studio with them to create Take Me To The Dance. The album marks a decade of hard work for the band, and reflects an urge to try new formulas, lest they become, as lead vocalist Zolani Mahola put it, “dinosaurs.”
The result is impressive diversity, 14 tracks amounting to a collage of muscular club grooves and indie rock ballads with flavors of Zulu guitar pop, Xhosa, English, and Afrikaans vocals, and even a dash of Congolese guitar slipped into the midst of an otherwise middle-of-the-road pop song, “Not Too Late For Love.” Without a doubt, the group’s strongest asset is Mahola’s stylish and charismatic vocal. Hers is a voice made for pop. It can coo and growl, croon and belt, while always maintaining an effortless, liquid quality.
The opener “Chain Gang,” was born form a riff the group’s Zimbabwean flute/sax man Simon Attwell picked out on guitar, and then worked up over electronic beats—a new approach for the band. Gentle but muscular, the song has a deep swing and dreamy ambiance in which layered vocals, rock guitar, and a cycling marimba-like keyboard riff intermingle. At one point, the band drops out and we get a few bars of harmonized fiddles, one of many sudden, sharp contrasts on this album. All these elements swirl together at the end, another trademark of this session—the over-the-top blowout coda.
The most club friendly tracks—like the coy, disco-tinged title track and the brassy, sassy “Shake it (Just Like You Wanna)”—are unapologetically commercial. But there’s no way to pigeonhole this album. “Everything” is a sweet, intimate ballad with overtones of Zulu maskanda guitar picking, and a seductive vocal from Mahola. “The Message” is a rocking number that updates Johnny Clegg’s socially engaged, multi-lingual song formula. It departs from the personal romantic lyrics heard elsewhere to offer a word of encouragement to “people living under the bridges” and “mothers on their knees.” The song takes the pulse of South Africa two decades beyond its liberation, acknowledging shortcomings, but clinging fiercely to optimism and hope.