A Nation Divided, but Under a Groove

Freshlyground's flutist Simon Attwell, bassist Josh Hawks and singer Zolani Mahola performing in Cape Town.
Freshlyground's flutist Simon Attwell, bassist Josh Hawks and singer Zolani Mahola performing in Cape Town. (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

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By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 30, 2005

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- 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.

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.


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