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Thursday June 23, 2011


Last February, the then-modestly successful South African band Freshly Ground was in New York putting the finishing touches on what was to become their fourth CD, "Radio Africa," when a serendipitous moment changed the course of their musical careers.

As luck would have it, Shakira’s producer John Hill was nearby tinkering with a tune titled "Waka Waka."

Knowing little about the Afro-fusion seven-piece band, he happened upon them and asked if they had any ideas to add to the song.

Hill walked away and let Freshly Ground put their own stamp on the tune and returned several hours later to listen to what they had come up with.

After the band played Hill the material they recorded, he showed little reaction but said, "You’ll be hearing from me." The band never did ... until a few weeks before the beginning of the South Africa World Cup when the band received a seemingly innocuous e-mail from Sony Music Entertainment informing them that, not only had the track made the World Cup Official album, it was also the official theme song of the tournament.

Of course, "Waka Waka" turned into an international mega-hit selling well over 3 million units. Just a year ago, Freshly Ground found themselves onstage alongside Shakira performing the most successful anthem in the history of The World Cup. Their show was broadcast to a world-wide audience of over one billion.

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Last week, as the band rested back home in South Africa before heading for a U.S. tour that will launch at The Iron Horse this Friday, I caught up with Freshly Ground’s diminutive lead singer Zolani Mahola, and asked her to reflect on "Waka Waka."

"Very interesting indeed! We met up with Shakira’s producer and he played us the ‘Waka Waka’ song -- which we loved -- and asked us to mess around with it and come up with some parts. We wrote a bridge and added some Southern African elements to the song and a few months later heard that we were on what was to become the biggest World Cup song in history! Pretty awesome."

Lost in all the World Cup hype is "Radio Africa," which got the ball rolling, so to speak. It is a musically eclectic record that Mahola sees as both sharpening and broadening of Freshly Ground’s approach.

"We have always been a bit schizo in terms of musical genres -- not commercial enough to be a strictly pop band and not rootsy enough to be a world music outfit. We haven’t tried to straddle either one of those genres and have instead just produced the music that came to us. With ‘Radio Africa,’ we really wanted to get deeper into the spirit of Afro within the Afro-pop style."

Freshly Ground had some fun making use of instruments that are indigenous to their homeland. "We rather inexpertly played these instruments ourselves in the studio," recalled Mahola. "One night we were in hysterics, all blowing into a number of kudu (a kind of antelope) horns in the studio for a track called ‘Working Class.’ We could hardly get through a take because someone would start cracking up at the ludicrousness of a largely pale native group of people trying to get a good sound out of a smelly, twisted knot of bony keratin."

Last June, billions got a glimpse of the group’s highly energetic live show. Today, Mahola and her mates are just as happy to play in front of 100 or so. "Playing live is where it’s at, especially in a more intimate kind of venue because it’s really where you get to connect with your audience and that is really what it’s all about at the end of the day. Making the connection."

Dave Madeloni writes a weekly music column for Ovation. He can be reached at