Zolani Mahola needs no introduction. Most may know her as the lead vocalist of Freshlyground, a band whose sound, along with Zolani’s voice, has become synonymous with South Africa, going so far as to inspire an entire nation, and the world, during the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Over the years Zolani has received many accolades and traveled the globe but what might surprise you is how down-to-earth, generous and humble-spirited she is. Sarafina Magazine is proud to feature Zolani as our first Music Artist.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I was encouraged by a teacher of mine in school to pursue the arts because I guess she saw something in me. When I was in High School I started doing plays and eistedfords and public speaking and stuff like that. She really thought it would be a good direction for me and she immersed me in all that stuff.
I was so surprised when I was researching for this to discover that you actually stumbled into singing and that it wasn’t planned. I couldn’t believe it.
Yes. I would sing at home and my dad would say, “What’s that noise?” He would be teasing but nobody ever said, “Oh you have such a nice voice.”
So you never had an ‘Aha moment?’
No, not exactly. I wrote poetry and little short stories and stuff and thought “this is pretty cool,” but I never thought that about singing. It was never such a big thing.
You went to UCT to study drama. Did you have your mind set on becoming an actress?
I did, particular a theatre/stage actress. And then one thing led to the other and I met some people…
Was there anything that you worked on while in drama school that you particularly loved or you look back on it and now you just laugh?
The laughing reminds me of a show we took to Grahamstown where I think I was playing a witch or something and we didn’t have very much time to practice in the theatre. I think our first performance there, I misjudged the end of the stage and I fell right off the stage onto the floor but just kind of make it look like it was supposed to happen. Afterwards we laughed about it.
Do you feel like your acting training has transitioned into your music career?
I do. I also just think that in general about life, whatever you experience feeds into whatever you end up doing. Just being aware of the body in the space is a huge help to a singer.
When I was researching for this I wanted to look up the lifespans of some other renowned bands. The Beatles were together for 10 years, The Spice Girls were eight years, Destiny’s Child was also about 10 years and yet Freshlyground is still together 13 years later with no signs of stopping. What is the secret to the longevity?
I think it’s enjoyment. If there is a lack of an element of enjoyment, there is always crap, there are always downsides to being together for such a long time, we rub each other the wrong way or whatever, but if there are enough pros, it’s good. There is enough of a level of enjoyment for us to keep going.
Are you all still…
Inspired by it?
Yes. Do you still find ways to challenge each other and evolve?
I think so. It is such a necessary part of being a musician, that evolution. To evolve. Sometimes I feel like we are stuck in the same place. At the moment we are feeling quite inspired. It goes in phases. It really does. At the moment it is good.
Your sound and particularly your voice has become so synonymous with South Africa. Did you have any idea that this would happen?
No definitely not. We were just going with the flow doing the next thing that felt good and right and the most fun. I personally am very grateful that we are where we are. It’s been amazing to see the world and have all these experiences through doing something that I quite enjoy. I am keenly aware that not everybody gets to do that.
And after all these years do you feel as though there is an element of pressure or expectation?
There are moments when, I don’t know if pressure is the right word, if albums don’t sell or nothing off an album, or very few songs off an album makes it to the radio, that can be very disheartening and that has happened. We have now produced five or six albums and in the majority of South Africa’s mind we only have one or two. That is quite something to come up against because constantly people will be like “How come you haven’t produced another album?” or “What are you guys doing now? Are you not doing music anymore?” That is quite a thing to come up against when all these years we have been producing stuff that we really like that doesn’t necessarily resonate with the general populous. That can be quite disheartening but I think for us the main thing is the live performance and the connection we have with the audience in those performances. We have been very lucky in that we do a lot of gigs so we do get that instant feedback, that drug, that…if we didn’t necessarily go into the music industry looking for, it’s certainly something I really appreciate and love, is that connection with the audience.
I watched your Tedx Talk, where you spoke about the little boy in Harlem jumping up and down.
That was so amazing. It was cool. He was so animated. He was just so fully present and enjoyed it. It was an incredible thing to see. It’s great.
Does that interaction inspire you to keep pushing for the next thing?
Definitely. That makes everything ok. That makes absolutely everything fine.
Reflecting now on your career, if you had one piece of advice for yourself at the beginning of your career what would it be?
I think I would advise myself not to be so careful because I feel like I have to be. Certainly in reference to the band, we never set out to be a rainbow nation band, we sort of got saddled with that title. We were just a bunch of people who got to meet and really enjoyed making music together. Then more and more people started attaching this thing to it which we never fully embraced, but certainly, there is something great about that. That is the thing that we do aspire or, we all as people connect to the idea, that all people are and should be equal but that is not necessarily what we set out to be. I think somewhere along the line, me personally, I feel like I started censoring myself and just started editing the bits that don’t align with a good clean image or might upset. I think I edited myself a lot in interviews, sometimes in songwriting. I would say to my younger self “just be yourself completely.”
I wanted to chat about your experience as a woman in the music industry?
I think it’s generally been pretty good actually. I generally have found people to be open and willing to engage. When I was coming up, so to speak, it was quite a golden age for powerful female vocalists, there was Thandiswa Mazwai, Bongo Maffin, Lebo Mathosa, Boom Shaka ladies, Simphiwe Dana, it was like there were all these strong black vocalists coming to the forefront. I think it was nice to be in that company of strong women.
What have you found to be something that you are most proud of?
Whatever it means to you.
The first thing that comes to mind is my kids. I feel honoured more than proud to have that experience and to want that experience. Not everybody wants that experience of having kids but I really did and I am happy with these two people who have come into my life.
What have you found to be your biggest challenge?
Balance is my biggest challenge. I realise more and more as I grow up how extreme I am. I am too extreme in many things. I am trying to find some moderation in my life with lots of things and just kind of like be happy just being. I struggle to do that. It’s all or nothing a lot of the time and that is very taxing. Balance is my biggest challenge at the moment.
You have done so many interviews and traveled all over the world, what question do you wish you were asked more?
A question that I do get asked in interviews, it’s a question that I really appreciate, this is not exactly answering your question, is the future question. My vision of the future. And it is always in reference to Freshlyground, so “what is next for Freshlyground, what is the map of Freshlyground?” I suppose I wish I was asked what my vision is for me maybe. Because it will help me come up with an idea. Maybe that, what is my vision for me?
What do you want your legacy to be?
I would like my legacy to be one which encourages other people to be themselves through the example of being myself.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Thandiswa Mazwai definitely inspires me. I really was inspired by that one song by Henry Ate. The singer from Henry Ate (Karma-Ann Swanepoel) and the song called “Just” was completely inspiring to me. Just the way that song was written was very unusual and it was unusual to hear that song in the mainstream. Karen Zoid, just as an example as a woman just rocking out. People like that. Oh and Busi Mhlongo. She was just left field. She was just out of nowhere. This notion of a deep traditional sound and just rocking out. Really unapologetically being really amazing.
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