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Zolani Mahola: The One Who Sings

Zolani Mahola, who garnered worldwide acclaim as the lead singer of Freshlyground, has announced that, in 2020, she will focus on her solo career and is currently busy recording her debut album. Using music and storytelling, Mahola will express deeply personal themes of identity and belonging in her solo work. 

Zolani Mahola

Born in Port Elizabeth in 1981, Zolani Mahola studied Theatre and Performance at the University of Cape Town. There, she met musicians with whom she would later form Pan-African, multicultural, multi-genre band Freshlyground in 2002. 
     Through their unifying music, Freshlyground captured the heart of the nation and during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, they claimed massive global recognition, collaborating with Shakira when they recorded the official song for this flagship event, performing to more than a billion people worldwide. Mahola has spent 17 years performing in all corners of the globe with the band, alongside musical icons like Stevie Wonder, Miriam Makeba, BB King, Oliver Mtukudzi and Vusi Mahlasela. 
     ‘It’s been an epic journey, and Freshlyground will always be an integral part of my life story. I’m extremely proud of what our band has achieved and how we were able to unite our country through music and take our unique sound to the world. It may seem like the end of an era, but it’s certainly not goodbye,’ says Mahola. 
     ‘While I am going to be focusing on my solo career next year, fans will still be able to see me performing with Freshlyground until our New Year’s Eve show at Kirstenbosch. Freshlyground is a brand and an entity that is always going to exist. We are always going to be collaborating with each other.’

Zolani Mahola

When Mahola announced her decision to pursue a solo career, she did it through music and storytelling at a venue in Johannesburg. Armed with a guitar, she performed songs from her upcoming album and spoke of her late mother, broken hearts, performing with her idols, and the facade that comes with fame. 
     ‘My mom died when I was 6. My fondest memory of her was colouring in. She taught me to colour in the lines. I felt so safe, like I was infinitely loved. When she died, I struggled to find a new way to colour in the lines. Later, my father remarried and we all know how that story goes, with the wicked stepmom. She passed on a new feeling to me. Suddenly I was unlovable, unworthy and not good enough. I entered the world from this broken place,’ she said. 
     ‘In 2010, I sang the official World Cup song with Shakira. I enjoyed being part of that pride and spirit of Ubuntu and I enjoyed the fame. But when the applause stopped, none of it seemed to matter and none of it made me feel good enough because I still carried that story of feeling worthless and unlovable. That’s when I went on a journey to create a new story.’
     Mahola explained that with the birth of her first child, six years ago, she began to question whether she was living the example she wanted to be for her son. She began a journey of self-discovery, working with therapists to fix unhealthy thought patterns. 

Zolani Mahola

‘Going on that inward journey has led me to this point where I feel I need to share my story for the benefit of others. To explore my individual voice apart from the collective. Being in the band has been such a wonderful teacher for me, but now I feel the need to hear my own voice, or to express my own voice in a way that maybe is not fitting to Freshlyground,’ she said.
     Mahola is currently recording her debut solo material with Grammy-nominated producer JB Arthur who, together with acclaimed bass player Victor Sibusiso Masondo, produced Freshlyground’s biggest selling album to date. Deeply rooted in folk traditions, her new musical style is as rich as it is diverse. Expect a culture clash of Xhosa-folk meets acoustic Americana with the burning grit of indie rock. Her latest creation uses a blend of musical storytelling to produce a sound that, at once, feels new and fresh, while also seeming familiar and ageless.
     ‘I’ve been writing music on guitar for many years but people don’t know me as a guitarist. I am introducing Zolani the instrumentalist with my acoustic guitar. This is my unique, individual voice – it sounds like me,’ she says. 
     Not only is Mahola launching a new music career, but as a trained actress who has appeared on numerous stages as well as on the big and small screen, she will also be producing theatre, giving motivational talks and conducting workshops across corporate and community spaces.
     As part of her solo work, Mahola has staged a tribute show to Ella Fitzgerald (2004). She is recognised for her lead role as Boniswa in the inspirational SABC drama series Tsha Tsha (2003 – 2005) and her starring role in the feature film Cold Harbour (2014). She has been a judge on the a cappella show The Sing-Off (2009) and guest judge on Idols (2010) and The Voice (2016), encouraging uniqueness and a good work ethic in the contestants. In 2017, she sang the lead in a new South African musical Calling Me Home at Joburg Theatre, and recently collaborated with Zip Zap Circus School, for whom she is an ambassador and board member, and the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra at Joburg Theatre in the boundary-breaking production Journey Beyond (2019). 

In November 2019, she performed her new solo show The One Who Sings (a nickname for Mahola, from the Xhosa Lo Uculayo) at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, sharing her story and music in an honest, raw and engaging way. Watch a behind-the-scenes video of The One Who Sings by scanning the QR code on this page. 
     ‘While we are all connected and have so much in common, our experiences of the world are all unique and our individual stories must be acknowledged.
     ‘The focus of my work will be to encourage others to investigate their own histories and present in the face of the collective story – my story… our story,’ concludes Mahola.

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