Interview: Mango Groove

Mango Groove is a household name. No-one grows up in South Africa without hearing the famous “Special Star” or the iconic “Penny Whistle”. They are what we could call legends in South African music and we have seen them make a bit of a comeback this year after performing at Splashy Fen. We caught up with them ahead of their performance at Emmerentia Live on 9 August. We spoke about existing as a multi-racial band in the ’80s, their connection to Nelson Mandela, the new SABC quota system, and their forthcoming yet-to-be-announced album.

Mango Groove came into existence at a very interesting time. Apartheid was practically in its final stages yet the National Party’s policies of segregation were in full swing in the early 1980s. Considering the varied ethnic groups within the band, was it difficult to perform live especially since most bands tend to start in the club scene?

 Interesting times indeed! All non-racial acts at the time faced many challenges: travel, security, venues, accommodation… many interesting tales to tell, but I believe we were all stronger for these experiences.

 A lot of people seem to forget that the Apartheid government tried very hard to censor the music scene that was growing out of the various liberal international influences seeping into the country. What was the music scene like back there?

 For all the censorship and hardship, the SA music scene of the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s was incredibly vibrant: huge festivals, massive-selling artists, and enormous talent.  I do believe that in many ways music played a very important role in shaping (and changing) peoples’ perceptions, and in fact bringing South Africans together. Some of SA’s most iconic and timeless artists came out of that time (Brenda Fassie, Lucky Dube, Johnny Clegg, The Soul Brothers,  Stimela, Hotline). It was a time when  SA artists ‘’looked inwards’’ for their inspiration and influences, and the result was something magical, eclectic and uniquely South African.

 I’m guessing it was a difficult time to be a band of any genre that didn’t fit into the National Party’s strict requirements. How did artists and bands circumvent the various attempts at censorship?

 I would say that already by the ‘80’s, and for all the terrible conflicts and hardship of the time, the government of the day was already losing its grip to a degree, and we were seeing the crystallisation of a broad social, political and cultural movement that pushed the agenda of transformation and the vision of a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and non-discriminatory South Africa. As artists, one hopefully became part of this broader vision. Again, South African music was very much a ‘’soundtrack’’ to that broader process, and many brave artists were part of it.

 Looking back at the band’s career and your success, do you think that starting the band at that precise time played a large role in paving your way to success? Especially when you consider that Mango Groove, in the transition from Apartheid to Democracy, became a major symbol of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation.

 I think that any artist is to an extent a product of their historical circumstances: they are influenced by them, it shapes their art, and to a degree they reflect those circumstances in their music and ethos. We simply did what we did as young artists, we expressed ourselves with honesty, and to the extent that we were even a tiny part of a much more significant transition in our country’s history, we feel extraordinarily grateful for this.

 Mango Groove had a rather close relationship with Nelson Mandela or at least as a close a relationship as a band could have to Mandela. How were you affected by his recent passing?

 Our specific associations with Nelson Mandela related firstly to our music being used as the soundtrack to the worldwide broadcast of his release from prison, and secondly to us being part of SA’s first democratic inauguration concert: massive honours for us. Like many SA artists, we hope he was touched by our music. His passing was a massive loss to all South Africans, and in fact to all citizens of the world. His death was the end of an era in so many ways. Our personal, musical response to his passing is reflected best in a (currently unreleased) song we wrote a while a called “The Road’’.

 Your career has spanned a whopping 3 decades and in these 3 decades, you’ve managed to remain a household name even though the new tastemakers in music have entirely views on what qualifies as good music than they did back in the 90s. Are you surprised by how you’ve continued to stay so successful, or is it an indication of just how ferociously South Africans support their local artists when they are aware of their existence?

 We have had amazing public and media support through the decades, and we will always be very grateful for this. More specifically, we are both surprised and incredibly touched (and humbled) by the extent to which young South Africans know our music today. Our most memorable concerts to date, in fact, have been to younger audiences at festivals like Oppikoppi, Park Acoustics, Splashy Fen, and so forth. I would like to think that Mango Groove’s longevity resided in those things about music that will always move all of us… the songs, the memories, the associations, and (we hope) a relevance for our ongoing journey as South  Africans today. Our live show has also always been incredibly important to us: a chaotic thrash if ever there was one, and hopefully people take in this energy as well!

 In the past month, we have seen the music industry undergo a metamorphosis of sorts as the SABC announced their new 90% local quota. What are your thoughts on this decision? Do you think it can succeed?

 A tough call, I guess. The use of the term ‘’local’’ over ‘’South African’’ has always been a bit of rub to us, truth be told, as it still sounds so condescending, but this is maybe a different debate. It will be interesting to see how the quota plays out, and good SA music certainly deserves as much support as it can get, but hopefully (and in time) these sorts of mechanisms won’t be totally necessary, and the best SA stuff will simply get the play because it deserves it and the demand is there. The Nigerian example was an interesting one in this regard. We are of course very much a part of the global music community now, so equally we want to thrive and compete in this way. Eclecticism is such an important part of the music, after all. However, there is a tricky balance between “looking after your own” and “isolationism”, and I think we’re still figuring out where this balance lies.

 You played at Splashy Fen this year. What this experience like and would you like to do it again?

 Splashy Fen was insane! A truly humbling experience for us: an amazing, young, inspired crowd, and at times we couldn’t hear ourselves on stage because everyone sang all our songs back at us! We were honoured to be part of it.

 On the note of performances, you’re set to perform at Emmarentia Live on National Women’s Day. Is this a rather special day for you considering that Mango Groove plays host to one of South Africa’s most iconic women?

 Thank you for the compliment: way too kind. The old cliché that every day should be women’s day, perhaps, but of course it is a very special day indeed for the issues to which it draws attention. Women’s issues and the enormous challenges women face globally have always been central to our broader ethos of equality, freedom from abuse, freedom to choose, and equal access for all people of the world.

 Furthermore, we live in a day and age where women and their rights are being fought for more strongly than ever before especially with the recent rise in violence towards women. What are your thoughts on how feminist movements are opposing how society seems to treat women?

We welcome and wholeheartedly support any initiative that seeks to counter the appalling abuse that women suffer globally and that seeks to free women to make their own choices and live the lives they want to live.

 Finally, your last album was released in 2010. Could we see a new album being released in the next couple of years?

 You must be psychic! 2016 sees the release of an all-new Mango Groove album (a double album, nogal!).  The album has been over 4 years in the making, and it features a combination of all-new Mango material as well as our own, personal celebration of the SA songs that have touched us and influenced us through the years. Watch this space!


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