With just over three decades in the music industry, South African afro-pop band Mango Groove is still at it – giving fans more music and live performance experiences like no other.
The 11-piece band is one of the music acts on the Jameson Vic Falls Carnival line-up for 2015.
Mango Groove will share the stage with GoodLuck, Mokoomba, MonArk, Judgement Yard, Ryan Koriya and many more. This annual Victoria Falls three-day music festival is set in one of Zimbabwe’s tourism gems; a world heritage site.
The town begins to bustle during this time of the year, with tourists and locals coming together to party up a storm. The 2014 carnival programme featured a colour festival and a party on a steam train. This year there’ll be a second train party that will journey through the Victoria Falls National Park to a “secret” location in the bushes. Festival regular and renowned Zimbabwean DJ Francis will play a set on the steam train.
“When we started the festival we wanted to bring southern Africa together in one place,” DJ Francis told the Mail & Guardian after performing his set at the 2014 Vic Falls Carnival. “I must say thank you very much to the South Africans. 70% of all the people who have been supporting us as international artists are from South Africa. But I’d also like to see a production where we have DJs from Angola, Botswana, Namibia and all over the southern region performing.”
The carnival crowd is a mixture of various age groups and a combination of old and new school music, that varies from afro jazz to EDM. The 2014 headlining acts, DJ duo Goldfish and music legend Oliver Mtukudzi, gave a memorable performance and had the audiences dancing non-stop, even in the pouring rain.
Mango Groove is this year’s “old-school” headliner, a gig which the band is excited about. The band, which has been around since the 1980s, is known for it’s unique sound that fuses kwela, marabi and pop together. It’s renowned for being one of the music acts that consisted of a multi-ethnic collective of musicians. Even though it was faced with challenges that included being denied access to certain spaces due to apartheid laws that enforced racial segregation, Mango Groove continued producing anthems and performing for fans.
So far they’ve released five studio albums, with their previous release, Bang the Drum. dating back to 2009. The Mail & Guardian spoke to the band’s founding member John Leyden ahead of their performance in Victoria Falls.
Mango Groove has been around for over 30 years. What would you say is the band’s biggest achievement or highlight?
Certain things come to mind. We were ecstatic to be a part of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration concert in 1994 – the first South African democratic inauguration concert, where there were hundred thousand people on the lawn. That was very memorable moment; as well as being a part of the broadcast of Mandela’s release from prison, the music link to that. Our performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1992 [where they received three encores] is also a highlight.
There are so many moments– I feel so lucky that we can say that.
Those events where you feel like you are a tiny tiny part of a broader social and historical process are the ones that meant the most to us.
How has the band changed over the years?
There are members of Mango going right back to the 1980s. We’ve lost members over the years. When we started some members were 65 years old, so of course the line-up has changed over the years.
What would you say keeps the band going?
We have never stopped performing but we are very selective of the shows we do. There is a danger of that in the South African market – that is very small – you can overstay your welcome. So we tend to perform at two shows in a year. The essence of Mango Groove is what the live show is. It’s very much about the live music and the live experience. In a way the whole market has changed now. There is much more emphasises on that [live performance] than the recorded product. I think that changed suited us fine.
What do you think of the quality of live performances in South Africa?
I have seen some great live acts. There is a lot of great stuff out there. I think there is a move back towards a proper live experience and not just a backtrack approach. People want to see and experience human contact.
It still depresses me slightly that there is an obvious gulf being made – a gap between so called international artists and South African artists and I think it’s possibly being reinforced by the public. The word “local” is one I absolutely cannot stand.
What do you think creates the gap between “local” and international music acts?
I don’t know what it is. I think it’s a historical legacy. Maybe it’s a byproduct of South Africans having a mix of high and low self-esteem and the belief that if it’s from overseas it’s somehow better or more exotic. We are, however, a part of the world market and other artists are huge. There is a globalisation thing going on and I take that point. But I still think the gap could close because it’s a perception problem. To me there is still a slight condensation and I hope we are moving away from that.
You have performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival and Oppikoppi. How would you say your audience has changed over the years?
Mango Groove is very fortunate to be able to reach a very wide audience/demographic reach of crowds. We get a universal response from audiences. Everyone does seem to know our stuff, but it varies. We are fortunate in that way, that we can play to a wide reach of South Africans that may identify with us in different ways. Depressingly, though, the music market is still relatively segmented.
There is often a long wait between your albums releases. Why is that?
We don’t churn out albums. Mango is a lot of people and we have different creative projects that we’ve done over the years. For instance Claire [lead singer] did her solo project as well. We’d have long hiatuses, but Mango has never stopped going. At the moment we are now about to release again after six years. We have a full-blown album release next year in March.
Has your sound on the new album changed at all?
No, we don’t to get to a point where we have to funk ourselves up. The Mango sound is very distinctive – it is a blend of contemporary pop and 1950s urban South African music style and in a way we won’t move away from that, simply because it’s what we do and what we love. But at the same time you do have that pressure on you. It’s dangerous to think “ok we are going to funk ourselves up; we are going to bring in a rapper on this”. There is a danger of sounding sad if you try too hard. Our biggest strength is that Mango Groove sounds like Mango Groove. It’s about striking a balance between remaining contemporary and staying true to your roots.
Do you collaborate with other artists on your upcoming album?
The new album features collaborations. We are showcasing great South African songs as well. Zolani Mahola is performing on one song and we also feature Rebecca Malope, Vusi Mahlasela and Juanita du Plessis. It’s an interesting project. We have been in studio on and off for the past four years.
What else do you hope to achieve as a band?
The Mango Groove catalogue is a strong one. We are looking at various things in relation to how best to move that catalogue forward. We want to keep recording and performing for as long as we feel people want to see and hear us. We have basic productions coming up and we are recording completely original projects over and above what we are doing at the moment. We are also working on big stage productions. We’d like to move into musical theatre and movies. We are looking at those avenues.
Mango Groove will perform at the Jameson Vic Falls Carnival which takes place on December 29-31.