South Africa's Top Band Honors Its Roots

This story was written by's Melissa Castellanos
Just Jinjer, the best-selling band in the history of South Africa, will never look at rugby fields the same way again.

Without a touring circuit at the time, the Johannesburg-based band had to transform athletic fields into concert venues, making them not just a place for aggressive rugby players, but a place for thousands of die-hard fans.

"We had to create venues. We would take over the school halls, the rugby fields and athletic fields," said Just Jinjer singer/songwriter Ard Matthews.

The rugged terrain was well worth it in the end.

The South African natives and French native (guitarist Sandy Chila) would later find themselves in massive stadiums opening for music greats like U2, Counting Crows, Def Leppard, Elvis Costello and co-headlining for Hootie and the Blowfish.

"They were great. All of these experiences have been very humbling," Matthews said.

Besides a warm welcome, U2 left the band a pack of Guinness. Counting Crows threw back one too many drinks with them and got rowdy, admits Matthews.

Opening for Def Leppard in Johannesburg was especially memorable for the alternative rock band known for their uplifting music.

"That was our first glimpse of stadium life," he said. "We played to like 50,000 people. I have never heard such a loud sound in my life before. When the lights went out and people started screaming - it was petrifying."

Just Jinjer - made up of Matthews (vocals/ guitar), Brent Harris (drums/vocals), Denholm Harding, (bass/vocals) and Sandy Chila (guitar/keys, vocals) - started out singing cover tunes and drew inspiration from The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, among others.

When Matthews and Harris first crossed paths, Harris needed a singer for the band and Matthews, already a successful solo performer, was the perfect fit.

Harris hailed from the band, Walk This Way, who opened for Paul Simon. He later joined Tri Funk Era - one of Johannesburg's most popular bands, who opened for Joe Cocker.

"While we (Just Jinjer) were predominately a cover band, we were throwing in original songs," Matthews said. "The best thing happened when people started to request our originals more than our covers. It's every band's dream when the crowd starts doing that."

Although alternative rock is not very popular in the predominantly black country, which has 11 dialects, Just Jinjer managed to gain a huge following in what Matthews considers a "tiny market."

They were signed by BMG Africa, which is now called Sony BMG.

"We did our first record not really knowing to expect," Matthews said. "We had no idea... and the first song blew up and within a couple of weeks. It went gold, then platinum and then double-platinum, which is the first time that ever happened in South African rock history."

Just Jinjer ended up with six No. 1 hits and 10 Top-10 hits.

Their first U.S. single, "Can I Have More", was commercially released on April 7, 2009 as part of a three-song digital EP, and the full LP will be the full LP will be out later this year.

After a whirlwind of fame in South Africa, Matthews thought the band should try and make its mark in the U.S., so he took a trip here in 2002. Armed with burned CDs, Just Jinjer was eventually picked up by Curb Records.

"It was always enticing to go abroad, U.S. anyway," he said. "It is always everyone's dream to go to the biggest market in the world."

Although now based in Los Angeles, Just Jinjer has not forgotten their South African roots and admits that their hearts are still in their homeland.

"It was very tough because South Africa is our home, all our family is there, we have no support system outside, in America," Matthews said. "It's where our hearts are. Some of the best memories we have is growing up there. It is a wonderful country that is actually embracing change very well."

A recent election drew the best voter turnout since Nelson Mandela became president after leading the campaign that defeated apartheid in 1994.

Jacob Zuma, a 67-year-old former guerrilla fighter and intelligence chief of the African National Congress, led his ANC party to an overwhelming parliamentary victory in April and was sworn in as president on May 9.

Zuma vowed to Mandela and the nation to revive the spirit of commitment and hope, which thrived during Mandela's reign.

"I thought the turnout was brilliant," Matthews added. "What is exciting and encouraging is that everyone at least feels that they have the right and a part to be able to participate in the future.

"It's not just a one-sided affair. I believe that mindset really exists in South Africa. It's very unique to get through such an ordeal in such a positive way. It's really encouraging."

Just Jinjer has played a part in helping to improve the quality of life in their country, which is plagued by H.I.V/AIDS and unemployment. They've also contributed to the MylifE Foundation, an organization devoted to the rehabilitation of street children and young adults worldwide.

An official member of Nelson Mandela's 46664 AIDS organization, the band performed for Dr. Mandela's 80th birthday bash, where they teamed up with Peter Gabriel, Annie Lennox, Stevie Wonder and Queen.

This week Just Jinjer is shooting the video for their next single,"What He Means," which will be released in mid-June.