SOUNDTRACK FOR A NEW & BETTER AGE: Johnny Clegg

Arguably South Africa’s greatest export ever, the Juluka / Savuka bandleader, and solo artist of equal acclaim, passed away a month ago this week. Journalist and longtime Clegg fan James Tighe offers this analysis and appreciation of the musical giant. (Above photo: courtesy Wikipedia)

BY JAMES TIGHE

It came out of the blue. The BBC radio announcement just before midnight on Tuesday, the 16th of July, that South African musician Johnny Clegg had died earlier in the day. Pancreatic cancer. He was 66-years-old. The news hit me hard. I didn’t know he had been diagnosed with the disease in 2015.

I first heard Johnny Clegg’s music during a three month stay on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1989. It seemed like everybody on the island was listening to him. As it happened, he played his final scheduled tour date there in October 2018.

Mauritius, being situated 500 miles east of Madagascar, is a member of several pan-African political and trade organizations. It has a sizable population of black citizens, Creoles, of east African origin, descendants of slaves imported to work the sugar cane fields by a succession of colonial powers, Dutch, French, English. These Mauritians, in particular, were ready-made Clegg fans.

The story of Johnny Clegg’s introduction to southern Africa’s Zulu culture and his lifelong identification with it has often been recounted. Born in England, he moved with his divorced mother to Zimbabwe at a very early age, then at the age of 6 to South Africa. Growing up in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, as the story has it, he met a street musician, a guitar player, who happened to be a member of the Zulu nation. The black street musician took the young white boy under his wing, introducing him to traditional Zulu music, dance, the larger culture.

The boy became enamored with all things Zulu, picking up the maskandi guitar and concertina accordion. He eventually became fluent in the language, mastered the male dance traditions, and becoming in the process something of an honorary member of the Zulu nation, if not an actual one.

His first musical incarnation consisted of assembling a mixed-race South African band, Juluka, releasing their first album in 1979. His partner-in-crime was the guitarist Sipho Mchunu, a Zulu migrant worker he met when he was 17. The songs were a mix of traditional Zulu music and rock-n-roll, with both English and Zulu lyrics.

Much of Clegg’s music is characterized by a chorus of deep male harmony vocals that help give the songs their power. Because the band was integrated, Juluka’s very existence was illegal, and the band members were arrested several times and their concerts broken up. At the time Clegg said that Juluka wasn’t founded as a political band, but, “Politics found us.”

He formed his second bi-racial band, Savuka, in 1986 (pictured above). Ironically, Clegg was expelled from the British Musicians’ Union around this time because he refused to stop playing shows in South Africa, a practice the international anti-apartheid movement didn’t condone.

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After returning home to Oxford, Mississippi, from my Mauritius trip, Johnny Clegg became the matrix for my meeting a fellow countryman of his. One afternoon I was sitting in an Oxford bar, drinking a beer. No one else was in the place but the bartender. Behind the bar was a cassette tape player rigged to speakers. I asked the bartender to play the Johnny Clegg tape I had with me, one that I had bought in Mauritius. After a couple of songs, a guy walked up the stairs into the barroom. He was stout of body, with a black beard, longish hair, and wire-rimmed spectacles. He was about to seat himself at the bar when he stopped, looked up at the speakers with a quizzical expression, and said in a pronounced British accent, “Who’s playing Johnny Clegg?”

Thus was born the start of a friendship.

Peter Lee, like Clegg, was a South African of British ancestry. At the time we met he was the editor of Living Blues magazine, a University of Mississippi publication. He told me he had originally come to Oxford to enroll at Ole Miss as a result of his chancing upon a flyer posted on a bulletin board of the college he was attending in South Africa. The flyer invited students to apply to a foreign exchange journalism program at Ole Miss. Peter, a longtime American blues fan and collector of the music, immediately went into a mad scramble to get here. Mississippi. The word was magic to his ears. The Promised Land. The Birthplace of the Blues.

After graduating from the program, he was selected to become the editor of Living Blues. He went on to found Fat Possum Records in Oxford. His signing R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, among others, to the label revived their careers and helped put north Mississippi hill-country blues on the map.

It should be emphasized that Peter Lee didn’t start up Fat Possum just to make money. He founded the label to help black blues musicians make the money. And he wanted to promote the music. Peter’s deeply felt regard and respect for black people was catalyzed by his experience in the South African army where he witnessed first hand the brutality of his government’s apartheid regime.

As a South African soldier (military service being mandatory) he was literally placed on the front lines of the apartheid wars of the time, albeit not on the side he would have chosen. He witnessed up close and personal the savage inhumanity of violent racism as wielded by the state. The experience marked him for life. It is no wonder he loved Johnny Clegg and his music.

Johnny Clegg was an important public figure in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. His song Asimbonanga was dedicated to Nelson Mandela when he was still imprisoned on Robben Island. The song became an anthem of the movement. Clegg eventually received South Africa’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Ikhamanga, Silver. He was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French government and was made an Officer of the British Empire. The list of honorary degrees he has received from universities around the world is a long one. I don’t think he was well known in the U.S., but internationally, especially throughout Africa and much of Europe, he was a super-star.

Back in the early ‘90s Johnny Clegg and Savuka performed on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. It was quite a spectacle. The band members were dressed old-time ceremonial Zulu-style, half-naked, barefoot, draped in big-game animal furs and skins. With spears and shields they demonstrated Zulu dance rituals as they played and sang, deep-throated, resonant Zulu voices booming in harmony. The studio audience loved it. “Just wait until we tell the gang back home in Peoria about this, Gladys.”

Around that same time, I made a cassette tape of Clegg and Savuka for my friend Larry Brown, the late Mississippi novelist. On occasion, usually late at night in a barroom, he would incline his head toward mine and in a low, barely audible voice, begin singing, “Asimbonanga. . .” completing the first line of the song, pronouncing the Zulu words perfectly. He would always end by saying how much he loved the song.

Johnny Clegg’s songs were not only of visionary politics but also of his love for Africa and the African people, the rains they depend on, the ground on which they walk, hunt, till, and otherwise wrest a living. Hearing of his death that Tuesday night awakened in me many of the past associations he and his music have for me. He touched my life in the best possible way. The world is a better place because of him and his music. That, to me, is the ultimate tribute any one of us can ever hope to receive.

Below, watch a complete Clegg & Savuka concert from back in the day.

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