Over a storied 34-year career that spans five-million-plus records sold, countless live performances and multiple awards, the boy from Bacup, England, is so much a part of South African life that strangers can’t pass by wit “We know you,” say the women passing through the Westcliff Hotel’s Polo Lounge, where I’m sitting with Johnny Clegg
Over a storied 34-year career that spans five-million-plus records sold, countless live performances and multiple awards, the boy from Bacup, England, is so much a part of South African life that strangers can’t pass by wit
“We know you,” say the women passing through the Westcliff Hotel’s Polo Lounge, where I’m sitting with Johnny Clegg one fine autumn day.
“Friends?” I ask as they bustle off towards the hotel’s wide verandah, from which the view – few would contest – offers the best evidence of Johannesburg’s claim to house the largest inhabited man-made forest in the world. “No,” says Clegg. “I still have a huge recognition factor.”
This is not a boast.
Over a storied 34-year career that spans five-million-plus records sold, countless live performances and multiple awards, the boy from Bacup, England, is so much a part of South African life that strangers can’t pass by without greeting him like a friend they haven’t seen in a while. Still, there is a danger in making it through the decades in this fashion. In the passing of the years, with yet another live appearance on yet another bill, comes a familiarity that slowly gnaws at the one-of-a-kind magic that got Clegg on stage in the first place. It can make us forget that in our midst is a man who invented – created – a genre of South African music. These days “crossover” is commonplace. It’s been absorbed into the language of the country’s musicians and songwriters and is within easy reach of those looking for a way to condense the Rainbow Nation into song.
But when, in the late 1970s, Clegg emerged from six or seven years of playing only Zulu street-guitar music, there existed nothing like the sound he felt certain could come from mixing Zulu music and Celtic folk – and then, later, rock and pop. “I was actively looking for a crossover,” he says now of the music he created, first with Sipho Mchunu in Juluka (“Sweat”), and then, after Mchunu returned home to his farm, with his band Savuka (“We Have Risen”). Songs like “Umfazi Omdala“, “Impi“, “Scatterlings of Africa”, “African Sky Blue”, “Walima ‘mabele“, “Bullets For Bafazane“, “The Crossing”, “Great Heart” and, possibly the most moving tribute to Nelson Mandela of them all, “Asimbonanga“.
Clegg is working on a long-overdue book about the evolution of his search for that crossover; a quest that has been driven in part by the relentless intellect that saw him study and then lecture in social anthropology before music took over. It would stop when Juluka disbanded in 1985 after seven studio records – Universal Men (1979), African Litany(1981), Scatterlings (1982), Ubuhle Bemvelo (1982), Work For All (1983), Stand Your Ground (1984) and Musa Ukungilandela (1985). “It’s the chunk of my life that shaped everything – everything,” he says, in an acknowledgement of the generosity of early teachers like Charlie Mzila, the pivotal role of his relationship with Mchunu, and the impact of ordinary Zulu street musicians and his dance teachers in the mine hostels.
In no small way did the music that emerged out of that “chunk” of Clegg’s life also have a hand in shaping South Africa as people casted about for a chink of what was possible in the tumultuous decade of the ’80s. A Juluka publicity photo from the time shows Clegg and Mchunu gazing with unwavering directness at the camera, Clegg’s right arm outstretched in defiance, or invitation. Or both.
It’s this – the ongoing effect of his music on individuals looking for a way to better see each other – of which Clegg, now 60, is most proud.
Last year, Clegg received The Order of Ikhamanga, awarded to South African citizens who have excelled in the fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism or sport. The citation at the time spoke of his “excellent contribution to, and achievement in, the field of bridging African traditional music with other music forms, promoting racial understanding among racially-divided groups in South Africa under difficult apartheid conditions, working for a non-racial society and being an outstanding spokesperson for the release of political prisoners”.
When I read this to him, he shakes his head and admits he was shocked when he first heard it. “At the time, back in the ’70s, I never thought any of this could happen,” he says, with genuine amazement at the thought of the journey that has taken him from England to his mother’s native Zimbabwe; from Zambia to South Africa, where his mom and South African stepdad settled when Clegg was 11; and from there, to the rest of the world.
As we leave the hotel a short while later, Clegg stops and asks the Westcliff staff what will happen to them when the hotel is shuttered for a planned year-long renovation. He looks upset when they tell him that their work in the hotel is done for now. It was an uncommon curiosity and appetite for the human connections that existed in the world around him that propelled a teenaged Clegg headlong into the world of Zulu culture and led to the creation of a unique South African crossover genre. It’s there still.
hout greeting him like a friend they haven’t seen in a while