In memoriam Johnny Clegg

Johnny Clegg, dancing
Johnny Clegg dancing, courtesy PeterTea (Flickr/Creative Commons), cropped

Where did the time go?
Can you tell me where did the time go?
(December African Rain, 1983)

I met him once, very briefly. In my mid-20s, when I was living in Johannesburg, a colleague and I bumped into him holding court in a café at Rosebank Mall where we had gone during our lunch break. She knew him through her social circle, and I was starstruck as one would be when suddenly introduced to a musical idol. I remember treating him as one of her friends whom we had run into, shying away from small talk and being very conscious not to say anything about being a “big fan” — the sort of thing that one might be tortured by ever after. He seemed like a nice man, articulate, successful, casual. Someone who had accomplished a lot, and done so on the right side of history.

Johnny Clegg was an important musical touchstone for those of us who grew up in southern Africa during the 1980s. Of course we listened to music from all over the world. But when it came to actually being able to see famous acts play live, our options were much more limited, as the Apartheid-era cultural boycott prevented most interesting international musicians from performing there. Clegg the songwriter also addressed our imaginations much more directly than a Bruce Springsteen ever could. His songs were about our concerns, our stories, our problems, our joys. About the ambiguous, frequently insane, unjust yet also often amazing mess of place we lived in.

When he was a teenager in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs in the late 1960s, Clegg met Zulu musicians who were part of the large community of migrant workers labouring in the city. Striking up friendships through his budding musicianship, he learned isiZulu, began to train in traditional Zulu dance, and heard the implicit connections between plaintive Zulu folk songs and English folk rock. From an early friendship with Sipho Mchunu grew his first band, Juluka, which made 7 albums and toured internationally, even if its performances in South Africa itself were frequently disrupted by police harassment. After Juluka disbanded in 1985 (Mchunu had had enough of the entertainment industry for the time being), Clegg formed Johnny Clegg & Savuka, the band he would eventually take to international chart success from 1987 onwards.

From a southern African vantage point, it was always slightly funny to us that Paul Simon (of all people) should become, in the world’s eyes, one of the most visible instigators of “world music’s” breakout success in the mid 1980s, when that sort of thing was suddenly de rigeur. I don’t mean to diminish his accomplishments (I hold Graceland in high regard and still listen to it regularly, despite nebulously resolved copyright theft claims), and it is fair to say that whatever mainstream global success South African crossover music eventually had came mostly in Simon’s wake (Clegg & Savuka, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, even Disney’s Lion King). But at the risk of invoking contemporary debates about cultural appropriation, it’s important to remember that Johnny Clegg effectively pioneered this kind of African crossover music, starting probably 15 years or more before Graceland’s “breakout” success.

Johnny Clegg, dancing
Johnny Clegg dancing, by swimfinfan (Flickr/Creative Commons), cropped

The “formula,” if one can be said to have existed, was to stay true to certain recurring elements that were painstakingly perfected during the Juluka days: those towering, syncopated, deep-voiced Zulu chants; finger-picked, open-tuned Zulu guitars alternating with Western chords; a dedication well beyond lip service to singing in both languages (Clegg’s fluency in isiZulu allowed him to connect with South African audiences like no other white performer); a focus on telling South African stories in simple but powerful terms, following a kind of protest folk song ethic. And then there was the dancing. Few things are as spectacular as a fully committed group of men performing traditional Zulu dances — on a festival stage or anywhere. Carrying full regalia, Clegg and his bandmates seemed to have complete disregard for their bodies as they threw themselves into these dances. A practical demonstration, time and again, that respecting someone’s culture means engaging in it — on its terms. This requires a deep sort of learning, of course, but also a willingness to trust our ability to connect with others and abandon that which holds us back. What was inspirational about watching Clegg was to see his commitment in action, song after song, dance after dance. His practical, full body engagement affirmed, time and again, that this was African music, not European or American music looking to decorate itself with exoticism.

If I’d had the presence of mind (and been less intimidated, truth be told), what I would have liked to ask Clegg during our brief meeting was to what extent his musical path was influenced by his training and work as an anthropologist. Even back then, it was sort of a well-known curiosity that the famous Johnny Clegg had once been educated and later taught at my alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand. I know that his Zulu friendships and musical socialization significantly predate his academic career, but I’d still have been curious. I always felt that Clegg’s version of “world music” seemed more thoughtful somehow than other approaches. The easy interpretation would be to simply acknowledge that as someone raised in South Africa (and, briefly, also in Zambia), he was socialized into his “host” culture, that he was therefore less of a “tourist” than, say, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel or Lizzie Mercier Descloux. Since he was born in the UK and came to South Africa as a young child, one might further situate him as having an outside-insider’s perspective. Being part of South Africa’s educated secular Jewish community, a milieu that produced many who were instrumental in Apartheid’s ultimate demise, would also have played a role. But I still wonder how his anthropological commitments might have deepened his musical and dance practice, and vice versa, and how he might have thought about that.

Clegg’s lyrics were full of images of wandering, wayfaring, travelling. This was no doubt in the first instance related to the migrant worker culture that was his earliest exposure to Zulu music and dance. Home was always a great distance away for migrant workers, and Africa’s expansive skies and landscapes were a constant reminder, beautiful but bittersweet. Travelling through them was also a handy metaphor for democracy’s hoped-for but slow-to-arrive emergence during the darkness of the Apartheid decades. Although the censors must have known, it would have been hard to prove how exactly big skies and flowing rivers were politically subversive — a game between artists and authorities as old as censorship itself. As he gradually settled into the position of “elder statesman” of South African music, his tone and lyrical preoccupations came to oscillate between a kind of melancholy optimism and a playful romanticism.

One of his most touching pieces, The Crossing (O Siyeza), is a song for his long-time friend, bandmate and Juluka/Savuka dancer, Dudu Ndlovu, who was gunned down in 1992. In another travelling metaphor, Clegg sings about our crossing to another world as a collective act, a march of sorts. His words are meant as comfort for Dudu, but they also remind us that we are all on the same journey. We are coming, he sings, we will arrive soon — we will cross these dark mountains and lay down our troubles. We are coming home.

Rest in peace.

O siyeza, o siyeza, sizofika webaba noma
(we are coming, we are coming, we will arrive soon)
O siyeza, o siyeza, siyagudla lomhlaba
(we are coming, we are coming, we are moving across this earth)
Siyawela lapheshaya lulezontaba ezimnyama
(we are crossing over those dark mountains)
Lapha sobheka phansi konke ukhulupheka
(where we will lay down our troubles)

Take me now, hold me close
Don’t let go, I’m coming home.

(The Crossing (O Siyeza), 1993)

Leave a comment