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Johnny Clegg: great spirit, great heart

Elephants march in unison. Giraffes gallop across the plains. A hippo yawns. A lion sleeps. And intercut between the music video’s stock wildlife footage, a brighteyed and curly-haired young white man with an acoustic guitar performs traditional Zulu dances, shows off his stick-fighting skills and sings of his search for the spirit of the great heart.

“There’s a highway of stars across the heavens / The whispering song of the wind in the grass / There’s the rolling thunder across the savannah / A hope and dream at the edge of the sky / And your life is a story like the wind / Your life is a story like the wind.”

That man is Johnny Clegg. And his life has indeed been a story like the wind.

‘Any artist worth their salt is a layering of all the various paradoxes and contradictions that you are at various times of your life,’ he says today, almost 25 years later, with the authority of a former anthropology lecturer. ‘We are constantly reshaping and redefining who we are, experimenting.’

But what’s remained unchanged in Johnny’s life is his curiosity. Having grown up in Zimbabwe on his grandparents’ farm – where his best friend was Oraait, the driver’s son – he remembers as a five-year-old being amazed by the cattle herder pointing out, as if by magic, a herd of buffalo hidden in the landscape. So too he remembers as a 10-year-old, during two years spent in Zambia, attending a racially integrated school, and sitting on the porch of his parents’ home watching black fork-tailed drongos flutter up and down into the air, while voices, laughter and the distinctive smell of firewood drifted across from the traditional villages nearby. His world view was further broadened by his crime reporter stepfather, who took him into Joburg’s townships before his teens.

‘I grew up on wild stories of the Russian and American gangs in Alexandra township. I had a very good taste for what was hidden and what was different in the world around me.’

That different world truly opened up with his discovery of Zulu street guitar music in the late ’60s, around the age of 15. Sent to buy bread and milk from the corner shop, he was mesmerised by the man playing guitar outside. And so began his friendship with Charlie Mzila, flat cleaner, guitar teacher and cultural guide.

‘I started to hang around with him on weekends – he took me to places where other musicians were and I got hooked into the migrant labour musical fraternity, and from there it just grew and grew and grew,’ recalls Johnny. He learnt to stick fight. He learnt to dance. He learnt what it was like to be arrested – when he was found dancing in a hostel during a police raid, they initially thought he’d been abducted; when they learnt the truth, he was dragged home to his mother.

‘I became kind of an archaeologist of culture. I was digging it out and the more I discovered, the more amazed I was.’ But, as the son of a jazz singer, it was the music he really excelled at. ‘Zulu street guitar tradition is very competitive. On the weekends around the hostels and on the rooftops of flats and buildings there were these street guitar get-togethers where we’d all perform and this pecking order developed. ‘Initially they thought I was really funny. I would sing songs but I didn’t know what I was singing because I didn’t understand Zulu at the time, but I had a musical ear so I could emulate the language perfectly. But I’d be singing really dirty, raucous songs with my little innocent 15-year-old voice and they thought this was the funniest thing,’ he chuckles.

But as his talent grew, so did his reputation. So when a 16-year-old Sipho Mchunu arrived in Joburg in 1970, he simply had to see the white kid nicknamed Madlebe (Big Ears) and challenge him to a guitar duel. Instead of rivals however, they became lifelong friends, first performing together as Johnny and Sipho, then as Juluka.

‘He was totally a tribal, traditional person. He was a champion who helped me get even deeper into Zulu migrant music and dance.’

Together they became musical pioneers. ‘Juluka was a very magical time for us because we all knew we were on to something absolutely new. We were making a new music, we were breaking every rule of culture. We were trying to show people that there’s a conversation going on here between these Zulu and English styles, structures, melodies, rhythms … and you know what? It’s a good thing. ‘We knew we were at the forefront and nobody else was doing this thing. We were doing these crossover structures and arrangements, finding a meeting point, a bridge. We were bridging cultures and we knew that we were the guys in charge of that movement. And that was what really made us excited.’

The government, though, was less impressed, banning songs, shutting down shows, forcing the group to find loopholes in the law and get creative with performance spaces. ‘I look back at that young man,’ says Johnny, ‘and realise how innocent and unworldly – and in another way how incredibly strong and strong-willed – I was. In a way the innocence narrowed down any ideas of failure that were possible.

‘The other thing is I never actually recognised when I was failing. When you’re young you don’t even see if something is doomed, because you’re in the moment and you’re enjoying it so much. Everybody was saying: “You’re wasting your time”, “Who’s ever heard of mixing languages in one song?” And now I think: “Would I have had the same resilience and stamina I had then, knowing what I know now about the world?”

‘So in a way that innocence was a very powerful shield. It gives rise to a certain kind of courage because you don’t factor real threats and dangers into your equations. We were strong hey, we were giants,’ he laughs with more than a hint of disbelief.

Giving up was clearly never an option. ‘We used to get really furious when they shut down shows. But then on the other side, it was also an indication that we were having an impact on society, we were on the cutting edge of the cultural struggle. So there were also moments where we actually thought: “You know what, we’re actually doing something right here”. And when we got on stage you saw the reaction of the people, which always legitimised what we did and made whatever price we had to pay acceptable.’

Sipho’s retirement ended Juluka, Savuka, another of Johnny’s bands, has come and gone, and three decades have passed since Johnny started his music career, but like that ever present curiosity, his ideology remains largely unchanged.

‘My cultural crossover message is still relevant,’ he offers, having released his latest album, Human, last year. ‘I think South Africa is becoming re-racialisedin many regards and people are living in their own little worlds, so I think what I do is even more important [in these times].

‘There is still a real issue about bridging culture, bridging language, bridging world views. And we still offer a picture of the possibility of that,’ he says. ‘I’m not a stranger to reality. I was always connected to the world and reflected the world.’

His new songs deal with issues such as unemployment, affirmative action, Gaza and the DRC. And no, he doesn’t mind singing ‘Impi’, ‘African Sky Blue’ or ‘Great Heart’ at just about every show. ‘I love the fact that they’re evergreen. They are songs that have shaped people’s lives, they have been the soundtrack to people’s lives and they want to hear them. I’m a performer but I’m also an entertainer and I want people to enjoy what I do. ‘I’m proud of the songs I wrote and I think it’s an amazing thing when people call for them. I couldn’t have imagined I’d be doing a song 30 years later and people are still loving it.’

Even presidents. While performing ‘Asimbonanga’ (a song he’d written in the ’80s about Nelson Mandela – it was promptly banned) at a Frankfurt show in 1997, Johnny was shocked at Madiba’s surprise appearance on stage. ‘I couldn’t believe it, it was fantastic,’ he recalls. ‘It was the most memorable moment in my musical career. And right at the end of the song he said: “Music makes me at peace with the world and at peace with myself. I don’t see anybody dancing – Johnny, let’s do this again.” So we sang it again.’ It’s quite possible that, on that night in a conference hall 9 000 km and 10 years from ‘the rolling thunder across the savannah’, he did in fact catch a glimpse of the spirit of the great heart.

  • This article originally appeared in Signature, the official magazine of Diners Club South Africa.

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