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A South African Superstar Says Farewell

Johnny Clegg co-founded two important, interracial bands, and became an essential voice in South Africa. Now, he's embarking on a farewell tour after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Fiona Macpherson
Courtesy of the artist
Johnny Clegg co-founded two important, interracial bands, and became an essential voice in South Africa. Now, he's embarking on a farewell tour after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Well before Paul Simon's "Graceland" came along, a white musician from South Africa named Johnny Clegg was already breaking apartheid laws and celebrating Zulu culture. He co-founded two important, interracial bands, and became an essential voice in his country. But two years ago, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he's on a farewell U.S. tour that he's calling "The Final Journey."

Johnny Clegg is 64 years old. He's in remission now, but he has a very aggressive form of cancer. "I've come out of my second chemo in February," he says. "In March, I just said to my management, you know, if there was a time to wrap up my affairs while I'm feeling pretty strong and good, it would be now."

For his current tour, he's playing a retrospective of a career that's spanned four decades. Clegg's life — and music — have moved in parallel to the currents of South Africa's history. His song "Asimbonanga," written in honor of Nelson Mandela, became an anthem for South Africa's freedom fighters.

Clegg was born in England, the child born of a brief relationship between an English man and a female jazz singer from Zimbabwe (which was called Southern Rhodesia at the time). Clegg spent his early childhood in Zimbabwe; when he was 7, his mother remarried to a South African crime reporter. Soon after, the family moved north to Zambia for a couple of years, before settling in Johannesburg. "I went to six schools in five years in three different countries," he observes.

It was in Johannesburg that Johnny — then just a young teenager — fell in love with Zulu culture and music.

"I stumbled on Zulu street guitar music being performed by Zulu migrant workers, traditional tribesmen from the rural areas," he recalls. "They had taken a Western instrument that had been developed over six, seven hundred years, and reconceptualized the tuning. They changed the strings around, they developed new styles of picking, they only use the first five frets of the guitar — they developed a totally unique genre of guitar music, indigenous to South Africa. I found it quite emancipating."

He started taking lessons in that local style. "The chap who taught me was an apartment cleaner around the corner from where I lived, and then I bought a cheap steel-string guitar. And I was on my way."

His guitar teacher introduced him around, in places where he probably wouldn't have been welcomed if he'd been a white man. But the teenage Clegg was really just a kid.

"He took me into these areas of backstreet Johannesburg, where the migrant laborers would hang out," Clegg says, "in the industrial side of the city, which wasn't really that well policed. We went around the migrant labor hostels, where somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 black, male-only itinerant workers could live and pay rent for a bed."

The hardscrabble hostels were the center of life for these itinerant workers. "The hostels were these military barracks-like structures," Clegg explains, "with 20 beds in a open-plan room: open-plan kitchen, open-plan showers, toilets, all that stuff. It was a very tough, hard life. People struggled and competed to get a bed, because if you got a bed, you got a bed number — which it meant that you could get a job, and if you had a job, you could be legal for 11 months of the year in Johannesburg."

The hostels were raided at least once a month by the police, Clegg says. "You never knew when they were coming. And the hostels were also monitored by the municipal police, the 'Blackjacks,' who were basically there to prevent prostitution."

But on the weekends, Clegg says, those migrant workers treated themselves to little tastes of home around the hostels. And Clegg fell in love with their Zulu culture.

"This incredible, tribal carpet would be thrown out into the streets," he says, "and dance teams, diviners, herbalists — practitioners of various different tribal aspects of life — would ply their wares sitting on pieces of cardboard on them on the sidewalk."

Clegg fell in love with Zulu dancing, just as much as with the music, and dancing opened up a whole new channel of being for Clegg. "It was like capoeira, or martial arts, to music," he explains. "You kick high, and you stamp the ground, which is symbolically delivering a blow to an enemy or receiving a blow and how you would recover. So it's a kind of warrior theater."

Clegg says that those Zulu men dancing taught him — as a teenager trying to figure out his place in the world — what it meant to be a man. "The body was coded and wired — hard-wired — to carry messages about masculinity which were pretty powerful for an adolescent boy," he observes. "They knew something about being a man, which they could communicate physically in the way that they danced and carried themselves. And I wanted to be able to do the same thing. Basically, I wanted to become a Zulu warrior. And in a very deep sense, it offered me an African identity. It was like a homecoming for me; I don't know why, but I felt that."

Clegg was only 15 when he first got into trouble with the authorities for mixing with blacks. "I was arrested for trespassing and for breaking the Group Areas Act. The police said, 'You're too young to charge. We're taking you back your parents.'"

His mother opened the family's front door. "I was standing between two policemen," Clegg recounts, "and they said, 'Listen, your son was inside a hostel. We only go in there armed with guns. Every weekend, there are dead bodies coming out, with tribal fighting and longstanding clan wars going back 50 years. They're competing for scarce resources in there, there's lots of crime, there's stolen goods — it's not a place for a 15-year-old white boy to be hanging out.'"

Initially, Clegg's mother told him he couldn't go back. But he was not to be deterred.

"I got the dance leader there, a 68-year-old chap who was a very famous dance leader at the hostel, to come to my flat and to meet my mom," he says. "He brought his two lieutenants with him and they sat there, they chatted and he said, "Once he's through the gates and he's with us, he's fine. Nothing will ever happen because we are all going there to dance."

And so, he went back — over and over again. "It was a very strong experience dancing in a hostel," Clegg says. "The beds were pushed up against the walls, and 40 or so men would sit against the wall. To make space, they would open their legs and put somebody else sitting between their legs, and then the guy in front between his legs, and between his legs, and so on. You'd sit and you'd clap and sing. You basically had on nothing more than car-tire sandals and long pants. There was a very powerful male odor, sweat, deep male vocals. When you're sitting inside there — it's the most powerful experience I had ever experienced."

One of his dancing connections became one of the longest artistic collaborators of his career. "I met Sipho Mchunu, who became my partner in Juluka," Clegg recalls, " and we played traditional maskanda guitar music for about six or seven years. I also joined his dance team."

Johnny and Sipho initially performed as a duo for years. "Sipho and I, we couldn't play in public," Clegg explains, "so we played in private venues, schools, churches, university private halls. We played a lot of embassies. We played a lot of consulates."

The two started thinking about how they could combine Zulu music with sounds from elsewhere, Clegg says.

"I was exposed to Celtic folk music early on," he recounts. "I never knew my dad, who was from England, and music was one way which I can connect with that country. I liked Irish, Scottish and English folk music. I had a lot of tapes and recordings of them. And my stepfather was a great fan of pipe music. On Sundays, he would play an LP of the Edinburgh Police Pipe Band."

Clegg started hearing connections between the rural music of South Africa's Natal province — the music that he was learning from his black friends and teachers — and the sounds of Britain. "I sometimes heard traditional Zulu war songs in a minor key. And I could hear Celtic melodies. I could hear rhythms. I could hear 6/8 meter." Clegg pauses in his story to demonstrate a rhythm that could easily accompany a Scottish reel, but when he starts singing, it's in Zulu.

"It was ridiculous," he says of the similarities. "So I thought, 'There's a conversation here to be had.'"

That conversation led Clegg and Mchunu to found the band Juluka — which means "Sweat" in Zulu.

"I had no commercial or artistic aspirations to become a performer or anything," Clegg avers. "I was like a musicologist, in a way. I was full of the music — I was bursting. I just wanted to get a recording."

In the meantime, Clegg had become a professor of anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg; Mchunu was working as a gardener. Nevertheless, they started shopping an album to record labels. There were no takers — back then, South African radio was strictly segregated, and no one thought an album that was partly in Zulu and partly in English would find an audience. Clegg says that their songs' subject material wasn't setting off any sparks with record producers, either.

"You know, 'Who really cares about cattle? You're singing about cattle. You know we're in Johannesburg, dude, get your subject matter right!'" he says of the reactions Juluka initially got from record labels. "But I was shaped by cattle culture, because all the songs I learned were about cattle, and I was interested. I was saying, 'There's a hidden world. And I'd like to put it on the table.'"

"I couldn't get anybody to sign it, though," Clegg says. "I just hopped it around, and hopped it around, and eventually, I landed at the Gramophone Record Company, which was a subsidiary of CBS [in South Africa]. There was a chap there whose name was Hilton Rosenthal. And he said, 'You know what, this is very interesting. This is not going to get radio play or anything, but it's interesting as a documentary, a recording of what's going on now.'"

Rosenthal signed Juluka to his independent label. In 1979, its first album, Universal Men, was released. Within a few years, this most unlikely band had managed to score a hit in the U.K. with the song "Scatterlings of Africa." They were offered a tour of Europe and North America. Clegg and Mchunu both resigned from their jobs, and hit the road.

Eventually, Mchunu decided that he had tired of life as a professional musician. He hated Johannesburg and city living; he longed to go home to his native region of Zululand to raise cattle. "It was really hard for Sipho," Clegg recalls. "He was a traditional tribesman. To be in New York City on tour, not speaking English that well — there were times when I think he felt he was on Mars. And after some grueling tours, he said to me, 'I gave myself 15 years to make it or break it in Joburg, and then go home.' So he resigned, and Juluka came to an end — but I was still full of the fire of music and dance. And so I took the dancer from Juluka and the drummer and myself, and then that just took off."

That band was Savuka — which means "We Have Risen" in Zulu. "Savuka was launched basically in the state of emergency in South Africa, in 1986," Clegg observes. "You could not ignore what was going on. The entire Savuka project was based in the South African experience and the fight for a better quality of life and freedom for all."

A lot of Savuka's songs were restricted or banned in South Africa. But eventually, they were embraced. The song "One Human, One Vote" was released in 1989, the year the country held its first universal election. As much as those songs were rooted in a very particular time and place, though, Clegg believes that the messages were timeless. "I think the music that we made at the time has that universal appeal," he says, "because you can go to the songs and you can hear the echoes of thousands of struggles that happened over centuries."

After Savuka disbanded, Johnny Clegg went solo. In 2015, Queen Elizabeth made him an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. He's writing his autobiography, and he's just released a new album called King Of Time. He's planning to compose some music for film, and thinking about a few collaborations. But he says this U.S. tour, which mixes songs and dancing with anecdotes about his journey, will be his last. "It's a very bittersweet undertaking, to be honest with you," he says.

Not long after the tour ends, Clegg plans to head home to South Africa. "The future is open-ended," he muses. "I have my two sons. One is a musician, one's a filmmaker. They're up and running in the world. So my wife and I have an open road now — to do what we want to do."

Just as Johnny Clegg has done for all of his life.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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