This week, the country and fans around the world mourned the passing of Johnny Clegg, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer on the 16 July 2019. He was laid to rest in a private ceremony on Wednesday 17th July in Johannesburg.
For the better part of four decades, Johnny Clegg has provided the soundtrack to South Africa’s journey to freedom. There are many things that have contributed towards unifying a country that was historically defined by division – but nothing has been more powerful than South Africa’s love of song and dance.
It is this power that Johnny Clegg harnessed when he did the unthinkable in the 1970s. With open curiosity and naivety, he transcended the boundaries between language and culture imposed upon the South African people – and brought his unique fusion of traditional Zulu rhythms, folk and popular music together to create something that speaks to every South African – across generations, and across the world.
ETECH Magazine would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the life of an artist who has made an indelible mark on the South African entertainment industry and whom we will hold in our hearts for generations to come.
A Scatterling of Africa
Johnny Clegg’s life journey has been one of many chapters, starting with his birth in Bacup, England, in 1953, to an English father and Zimbabwean mother. Soon after his birth, his mother moved back to her native Zimbabwe where she met and married a South African journalist. The young family immigrated to South Africa when Clegg was seven years old and settled in the then trendy and highly metropolitan suburb of Yeoville. His mother worked as a jazz singer and cabaret artist, and father as a crime reporter, which exposed a young Clegg to a far wider cultural perspective than was typical for white South Africans at the time.
While growing up, Clegg’s status as an immigrant in Johannesburg placed him in a similar position to many of the migrant workers that commuted to Egoli in the 1960s and70s. This contributed significantly to his ability to identify with the people that were to become the most important cultural influences in his life. Clegg told the New York Times in 1990, “I felt like an immigrant. The only time I really felt at home was when I got involved in African music. The migrant workers were themselves, immigrants, so we had a similar feeling of marginality in the city, something I could relate to.”
In My African Dream
Clegg was 14 years old when he first encountered “Zulu music”. In the 1960s, Clegg met a street musician by the name of Charlie Mzila, who played traditional Zulu melodies on guitar outside a corner café in Yeoville. “I was studying formal guitar at the time. When I came across Mzile on my way to buy milk and bread for my mom, I could immediately see that he treated the instrument very differently and I asked him if he could teach me,” Clegg reminisces. The relationship between Mzila and Clegg quickly grew, and through his exploration of the genre, the young teenager unlocked the beauty and richness of maskandi guitar, which he blended seamlessly with the contemporary folk and pop music that was gaining popularity at the time.
At the age of 17, Clegg met Sipho Mchunu, a young migrant worker and talented musician with whom he developed an instant rapport. The unlikely duo started their career playing in small venues across the city and soon became known as Juluka. In the years that followed, Clegg continued developing his unique musical style with Mchunu, while pursuing a degree in Anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand. The young academic was influenced by the work of seminal academic, David Webster, a social anthropologist who was assassinated in 1989. Clegg’s academic understanding of culture and tradition have had a profound and poignant effect on his work throughout his career and sets him apart as a true cultural innovator.
Spirit of the Great Heart
Juluka was a truly disruptive cultural force that unleashed itself on South African society during the harshest and most rigid period of the apartheid regime. The band, which grew to a six-member group with three black and three white musicians, unwittingly defied everything that apartheid stood for. A constant thorn in the side of the Nationalist government, it was the organic nature of the group that flew in the face of apartheid philosophy, which asserted that the racial groups in South Africa were incapable of assimilating as they were fundamentally different and best kept apart.
Juluka was, by its very nature, the essence of cultural assimilation – with Celtic, folk, rock and African styles coming together to create a unique sound. While many of their songs incorporated subversive and overt political themes, political activism was never the driving force behind the band, but rather the desire to bring together the best that African and Western musical traditions had to offer to create something new and truly exceptional.
Juluka and their fans were constantly harassed by the establishment throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, with Clegg and other band members being arrested periodically, and concerts being forcibly broken up by the police. Despite the trying circumstances, Juluka managed to take their music to new audiences, touring in Europe, Canada, and the United States. Juluka achieved two platinum and five gold albums during their time together and established a fan base overseas that remains devoted to Clegg today. Juluka finally disbanded in 1985, when Mchunu returned to his rural homeland to take care of his family. Clegg’s journey, however, was far from over.
In 1986, Clegg joined forces with musician and dancer Dudu Zulu, forming the band Savuka. The group’s first album, Third World Child, broke international sales records in Europe, most notably in France – where Clegg was known endearingly as Le Zoulou Blanc (“The White Zulu”). This was followed by Shadow Man (1988), Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World (1989) and Heat, Dust and Dreams (1993) and then the best of Johnny Clegg and Savuka with the release of In My African Dream (1994). Savuka toured extensively in Europe and North America from 1988 to 1993, breaking all attendance records in France in 1988 and 1989.
Tragedy struck the group in 1992 when Dudu Zulu was shot and killed while attempting to mediate a taxi dispute in Greytown, situated in the rural midlands of KwaZulu Natal where he lived. Savuka was subsequently disbanded, and Clegg released one of his signature songs, The Crossing, which he dedicated to Zulu’s memory.
Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World
Through his various musical collaborations, Johnny Clegg has managed to capture the spirit of South Africa – in both our brightest and darkest moments – and broadcast this identity to the world. In the summer of 2004, Clegg performed a four-month tour of Europe and North America, playing to capacity houses and appearing at several world-famous shows. In the period between 2005 and 2008, he featured at several major European festivals, while concurrently completing his own annual European tours. In 2005, Clegg completed a 30-date coast-to-coast tour of the continental US and Canada and a sell-out tour of Australia and New Zealand. Despite his international fame, Clegg has remained intensely South African and has never wavered in his commitment to the country.
Clegg has performed on all four of Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Aids Awareness Concerts in South Africa and in Norway. Demonstrating his enormous symbolic importance as a unifying force in the country, he was joined by Madiba on stage in 1999 during a powerful rendition of the ballad Asimbonanga, which Clegg dedicated to the Nobel Prize Laureate during his incarceration. When watching the rapturous crowd embrace one another while singing the anthem in unison, it is hard to believe that South Africans were once so deeply divided. It was these images that dominated both local and international television when Nelson Mandela passed away on 3 December 2013.
All I Got is You
Johnny Clegg has been performing locally and internationally for the better part of forty years and has established strong and lasting relationships with his management team and technical crews throughout that time.
Among the most notable influences behind the scenes is Roddy Quinn, veteran concert promoter, talent manager and owner of Real Concerts. Quinn not only supported Clegg throughout his various collaborations over his expansive career, serving as manager, promoter, producer and without doubt friend – but has also assisted Clegg’s son, Jesse, to achieve a stellar place among South Africa’s greatest up and coming talent. Quinn was instrumental in bringing The Final World Tour to life, having directed and produced the show.
Ofer Lapid, founder of leading South African events company, Gearhouse Group SA, served as Clegg’s original lighting designer, establishing a close working relationship between Johnny and the Gearhouse team that has spanned some 25 years. Over the years, Clegg worked with Gearhouse and Real Concerts to stage some of the biggest live concerts in South Africa, setting the bar for other local acts to follow.
Circle of Light
ETECH had the privilege of meeting with Tim Dunn who served as lighting designer for Johnny Clegg’s 2017-18 “Final Journey World Tour” in December 2017.
Dunn worked closely with Quinn in designing the lighting for Clegg’s Final Journey World Tour. Reflecting on his journey with Clegg, Dunn spoke first and foremost about what a pleasure it was working with Clegg and his team. “The music is very tight, but at the same time Johnny and his musicians are so comfortable and relaxed onstage that one does not have to over-engineer the show,” Dunn states. “When working with Johnny, you instantly become aware that you are dealing with a very intelligent man and a remarkably skilled artist,” he continues.
Dunn accompanied Clegg on his 2017 tour to London and Dubai, before returning home with the show. Dunn reflects: “We performed in the brand new Dubai Opera House, which is generally very ‘posh’. While it is the norm for audiences to dress to the nines for the Opera House – everybody came in jeans and t-shirts for Johnny. He had that effect on people; he defied the rules.”
In the grander scheme of things, South Africa is a small and somewhat insignificant country, hanging out at the furthest end of the least developed continent on the planet. We have, however, produced some of the world’s greatest leaders, artist and scientists, and have managed, despite all of the odds, to successfully transition from tyranny to freedom without a civil war. Johnny Clegg has narrated this journey for us and was one of the greatest sons that this country has ever produced. Our deepest sympathies go out to his family, friends, colleagues and all of his fans in the wake of his passing.