Contrary to popular opinion, Paul Simon was not the first musician to recognize the rich potential of fusing Western pop with Zulu tribal rhythms. An inquisitive young white South African musician literally and figuratively had his finger on the pulse years before the diminutive American married his quirky songs with township jive on what was to become his and one of the 1980s’ strongest-selling albums.
While still in his early teens, Johnny Clegg, who passed away on July 16, started exploring Zulu music on the streets of Johannesburg — defying the iniquitous and racist apartheid doctrine into the bargain — when the seminal Graceland album was nary a glint in Rhymin’ Simon’s eye.
Clegg went on to become a professor of anthropology and one of South Africa’s highest-selling and best-known international artists, with six million album sales to his credit. When I interviewed him for Australia’s Rhythms magazine back in 2012, the Grammy Award winner recalled with some clarity what initially attracted him to indigenous culture and what fascinated him in particular about Zulu music.
“I was 14 and I was playing Celtic folk music and listening to folk-rock bands like Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull when I discovered street guitar music.” It was Clegg’s Eureka moment. “I was quite a shy kid, but I went up to a guy who was playing and asked if he’d teach me. I saw that the guitar had been Africanised, basically reconceptualized. There was no chords, just simple notes being played in a stream of sound. In some instances, the strings had been changed around, and I realised that this was a unique genre of guitar music and I wanted to play it.” So he began to look and learn.
What was originally fascination started to take the shape of a profession when he met Zulu musician Sipho Mchunu and they became Juluka, the first prominent racially mixed South African act. “We began as a duo,” Clegg related. “Later on I started bringing Celtic and other influences into the music and found a meeting point between Zulu street guitar music and Western music, and that was the birth of this crossover band.”
Clegg and Mchunu put out their first album in 1979, long before there was a category called world music and some half-dozen years before Graceland was launched to mainstream acclaim and worldwide sales. They recorded with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, again well before Paul Simon utilized that group’s exquisite Zulu harmonies on ‘Homeless’ and ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’. “I was fluent in Zulu by then and we were singing Zulu and English on the same songs. We were mixing languages, we were mixing rhythms, styles and composition. Western music has rules of composition; it’s very linear. Zulu music is very cyclical. It was a very interesting challenge to overcome as a songwriter; it was fascinating developing solutions.”
Flying in the face of apartheid posed a greater challenge. “Initially, we kept our day jobs; we couldn’t make a living as a mixed race band,” Clegg asserts. He later discovered a loophole in the law. “Apartheid was only applicable to public venues. We could play at private venues, so we performed in churches, peoples’ lounges, embassies, private schools and university halls. We discovered there were pockets of platforms that we could use. When we began to play in public, that’s when we started to get closed down. It was really a kind of balancing act between those. There weren’t enough security police to monitor what we were doing, so as long as you weren’t playing the main centres, you managed to get a bunch of shows in.”
Juluka records received what was known as ‘restricted access’. “They would strike a nail through the vinyl on certain tracks,” he remembers. “There were four levels of censorship on radio: sexual, religious, racial and cultural.” Although their debut album, Universal Men, received little to no air play on state-owned radio, it became a word-of-mouth hit. Juluka were able to tour in Europe, where they earned international platinum and gold sales for albums such as 1982’s Scatterlings of Africa and 1984’s Stand Your Ground.
“Scatterlings is the song that got me on to the world platform,” Clegg conceded. “It’s the song that launched my musical career actually because by the fourth album I was teaching anthropology at university. When that song became a hit, I said to the head of the department: ‘See ya — I’m off’. I left after it went to number one in France, Belgium and Switzerland. It’s a song that’s worked very hard for me. It’s given me openings in two different bands to secure music as a way of life.” ‘Scatterlings’ was also significant on another level. “The song’s sentiments are about Africa being the birthplace of all mankind and that from Africa humans scattered to the rest of the world. What it’s really saying is that everybody is significant, not just us. The first humans left Africa 170,000 years ago and populated the planet.”
Despite his high-standing overseas, Clegg received short shrift from the South African government. He was arrested several times, initially as a 15-year-old back in the late ‘60s for entering a black area without permission. “But I wasn’t political,” he insisted. “I was musical. Juluka wasn’t really a political band. We were a cultural activist band. You were dealing with a far more basic issue — the right to sing another man’s language, the right to share another man’s culture in a country that forced cultural segregation. It’s a very complex issue this. South Africa was racially and culturally segregated. The regime didn’t want blacks to unite, so there was a divide and rule policy at a cultural level. Mixing languages was taboo. We mixed languages and we mixed music and we mixed dance and we mixed all these things.”
Savuka, which Clegg formed after Juluka was disbanded in 1986 when Mchunu left, was the band that in Clegg’s words “became political, more outspoken and clearly articulated”. Following the release of Savuka’s hard-hitting debut album Third World Child in 1987, its leader and other band members were arrested several times. Savuka concerts were routinely broken up and some of Clegg’s songs, such as ‘Asimbonanga’, which called for the release of Nelson Mandela, were banned by the regime. [In later years, the singer got to share stages with Mandela during a series of AIDS Awareness concerts, something he lists among his most cherished memories].
For several weeks in the 1980s, Third World Child and the follow-up album, Shadow Man, dominated the French charts. The band was so successful that Michael Jackson allegedly had to cancel a show in Lyon because it clashed with a Johnny Clegg and Savuka gig. Amusingly, a newspaper headline in France read: ‘WHITE MAN SINGING BLACK MUSIC OUT SELLS BLACK MAN SINGING WHITE MUSIC’. Clegg was at a loss to explain his huge following in France, where he is known as Le Zoulou Blanc (The White Zulu) and where in 1991 he was awarded a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres (Knight of Arts and Letters) by the French Government, other than to point out that the French are very open to music from other countries. “At that time on French radio you heard every kind of music imaginable. They are very culturally sophisticated and aware.”
2011 marked Clegg’s 30th anniversary as a professional musician and he celebrated the milestone in style. “I got Juluka and Savuka back together and all the people I could muster for three shows. We did a Johnny and Sipho duo set, then we did Juluka, then we did Savuka. The show in Capetown was brilliant.”
Clegg said his career had been something of a blur. “I toured between four and six months every year. In the early days, I did nine months touring for years and years.” He stopped performing in 1993. “I went through a personal crisis with my marriage; one of the issues we discovered was my extensive touring. I was spending too much time away from home and my wife gave me an ultimatum. We had an agreement that my touring would be limited.” While admitting that affected his profile and album sales at a time when the world spotlight moved away from South Africa, he took comfort from the fact that Juluka and Savuka were secure internationally. “I lived off the goodwill of those fans that followed me in the ‘80s.”
Close to 60 when I talked to him, Clegg senior said he kept fit for the energetic Zulu dancing that became an integral part of his live shows by doing plenty of cardiovascular work and weights and most importantly, he stressed, “stretching for suppleness”. While he didn’t lecture at university any more, he still utilised his academic expertise. “My shows are accompanied with explanations, anecdotes and stories about the songs, which people like to hear. It adds a bit of layering to the songs.” Clegg spoke with authority. In what was perhaps a veiled reference to Paul Simon, he said: “I come from inside the tradition. I play Zulu concertina. I play Zulu guitar. I play maskanda music, I grew up in the tradition. I’m not raiding some foreign cultural entity and then constructing something out of it, I’m writing from inside the tradition.”
Johnny Clegg, whose Zulu name (‘Madabe’) translates to ‘Big Ears’, told me his career had been a great journey. “The thing for me is having a dedicated group of fans over the years who’ve brought their kids to my shows. The key is to have people that want to grow with you as an artist. In the end, it’s about the connection with an audience and maintaining that connection.”