The White Zulu hits a high note in Canada

2012-09-08 08:55

He is a living South African music legend committed to the craft and still deeply engaged in the issues of the country.

Sadly, Johnny Clegg seems more celebrated internationally than in his home country. Radio stations here no longer play him commercially. Like he says: “I’m an alternative artist and not considered to be a mainstream commercial artist.”

He is quick to acknowledge that times have changed, and he constantly refers to himself and his music as “my generation”.

Hip-hop, house and Afro-pop have taken centre stage in radio and social ills are tackled by artists of “his generation” mostly.

However, Clegg (59) has little to complain about. His American career is taking off and he is especially popular in Canada. There, he is famously known as “Le Zoulou Blanc” or “the White Zulu” for his fluency in the Zulu language, and for playing the traditional sounds of maskandi and mbaqanga at a time when the draconian laws of apartheid kept races apart in South Africa.

His latest album, Human, was released by an American label. The last time an American label released his work was 17 years ago.

“I have a new agent who is American and has a love for South African music. Last year alone, she booked me 35 shows across America and Canada, and this year 28 shows.”

Last year, he played for 22 000 people and this year the number has more than doubled to 54 000 because of outdoor shows he’s headlined.

He is back in the country on a national tour. Though a lot of his famous songs with groups such as Juluka and Savuka were about the hardships of the country, he has been able to stay relevant even after the end of apartheid. While life in South Africa has changed, he believes “there is still a divide culturally, racially and on class status. The tables have turned.

“I’m an artist who brings a different perspective on things. I’m not writing on love, but about social issues, even after apartheid.”

One would think he might have faded like a lot of artists of “his generation”, but Clegg has remained current and reinvented himself.

A self-proclaimed Africanist, he believes more in singing about his home country than anything else.

“I have always been interested in Africa. It has shaped my life, so why should I sing about Hollywood and not my world?”

He’s famous for struggle soundtracks Asimbonanga and Scatterlings of Africa. Impi, about the defeat of the colonial British army by the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana, was banned in South Africa but still became an underground hit.

Asimbonanga was about Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment and how many people had never seen him because his name and face were banned. It only received airplay overseas.

When Clegg received a Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degree, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, told him: “If music is the food of love, yours is a veritable banquet. You infuse it with the rhythms of Africa and the melodies of the West to create a unique blend that at once sustains and empowers. Like all great art, it transcends differences to express the boundless spirit of our rainbow world.”

Clegg feels artists today don’t have a balance, adding they should not be so dependent on music.

“I had a day job and didn’t have to live off my music for the first four albums.”

Clegg is working on his biography and a musical. He hopes to finish the rough draft of his manuscript by the end of this year and the musical next year.

Clegg’s travel trivia

Of all the places you’ve travelled to, which country has stuck out the most for you?

What three things can you not travel without?
Books, comfortable shorts and music.

What’s the most interesting food you’ve eaten overseas?
Water rat at a Vietnamese restaurant in French Guyana.

Which food and country would you not recommend, and why?
All countries and food traditions have something to offer . . . You just have to be open for a food adventure.

Name your top five destinations, and why?
Seweweekspoort in the Karoo is magical, lonely and uplifting. Red Rocks in Colorado, US, has the best musical open-air venue carved out of a mountain.

Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe for primordial water power in a beautiful setting. The view from Gcotoyi over the Tugela Valley on the road from Kranskop, KwaZulu-Natal, is where my old partner, Sipho (Mchunu), lives. The Rocky Mountains around Banff in Canada are spectacular.

What’s the one thing you do in a new town religiously?
Find a steakhouse.

Which is your favourite South African province?
The Klein and Groot Karoo, which lies across Western and Eastern Cape (I think).

What has been the worst trip for you?
Severe food poisoning on the ferry from Victoria Island to Vancouver.

What are your pet peeves about travelling to foreign countries?
All passport control and customs facilities are still stressful after 30 years of travelling, no matter the country.

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