Clegg remembers his roots

2009-09-19 00:00

IN a career that has included ­numerous awards and accolades, it is something much more human that legendary South African singer Johnny Clegg considers one of the highlights of his life.

“Growing up, learning to dance in the hostels will always be a magical, very special thing in my life,” he says, although having former president Nelson Mandela come and see him on stage at a concert in Frankfurt in 1997 comes a pretty close second.

It’s an interesting comment, considering that South Africa at that time was a very different place. The Group Areas Act made it illegal for Clegg to go to black areas without the express permission of a magistrate.

But Clegg, then 14 years old, didn’t let it stop him: “I got arrested for entering a black area without permission, but I used the fact that I was a child to get round it.

“I just said I didn’t know, that I was a child and just wanted to play music.”

It was during his visits to the Johannesburg hostels that Clegg first encountered his Juluka partner, Sipho Mchunu, an 18-year-old migrant worker who had come to Johannesburg from Kranskop in 1969. He challenged Clegg to a guitar competition, kickstarting a friendship that would lead to one of the most creative collaborations in South African music.

Those early years were tough. “When it came to public performances, there were laws in place which made it illegal for us to perform as a mixed band to a mixed audience,” he said. “So, we would go to churches, school halls, some university halls, some embassies, even people’s lounges — I remember we played in Des and Dawn Lindberg’s lounge at one of their soiree evenings.”

And even once the band was ­established, its music was subjected to censorship and banning. Between 20% and 30% of Juluka’s concerts in the townships were closed down at the height of the band’s fame.

To try to prevent this happening, promoters would drive around with a megaphone to announce that Juluka were performing that day. “So long as people saw the sound truck outside the hall, they were willing to buy tickets,” Clegg said.

Given the importance of radio play to bands, it’s also astonishing to think that for many years Juluka couldn’t get their songs played on air. “We were ostracised because we were mixing the language,” Clegg explained.

When Juluka split in 1985, Clegg went on to form Savuka (meaning “We have risen”), and later embarked on a successful ­solo career.

Looking back, he says that while it was tough, the trade-off was the generosity and help he received from migrant Zulu workers who were happy to share their music and culture with him.

When I spoke to him last week, he was just about to fly off to Belgium to record a new album, ahead of his performance at Mmino MusicMix: A Boundless Experience, a two-day festival at Durban’s Inkosi Albert Lithuli International Convention Centre on September 24 and 25.

Fans can look forward to a collaboration between Clegg and Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi, performances by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Ray Phiri, Hugh Masekela, gospel soloist Tsepo “The Village Pope” Tshola, and ­violinist Tsepo Mngoma.

Asked what he thought the ­secret of his success was, he said: “Hard work. As a world musician, my music isn’t really played on mainstream radio. That has forced me to fight hard for every cultural space that I have opened up overseas. I have gone to France every year since 1988 and I regularly go to Canada, Switzerland, all the countries in fact where I created a bridgehead.

“It’s really important to remember in this business that you never really arrive. You’re only as good as your last hit, your last interview. And you need a killer live show ­because that’s what helps keep long-term supporters.”

• Tickets to see Johnny Clegg playing live at the Mmino Music Festival, are available from Computicket at 083 915 8000.

• He was born in Rochdale, England, in 1953 and raised in Zimbabwe before coming to South Africa aged nine.

• He was taught the fundamentals of traditional Zulu music and inhlangwini dancing by Charlie Mzila, a Zulu man who cleaned the flats where he lived.

• He has a BA (hons) in social anthropology and taught at both Wits and the then University of Natal.

• Among his favourite songs from the past 30 years are Circle of Light, Third World Child, Scatterlings and Wanderers and Nomads.

• He is working on music for an animated version of Jock of the Bushveld.


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