Johnny Clegg

2010-06-12 00:00

AFTER 30 years in the South African music business, Johnny Clegg doesn’t have much left to prove to the world — but ask the man himself and he’ll tell you he still has so much more to say.

“The world is in such a state that there is still so much to write about… and I want to grow my capabilities as a songwriter, a communicator,” he said on Thursday ahead of a concert at the Wavehouse at Gateway — the first date in a tour of South Africa and Europe that celebrates his 30th anniversary.

Clegg has also released a double album, with an accompanying DVD, to mark his 30 years in music. Titled Spirit is the Journey — a name taken from one of his favourite songs — this is not a compilation of greatest hits, but something more personal. “All the songs I chose were those which, as a songwriter, represented key moments in my life… songs that show a technological breakthrough, songs that successfully mix African and European melodies, songs with a message,” Clegg explains.

Among the 34 tracks is a stunning collaboration with the Soweto Gospel Choir on Africa (What Made You So Strong); a live version of Clegg’s 1986 hit Asimbonaga (We Have Never Seen Him), about Mandela and the fact that people of his generation had never seen a picture of Madiba; the moving Missing, which gives a sense of the panic that existed when detainees and other anti-apartheid activists vanished during the 1980s; The Crossing, Clegg’s tribute to his mentor and friend, Dudu Ndlovu in 1992; and Ibhola Lethu (Our Football), a tribute to the beautiful game.

Accompanying the album is a DVD titled Johnny Clegg – My Favourite Zulu Guitar Songs, in which he jams with four friends — Bongani Masuku, Sithembiso Makhoba, Bafanzana Qoma and Sipho Nxumalo — in the Kwa Mai-Mai Market in Johannesburg.

Asked how the documentary had come about, Clegg said: “It was one of those moments that comes across your consciousness, and, if you don’t grab it, it disappears. It wasn’t scripted, we just did it off the cuff.”

The Mai-Mai Market was once used as stabling for horses, used by the municipality to remove human waste and refuse from the hostels in Johannesburg. It later became a vibrant home for traditional healers and craftsmen skilled in making Zulu clothing and other traditional items for the thousands of migrant workers in the city. Clegg first visited the market as a 16-year-old in the late sixties. He was keen to learn how to play Zulu guitar songs, a quest which would lead to his partnership with Sipho Mchunu in Juluka, one of the most creative cross-cultural collaborations ever seen in South Africa.

But Clegg worries that the tradition of Zulu street music is a dying art. “In the late sixties, early seventies and even up to 1983, 1984, the tradition of street music was so prevalent, but today you just don’t see it,” he says. “That’s why I’m happy I made this film. It’s a record of my experience of maskandi music… and shows the door which opened a career in music to me.”

Away from the stage, Clegg has been drawing on his background in social anthropology to present the fascinating series, A Country Imagined on SABC2 at 9 pm on Sundays. “We wanted to show the physical landscapes and all the different kinds of environments in South Africa,” he says of the show’s premise, “but we also wanted to show the people who lived in that landscape, who still live in the landscape, and the artworks that they made, ranging from beadwork to pottery, dancing, painting, basically any creative response they had to the landscape.”

The programme required meticulous research and Clegg is keen to pay tribute to art historian Tracy Murinik, who “did all the research and gave the show a unique angle by choosing artists, places and people, both historical and current”.

To make the series, produced by Lusanda Chauke and directed by some of South Africa’s most acclaimed directors — Guy Spiller, John Trengove, Vincent Moloi, Feizel Mamdoo, Liza Key and Terri Ella — Clegg spent three months driving around South Africa, a journey of some 40 000km.

Travelling to some of the remoter regions of the country proved to be a revelation. “Living in Jo’burg, we’re all obsessed with issues — Zuma, Malema, potholes — but then you go to the Karoo or the Klein Karoo, or the North West and you find another South Africa. You find people who don’t even know who Malema is. It was amazing.”

As for what lies ahead, the singer-songwriter revealed he’s just signed a record deal in the United States and will perform 35 shows there in April and May next year. Until then he’ll be concentrating on his tour of SA and Europe, and doing what he loves best — performing live on stage.

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