Sharing stories and songs

2013-03-14 00:00

IT’S been nearly four decades since Johnny Clegg performed at the Playhouse in Durban and he can’t wait to share his new show, A South African Story, with local fans, before taking it overseas to wow a British audience at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Clegg, who will be in Durban until March 16, has fond memories of the Playhouse.

“The last time I did a show there was in the seventies. Sipho [Mchunu] and I did a performance as a duo, playing maskandi music … I think it was even before the advent of Juluka,” he said.

Asked what fans can expect from A South African Story, Clegg said: “My theatre show is a more layered presentation ... Performing for people in a theatre is a bit like having them in your lounge, so there’s a lot of chatting.”

During the show, Clegg will share his involvement with the Zulu migrant labour community over the past 40 years, as well as stories and anecdotes about the events that shaped songs like Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World, Scatterlings of Africa, I Call Your Name, Impi, Asimbonanga, Great Heart, and African Sky Blue.

The Playhouse performances are also, he says, a great warm-up for his show at the Royal Albert Hall on March 27.

It’s the first time a South African artist has been given a solo headlining slot, but it’s not Clegg’s first visit to the iconic concert hall. Back in 1989, Savuka was the support act for English singer-songwriter, Steve Winwood (Valerie and Higher Love).

Clegg said: “We had been on a two-month tour with Steve in the [United] States and he liked the band so much that he asked us to tour with him in the United Kingdom.”

He added that the tour created something of a headache for the anti-apartheid movement’s call for a cultural boycott of South African entertainers.

“I’ve always had a very chequered history in England. When Juluka went over in 1982/1983 and Scatterlings got into the top 50, there was a lot of confusion over whether or not we were breaking the cultural boycott,” Clegg said.

“We were a non-racial band coming out of South Africa, and we weren’t the only ones. Other bands, like Bright Blue, were also experimenting with cross-over music, but we all found ourselves in a kind of no-man’s land.”

That said, Savuka had great fun performing with Winwood. Clegg remembers wondering whether or not he would ever get to headline at the Royal Albert Hall and, more importantly, be able to fill it, because he’s never produced the kind of mainstream pop and rock that gets commercial radio play and sells out venues.

He said: “I was a singer who came out of the singer-songwriter, folk tradition. I was never a commercial artist, but the great thing is that I have been able to write songs that have now become evergreens on commercial radio.”

In addition to his stage performances, Clegg is hard at work on an autobiography and a musical based on his life story, which he hopes to have on stage by December 2014.

Born in Rochdale, England, in 1953, Clegg briefly lived in Zimbabwe, before moving to South Africa at the age of nine.

Five years later, he started learning to play guitar, and through his friendship with a Zulu flat cleaner, Charlie Mzila, also learnt the fundamentals of Zulu music and traditional Zulu inhlangwini dancing.

Clegg also accompanied Mzila to all the migrant labour haunts, from hostels to rooftop shebeens. It was risky stuff, and the then 16-year-old’s musical passion often led to him being arrested for trespassing on government property and for contravening the Group Areas Act.

More importantly, however, it introduced him to Mchunu, from Kranskop, and together they created Juluka, a partnership that was destined to alter the face of South African music.

During this time, Clegg also managed to study and complete an honours degree in social anthropology, and later lectured at the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Natal.

After enjoying great success, Juluka split in 1985 and Mchunu went back to his farm in Zululand.

A year later, Clegg created Savuka, a Grammy-nominated band, which mixed African music with Celtic folk and international rock sounds.

Since 1994, Clegg has worked as a solo artist, reunited with Mchunu for collaborations, performed with the Soweto Gospel Choir, and enjoyed sell-out concerts at home and abroad.

The singer has also received a slew of honours and awards at home and abroad, and is looking forward to being back in KwaZulu-Natal next month to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

• Tickets for Johnny Clegg’s Durban concerts range from R171 to R315, and are available from Computicket or the Playhouse Company at 031 369 9555.

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