Johnny Clegg: A South African Story

The thrilling thing about existence in a continent that for centuries has been mauled, stigmatised, colonised and fought over by the west, is the crossover culture that’s a by-product of it all. Sure, we, as “whities” have been taught self-hatred like any colonising people in the face of the colonised. We, or our forefathers, signed sealed, and legitimised racial hatred and to corroborate it, developed a practice of indoctrination: the very stuff that makes a serious cultural practitioner straddle values and reinvent himself.

Of course, not everyone heir to the South African contradictions does this, which is what makes it so interesting. Take Johnny Clegg for instance. This Jewish boy, born in England, grew up with a tapestry of cultures surrounding him. His experiences gave him the balls to challenge governmental acts prohibiting the integration of culture; he spit in the face of apartheid authority, and learned to stick fight, dance and sing like a Zulu man. It was from him that I filched the name of this column, in fact. “Just Another Day in Africa” originated from one of his lyrics, and in many ways that phrase encapsulates the pot-pourri of cultural realities that South Africanisms represent.

Although he was born in England and grew up in Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa, and therefore gained a broader understanding of a social framework than most young white South Africans ever could, Clegg could only have developed as he did in our contradictory and complicated culture. Deeply aware of the baggage that being white, Jewish, middle-class and African in a country disjointed by racial conflict entails, Clegg slipped between definitions of behaviour, broke new ground in the music arena, and became a cultural phenomenon.

But his tale is not that simple. From making wire cars with other nine-year-olds on the edge of Lusaka, Zambia, to fleeing from landlords during jamming sessions in the servants’ quarters of Killarney, a smart apartment-based suburb of Johannesburg, as a teenager Clegg’s career has rich, happy and blood-curdlingly exciting roots. From the age of 14, Clegg developed a secret life that intersected with his growth as a white young boy in Johannesburg. On an errand one evening, he met a Zulu guitarist called Charlie Mzila. At that stage Clegg was fascinated with Celtic folk music which reminded him of his father, who had absconded when Clegg was very young. The Zulu sounds evoked a Celtic 6/8 for Clegg and with the candour of many people in their early teenagerhood, he asked Mzila, 10 years his senior, to show him how he did it. Mzila was bemused and charmed, and so began an important relationship for Clegg, with the music, culture, and people of South Africa.

But the part of this story that tends to remain implicit is the South African climate of the time. A law existed called the “Group Areas Act”. This law was about keeping people of different skin hues away from one another in order to prevent integration of any kind (to illustrate: if you were a black woman, you could only be in white suburbia after curfew hours if you were someone’s nanny and had papers to prove it.) Clegg used to jam with Charlie in Charlie’s servant quarters, which conventionally comprised a room atop middle-class buildings and by implication for a white boy, this was dangerous and illegal. Clegg explains:

The caretaker of the building was a very aggressive young English guy who used to go off to work during the day. I knew I must get out the building by about 4:45 because the caretaker would return and come straight up to see if I was still there. One Saturday, I was in Charlie’s quarters . . . I was playing there with him, and the caretaker came in drunk. He was going to call the police, and a fight ensued and Charlie beat him up.

This fight for Clegg’s integrity was almost like a coming of age gesture. Suddenly he had a role model who represented values for him that surpassed anything he’d been taught or experienced before. It was in these surrounds that Clegg was introduced to the migrant labour cultural community. He discovered shebeens (or informal night clubs — blacks were not officially allowed to sell liquor and by and large did it behind closed doors) and experienced the whole underbelly of Johannesburg: where people would gamble and drink and play music and try to outperform one another.

A rather delicious irony is that Charlie Mzila was a very traditional and unanglicised individual. He couldn’t speak English. Music rather poetically became the medium of communication between him and his new young protégé. By the age of 15, Clegg become well-known to the long arm of the law and was arrested on numerous occasions for trespassing and for contravening the Group Areas Act. But by that time, he was one of the Zulu dancers, accepted by these artists, and they defended and supported him during police raids. He’d learned how to infiltrate into a group of black men, thus avoiding the awareness of police watching out for “whities” entering black hostels or compounds. In 1967 Clegg experienced Zulu dance for the first time.

There was a single electric light and there was a concrete sports yard, very big, surrounded by buildings . . . I heard the dance before I saw it . . . I heard an incredible humming sound . . . and I saw these 60or 80 men performing this dance and I had an overwhelming sense that I was the only young white person who was being exposed to this . . . I had a sense that the universe was winking at me, saying, ‘There’s a very big secret here and it can be yours if you want it.'”

Zulu dance was, indeed, a secret that he grabbed with both hands and feet and all of his talents as he broke new ground in the music industry. He formed his first band, Juluka, with Sipho Mchunu in 1976, in direct contravention to the cultural segregation laws of the time, and in the face of constant banning orders and criticism by the media and broadcasting channels. A little more than 25 years later, Clegg is still a showcase for South African possibility. Broadly to coincide with the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, Clegg, now in his late 40s, a little overweight and slightly balding, presented a show that was prized by Johannesburg’s public.

Part of the show was retrospective and contained a narrative overview of Clegg’s development. Structurally, it was chronological, beginning in 1967 when Clegg was 14 and first became aware of Zulu dance. It represents a break in the type of work Clegg has done in the past.

“I’m at a time now when I’m consolidating. I’m gearing myself up to a new career on my own without a backing band. And this is my story, my debut and the release of my debut solo album. So it’s all integrated into both a consolidation of what I’ve been through and an introduction to some of the directions that I will be exploring in the future”, he said, sitting at a trendy coffee shop in Johannesburg, days before the opening of the show.

His backing band is called the Johnny Clegg Band. It comprises a group of young, versatile, talented men who have been working with Clegg for the last two years. Sipho Mchunu, Clegg’s partner in Juluka (Clegg’s first and better known band, whose title means “Sweat”) and his influence and impetus for many years is not a part of this group, but he features in the show as an important part of the narrative. “It’s all the music you want to hear from the Juluka period, but it has a very strong historical context, with the second half a total boogie,” Clegg said. Once a Social Anthropology lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Clegg constructed a skeleton narrative for the show without a script, so the show differed each night, playing spontaneously to audience cues.

Clegg was hot and mainstream in the 1980s — with those examples of his music that were allowed through banning orders, that is. He was the first vocal artist to use Nelson Mandela’s name in lyrics, but South Africans only got to hear them after the new democracy had come about.

A member of the United Defence Force (UDF) in the 1990s, Clegg worked with trade unions, which were at that time still illegal. He would translate the contradictions in the capitalist system spawned by the government into Zulu, for the average man-in-the-street. He was also instrumental in establishing the South African Musicians Association.

The refreshing thing about of all this, is that Clegg is not the embodiment of a do-goodnik. None of these gestures were made to reflect on a politically correct resume. Clegg refers to himself growing up in this culture as “an innocent abroad” — one swept by the currents of the world who was there to make something of himself. “I was on a personal journey at the same time I was in the context of a country in massive upheaval and change,” he said.

But his work was never didactically or narrowly political: Clegg’s work interfaced with the politics of the times, rather than kowtowing to it: “I managed to keep a semblance of autonomy in my own creative realm,” he said, “I wasn’t a slavish follower of the latest political decisions. And I think there was a lot of debate about what I was doing. It was stuff which technically wasn’t allowed. Both sides, the government and hard-core politicos challenged me”. Indeed, both often sides vociferously announced their pleasure at seeing concerts banned or closed down in the face of decisions bigger than Clegg’s bands and affiliations. In 1986, Clegg formed Savuka, a politically focused and oriented-band, as a sibling to Juluka. This band sadly came to closure in 1993 with the assassination of one of its key members, Dudu Zulu, in a taxi war.

Too white, too black, too politically inappropriate. The gestures, by way of song and dance that Clegg made through the turbulent 1980s and 1990s were out of the range of expectation of the average South African. At that stage, culture was recognised as a political weapon. But as he said, “My music wasn’t in anybody’s ideological framework.” And that, partly, is this music’s strength.

Clegg told me about the culture of praise names which the Zulu give their people. The praise name has to do with the ability of the people to recognise an individual. The story told in the praise name is never one of obsequious admiration, but a wry, good humoured observation concerning the idiosyncrasies and slippages of an individual that make him special to his friends. Clegg’s praise name runs smoothly off his tongue, as though he were a mother-tongue Zulu speaker, giving poetry to a language I don’t understand. “Bakuzonda abelungu, bakuzonda eKilarney, bakuzonda okhethika“, meaning the whites hate you, they hate you in Killarney, the people of the flatland hate you, and particularly the caretakers hate you. It is this type of narrative that enables one to be a man with dignity in Zulu culture. And it is this type of humour that allows one to take one’s own dreams seriously.

Part of South Africa’s cultural beauty and sense of wild anachronism has deep roots in the ways in which apartheid made people downplay themselves. Instead of becoming a group of people coloured by bitterness and oppression they became one deepened to the injustices of the world and grown with the ironies that punctuate it. And irony, within the right hands, produces humour. Not ever happy, easy go lucky, side-splitting humour, but the heart-wrenching variety, which lies deep as it confuses and elaborates on the so-called “black and white” definitive issues of our world. Having played to capacity audiences and being called back for two more concerts during September, Clegg’s crossover sounds are as mainstream as you get, these days. It is indeed, Just another day in Africa.

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