Life, etc

Johnny Clegg: Still strong after all these years

By J Brooks Spector 18 September 2012

We meet Johnny Clegg while he is preparing for his concert appearances at the Montecasino’s Teatro, before the rest of his current South African tour. Despite his decades on the road, Clegg insists he still loves the touring life – and looks forward to it every time he gets ready to go. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Now clearly in solid middle age, Johnny Clegg has begun harvesting honours and awards that define and recognise a lifetime of achievement. On his most recent Canada and US tour, for example, Clegg received an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College, one of America’s most distinguished liberal arts universities. And the person who handed Clegg this honour was Jim Yong Kim, now president of the World Bank. 

On that late spring day in New England, after describing Clegg’s unique role in Apartheid South Africa, Kim closed with, “Today, in a better time, your songs unite the crowds who throng the rugby stadiums and pack the public arenas of your beloved South Africa and echo around the world…. [And] with the company African Sky, you saw the opportunity both to protect our planet and put people to work by recycling e-waste…” 

Dartmouth’s award came just six weeks after South Africa gave Clegg its own Ikhamanga national honours award. 

At the time of interviewing, only two days before his Johannesburg concerts, Clegg was mostly struggling to sort out the right jacket for his upcoming concerts. The first one offered by the set and costume designer isn’t right, it’s too subtle – there’s no strong message, no sense of place, no local flavour. More colour, a stronger pattern, more impact, more there – that’s what he wants. A few minutes later, he’s shown a second choice and agrees the fabric is much better. He’s right.

It is as a bit of a shock to realise Johnny Clegg is 59 years old and that he’s been on the country’s national cultural landscape since the 1970s. With a shrug, he says he’ll probably need arthroscopic surgery on one knee – after all that dancing and those thousands of high Zulu-style kicks. It comes as a second shock to remember that I first saw and heard him at the legendary Market Café, more than thirty years ago. He was performing songs from his early album, Universal Men, together with his musical collaborator, Sipho Mchunu. They were doing lots of performances to get some popular buzz going for record sales, because SABC radio wouldn’t play their music. If the hugely popular and political hits like “Scatterlings of Africa” and “Asimbonanga” were still off in the future, on that small stage at the Market Café, the shape of cultural things to come was already moving into focus. 

In his 1996 interview in Cutting Through the Mountain, Clegg explored the circumstances of his initial introduction into Zulu culture and music. “Then in Killarney [an area of expensive Johannesburg apartments], I was arrested by the police, and charged with trespassing… And there was this constant sort of innuendo put across to me by the police when I was arrested, and by the caretakers, that there’s something else that I’m after, what’s going on, am I being abused, or… they could never have accepted it for what it was. I realised that these people couldn’t see; they couldn’t see the reality. There was a reality there that they could not actually perceive…” 

One time, after he was arrested, the story goes as follows. “The police took me to my mum, and said, ‘Listen, we’ve caught your boy inside Wemmer hostel, it’s extremely dangerous, two or three bodies come out there every weekend from inter-tribal warfare, and it’s a place of illicit gambling, stolen goods, prostitution. We go in there armed. It’s no place for a young white boy to be. In the first place it’s dangerous and in the second place it’s illegal. And you know, as he gets older, we’re going to arrest him and put him in jail. So you just keep him out [of] the way.’ ”

Clegg added that although his mother loved jazz and “wanted to be Ella Fitzgerald” herself, they had huge fights about his going to learn the music and dances of the Zulu men in the hostels. So she just said, ‘Look after yourself. And I’m not going to come bail you out anymore. You carry money in your pocket, you pay your fine.’” 

After one arrest, Clegg remembers, “… some of the police were actually curious. You know, they’d arrest me; they’d kind of intimate that they’d saved me from a very, very dark fate. They were young guys, and they would sit there puzzled as I said, no I’m having a great time, and I’d explain to them how I really enjoyed dancing and learning how to stick fight.”

As we start our own conversation this time around, Johnny Clegg wants to talk about Bob Dylan and how he changed popular music forever. Unsaid is my thought that Clegg forever changed South African and world music with his own unique fusion of folk, pop and African rhythms; sounds and lyrics blended in a way that was years ahead of everybody else. Clegg says Dylan was the master at telling stories, narratives that had a musical texture – but curiously, this seems a great deal like Clegg’s own body of work too. 

We settle back and talk about the challenges of getting older. TS Eliot’s “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” hovers in the air as Clegg turns to speak of the Zulu cultural value of “inkani” – that determined, even stubborn, sense of life force. 

To win in stick fighting for a day, one is a bull, he explains, but when one strives to become a bull for all the days in all that one tries to do, that is something else entirely. Clegg explains this has been the secret of many of the things he’s seen in life. It is not just a question of talent – it is also a question of perseverance. Traditional societies like the Zulu culture still esteem such values, even while some western societies are losing them. 

Zulu life, like all traditional societies, also has distinct age cohorts as you move from being a boy through to becoming a senior elder. Now, however, too many people are no longer shepherded through these rites of passage and maturation. The sense of belonging is crucial, and without this we miss something important – even if we can’t precisely put our finger on it. 

This is Clegg the social anthropologist launching into a compact lecture series on the collision of traditional and modern culture. It is not particularly surprising; he was, after all, an anthropology lecturer at Wits University, way back when. With his South African concert audiences he has, in fact, been known to launch into extended stories that connect his music, his life, and his understanding of traditional South African societies – such as his experiences (and the life lessons that came with it) as the neophyte manager of a chicken farm staffed by African farm workers.

As we settle in further, Clegg says he is creating a musical about his own life story – his struggles, defeats, and conflicts musically – and with himself, his mother, with Apartheid, and even with his musical partner Sipho Mchunu. It should be ready for the stage in 2014. He will not be in the work himself, but it most definitely will not be one of those ubiquitous, banal tribute shows that are on stage so frequently now, he promises. 

Defeats? What defeats? He explains he nearly failed high school and it was only because he did isiZulu as a subject that he finally passed. He actually wanted to be a game ranger – he spent every weekend he could camping in the bush – and he had a deep certainty that it was through nature that he would be healed from all the pressures and tensions of his difficult teenage years. Along the way, the structured patterns of Zulu masculinity imparted to him the feeling that “there was something very magical about being a man”. He says, “I met migrants who had walked to Johannesburg from Zululand, who had fought in five or six tribal wars… they were anonymous, but they had no real ambition to become famous [to the larger world]; they were just doing what came naturally to them by being a man.” 

But then he adds, “They also had an amazing sense of humour. In a really dark moment, they would find a spot of humour. A man could be killed in a car accident and someone would rush in to steal the deceased man’s R10,000 shoes. Now, we’d say that was terrible, but the Zulu response might be to say, ‘A bird feathers its nest with the feather of a dead bird.’ You get mugged – you are injured and robbed; and then you are sitting with the men drinking. They interrogate you and they want to know everything about what happened. At that point you realise you have been blind to so many things all around you; that up until now you have been ‘fast asleep’. The saying is, ‘The old, dry, dead grass which is asleep is only made new by its burning’ – there is a gift in that insight and you have to find it.” 

We are moving fast into one of those metaphysical discussions of what we know, how we know it, and how we can find appropriate metaphors or ways of describing all this. Language frames experience, Clegg emphasises. 

And now he is onto describing the sociology of the single sex male hostel as an intensification and amplification of the traditional Zulu ways of living in rural areas. The old cultural ‘tools’ have been reshaped and reused in new ways to adapt to the new experience. I’m listening carefully as Clegg seems to be channelling anthropologists like Clifford Geertz or Margaret Mead; I realise we’ve been speaking for over thirty minutes and we have barely touched on Clegg’s astonishing music and music making.

But then we are on to his work with that recent thirteen-part television series, An Imagined Country. This was designed to introduce the complexities of South Africa to visitors to the country during the 2010 Soccer World Cup – beyond the simple tourist spots. The producer’s goal was to examine the combinations of people, the landscape of where they live and the art and craft they produce as a result. It was meant to ask how people related to their respective landscapes and how that ended up being reflected in their art, their dance, their crafts. They were fascinating shows and should be available everywhere.

One key question in doing this series was how people saw themselves in their landscapes. Clegg explains the challenge of doing this series was that “I was also someone who was learning about my country… I took ownership of the information and I felt as if I was sharing this information with other South Africans… And the people we interviewed were told they would be speaking with Johnny Clegg and that he was really interested in what you were doing and why you were doing it.” He admits that in the process of doing this series, “I rediscovered my own country… I learned as an artist it is impossible to be an artist without an ego; but I also had to learn that I had to deal with another artist’s ego in a medium I had no knowledge about – I had to be like a piece of blotting paper. I had to really listen!”

Our talk turns to yet another non-musical activity – his recycling project that now deals with plastics, paper, cardboard and hazardous waste. This has evolved out of his original project to recycle electronic waste projects. Now he is recycling used ink cartridges that are shredded and used in making bricks that are light, strong, durable building materials. The project is called New Earth Waste Solutions – NEWS – and it is yet another side of an eternally restless man. With all his many activities, he explains, “I feel really special! But what I really need is a PA!” Any really energetic volunteers?

Finally, we turn to music, in this case the future for South African music – and music more generally. Where is it going now? Clegg says, “I did my last album in 2010 abroad and in 2011 here. I do an album every two, two-and-a-half years, whenever I think I have something to say. But the world is going back to where it was in the 1950s – to the single. Albums were creations of the record company.”

Now we’re going back to the original model. You’ll write something song by song – it’s out on iTunes, something – but this model is not working perfectly yet. Regardless, this is forcing a resurgence of live music and that is where musicians are making their money now… But the digital revolution has demeaned the product from its social meaning.” The man is a whirlwind of ideas.

And unstoppable. He continues, “A song is now around for a couple of weeks only and so we’re living in the permanent present. We can’t endow things with meaning. If you have a song, a story, a painting, it shapes you and gives you a certain kind of nourishment. This is the role of art. And it is the highest form of nourishment you can get. It puts your life into quality space from the mundane, and that’s why people go to shows, the ballet, and opera, whatever. But that special thing is being lost and that is the crisis of the digital age.” He even draws in the idea that live artists must now compete with performers who are already dead, but whose very performances are brought back to a virtual life. “This resurrection of dead guys means I have to compete with live guys and dead guys – we’re living in a cut-and-paste world and there is no sense of trajectory.”

When asked where he’ll be ten years from now, Clegg says he eventually sees himself as a film score writer, although he admits he still needs to learn more about the technology. Then there is the possibility of working with the SA Tourism Board to help bring the hidden parts of South Africa to the knowledge of the wider world. The man is a national treasure himself and must be harnessed carefully in the coming years. Listen once again to all the great favourites – “Asimbonanga”, “Scatterlings”, “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World”, “Dela”, “Work for All” – to remember just how much joy and inspiration he has given to so many during his long career.

In the coming weeks and months, Johnny Clegg will be performing in Monaco at the end of September; then there are concerts in Empangeni on 6 October, the next day in Pietermaritzburg; at Fancourt in George on 3 November and the following day in Port Elizabeth. And that’s just his schedule before Christmas. DM

For more, see the links below or go to YouTube for live recordings of some of his greatest hits:


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