Opinionista Andy Rice 17 July 2019

When Johnny and Savuka rocked Kentish Town

I wrote this piece in 1988 when I was living in London, when Johnny was still young, and exiles still had years to wait before returning home.

Kentish Town is not London’s most charismatic district. Skulking uncomfortably on the southern fringes of Hampstead Heath, it is an in-between sort of place, not central enough to inherit any of the West End’s brash energy, yet not far enough out to escape the bricked-in claustrophobia of this sprawling city. Sensible Londoners go through Kentish Town, not to it.

But on several evenings in recent months, you would have been forgiven for thinking otherwise; no longer just in transit, the traffic there, for once, was Kentish Town-bound. Its destination? The unprepossessing Town & Country Club. The drawcard? One John Clegg, Johnny to his mates, scourge of the cultural boycotters, Savuka acolytes in tow, fresh from France, and playing here, too, to full – nay teeming – houses, night after night.

The Town & Country Club, like the monochromic suburb it finds itself in, looks best by night – preferably with the lights off. Too much candlepower reveals it for exactly what it is – a tired one-time cinema that has been filleted of its seats and garnished grudgingly with a solid slab of a stage at one end and a production line bar at the other. In between is a stark auditorium, offering standing room only, empty or full. Which way the audience chooses to face is as good a measure as any of the appeal of those on stage. And when Clegg’s steamin’, the barman’s breathin’ easy.

Mnr. C’s politics have been exhaustively documented, and need no repetition here. Suffice it to say that even in the vernacular, to someone like me whose Sussex school mysteriously never offered Zulu as an O-level option, the message of rebellion rings unambiguously through the evocative African imagery.

But politics in music is a two-way affair, needing reciprocal enthusiasm from the audience if any lasting influences are to be generated. Savuka themselves will suffer no clearer demonstration of this fact of activist life than the spectacular indifference with which they were received at the prestigious Albert Hall last year (1987) by a bewildered crowd impatient for the bill-topping Steve Winwood.

There will be no cold shouldering tonight, though, for the Town & Country Club is no Albert Hall. And this audience is a far cry from the music industry’s typically affluent, Eurocentric, mainstream quarry. Look around – the evidence is everywhere. Rare are the pasty, pallid faces that the British climate nourishes … at the bar, bitter is spurned for lager to an extent that mocks all market share statistics … old hands comparing past gigs talk not of London but of the Baxter or Jameson’s … and everywhere, that accent, stretching English vowels until finally they snap into full-blown Afrikaans, nogal.

This is an audience that knows Savuka’s music not from the journals and broadcasts of crusading British media, but from first-hand experience under the African sky blue. Their politics is in their simple presence, concentrated incongruously in London North West Five – for this is an audience of exiles, of wasted exported talent, a testament to governmental folly that would be no less telling if they were to remain mute where they stand.

Mute? Fat chance of that! Hardly have the lyrics asked, Are You There?, than the answer roars back – you bet we are! Several hundred voices, reluctant residents of London, making the most of this rare chance to immerse themselves in some high voltage crossover Zulu rock.

The barman, by now not just breathin’ easy but positively unemployed, looks bemused as the dialogue between stage and gallery grows ever more ethnic. Baobabs and Babanango, Drakensberg and Daveyton – these words may mean little to him, but to the manic mass he’s watching, they are everything, urgent images from a riven country their consciences asked them to leave. For an evening, the exiles are back, back in Africa, back briefly until their parole ends with an astonishingly stirring Asimbonanga.

Then it’s exit Savuka, stage left, and exit also their sweaty scatterlings, soon to be blanketed once more by London’s anonymity. The choice has been theirs, and by it, Clegg has gained an unexpectedly rousing Kentish Town audience, England has gained a burgeoning fund of émigré manpower – and South Africa, once again, has lost all ways. DM

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