A musical genius in South Africa – Johnny Clegg.
Johnny Clegg, a name not easily forgotten by South Africans (and French as he had a massive following there too), even though he only passed on in July due to pancreatic cancer. He sure did make an impact as one of the most popular South African artists, with more than 500 000 Google searches during the week of his passing. Tributes to Johnny flooded social media, including “The man who was too white to be black, and too black to be white. The icon, the legend. The white Zulu (or Le Zoulou Blanc).” In my opinion, he was a valuable gem.
This beloved music icon was born in Macup, England on 7 June 1953, and immigrated to South Africa when he was seven years old. At the age of 14 he was sent to buy milk and bread and came across a cleaner, Charlie Mzila, playing on his traditional Zulu guitar and Clegg was fascinated by the sound. Mzila agreed to teach him how to play the instrument as well as the art of Zulu stick-fighting, traditional Zulu dance, and how to compose maskandi music. (A big thank you to you, Charlie!)
His band Juluka (which means “sweat” in Zulu) began as a duo with Sipho Mchunu and was the first white-and-black-man band in the South African apartheid-era. When Sipho decided to take a break from touring and recording to spend time with family, Johnny started recording with Savuka (which means “we have risen”) in 1988, but occasionally reunited with his previous band. His songwriting and performance partner, Dudu Zulu, unfortunately, was murdered during violence between taxi companies in 1992. This was when Johnny decided to go solo. His popular music, that mixed Zulu with English and African music with various Western styles, became some of the best music in South Africa.
I remember hearing one of his songs as a teenager while driving with my father. I can’t remember the specific song, but I could feel the energy carried over from his lyrics to my inner soul. Asked my dad who it was, and he answered Johnny Clegg. I later learnt about his son, Jesse Clegg (they sound somewhat similar), and I treasure his music as well, especially now… My favourite songs from the Cleggs being Great Heart, Cruel Crazy Beautiful World, I Call Your Name and Let It Burn, respectively. Listen to Johnny’s best music tracks here on Spotify. (Sign-up is free).
He sold more than five million albums in a time before Spotify. One of Johnny’s most famous songs, Scatterlings of Africa, made the top 50 charts in the UK in 1983. It was also featured on the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning movie, Rain Man. He never won a Grammy, though, still he produced the best music in SA. He inspired fifty of the best musical artists in SA, including Arno Carstens, Somizi, Ross Learmonth (from Prime Circle) and more, to collaborate in remaking the hit, The Crossing. He was a universal man who bridged worlds and communities and gave people a different angle on stuff that was passed down blindly from generation to generation, accepting different cultures for who they are.
Johnny made a difference everywhere, even at home. Jesse thanked his father on Instagram for the “magical gifts” he has given them and for creating a special place in his heart for his family. Johnny inspired Jesse both as a musician and a man and has given him the tools to a meaningful life. I’m sure that Jaron (Johnny’s other son), honours his father in the same way too. Jaron is a writer-director and scripted and recorded the music video of one of his father’s legendary tracks’, Take My Heart Away. Jaron created stories since the age of 8 years’; listening to movie soundtracks and playing out scenarios with model armies. This led to experiments with stop-animation and storytelling through film. Johnny left his children with a vision…
For the rest of us, we’d undoubtedly remember and miss him for the singer, songwriter, dancer, anthropologist, and musical activist he was…when his haunting refrain Impi (meaning “Zulu warriors” or “War”) or his song Great Heart from the movie Jock of The Bushveld, echo through South African Rugby stadiums.
At least we still have other great music artists in South Africa. Here’s some insight into South Africa’s 2020 music performances/conferences:
- 2 January 2020 – Watershed, Port Elizabeth
- 3 January 2020 – Goldfish, Cape Town
- 4 January 2020 – Arno Carstens, Port Elizabeth
- 9 to 12 January 2020 – Cape Town Jazzathon 2020
- 31 January 2020 – Prime Circle, Rivonia
- 6 to 9 February 2020 – Up The Creek Music Festival, Swellendam
- 15 February 2020 – LILO Pop Up Waterpark and Music Festival, Pretoria
- 29 February 2020 – Nyana Unplugged 2019, Johannesburg