A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 74: The White Zulu

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Do yourself a favor: Get to know Johnny Clegg. I was introduced to him many years ago when my good friend introduced me to Juluka, a South African band which Clegg formed with his friend, Sipho Mchunu. I didn’t know all those details when I first listened to my friend’s cassette tape recording of their album “Scatterlings”. All I knew was that they made music that was an infectious and danceable blend of rock and African music, sung in English, Zulu and other African languages. At the time, Paul Simon had introduced the world to South African music in his transcendent album “Graceland”. Here, in Juluka, I was hearing the music that, in part, inspired him. I was hooked from the first song on the album (which so happened to be the title track: “Scatterlings of Africa”).

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As I got more and more into the music of Juluka, I learned more and more about Clegg and the history of the band. Johnny Clegg was born in England but raised in South Africa. As a child he loved Celtic music and it inspired him to seek out the Zulu street music he heard around him. He began to play and to learn from the black musicians that he befriended in the townships. This association with the blacks got him arrested for the first time at the age of 15. At the age of 17 he met Sipho Mchunu and they formed a duo which they called Juluka (“sweat”).  Johnny himself gained a nickname because of his embrace of the culture, music and language: The White Zulu.

This association with Mchunu was, to say the least, highly unusual in Apartheid-era South Africa. The duo would become a six-member band, divided equally with three white members and three black members. As they sought to perform as a group, they faced harassment and censorship in their home country. They were arrested on a number of occasions, their concerts routinely broken up by authorities.

Despite all this, or perhaps due to all of this, their fame grew in Europe, the United States and Canada where they began to gain a large following. Though Clegg says the band was never intended to be political, there was no denying their stance as a bi-racial band in the midst of South Africa, and there was no denying the message of their songs. They became the musical equivalent to the social justice work of Stephen Biko and Desmond Tutu.

Juluka disbanded in 1985 when Mchunu quit to return and run his family’s farm. Clegg continued on with Savuka (“we have arisen”) and continued to make his own unique blend of rock, Celtic and African music. Clegg’s song “Scatterlings of Africa” from his Juluka days can be heard in the soundtrack of the movie “Rain Man”; his song “Dela” from his Savuka days can be heard in the movie “George of the Jungle”.  Savuka came to an end in 1993 but Johnny Clegg continues to perform and tour around the world. He is also an anthropologist, having taught at the university level in his country.

I had the joy of seeing Johnny Clegg perform in both Madison, WI (when Juluka briefly came together again for a new album and tour) and in Ottawa, ON. His concerts are full of joy, dancing, and well-crafted and beat-driven music. Clegg himself is funny, intelligent and engaging, bringing his anthropological background to play when he explains various African instruments, musical styles and traditions.

Johnny Clegg is one of my favorite Dangerous Creatives, and a great influence. His drive to continue to create despite the barriers, and his unceasingly positive and uplifting message in doing so, remind me that art truly does exist for higher purposes. He faced barriers of mountain-like proportion in South Africa yet he prevailed through his art, through his will, through his partnership with like-minded people, be they black or white. Nothing was going to keep him from singing what he wanted to sing, from writing the lyrics he wanted to write, from performing with who he wanted to perform with.

Perhaps the crowning moment in his career and, certainly, the most poetically appropriate, was when Nelson Mandela joined Clegg and his band on stage when he sang the song, “Asimbonanga”. Written and dedicated to Mandela before his release from, the song is powerful, uplifting and defiant – a fitting description of Johnny Clegg and his music. Below is a YouTube link to that moment:

Do yourself a favor today: Seek out more music from this indefatigable artist.

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