All this week I’ve been reflecting on music of the 1980’s that deeply impacted me during my late teens and early twenties. I remember the beautiful bombshell that was Paul Simon’s Graceland. Released in 1986, the bulk of the material on the album was recorded with some of South Africa’s greatest black musicians, including the otherworldly vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, an all-male choir that backed Simon up on some unforgettable tracks. I was blown away by Simon’s album and the music he introduced to many of us.
Around this time, a good friend of mine introduced me to a band from South Africa called Juluka. I remember him playing their music as we sat in his apartment. The rhythms and vocals, words in African languages, unusual instruments, chanted choruses overlaid in infectious music had me hooked from the first song, “Scatterlings of Africa”. I used to drive around in my Plymouth Scamp with a boom box in the back seat (that was my stereo system), blasting that cassette tape of Juluka my friend made for me. In my mind’s eye I tried to picture the band. Remember, this was a long, long time before anyone could Google for obscure bits of information about anything. I had no idea about this band beyond that tape.
It became an obsession for me to try to track down more of their music and more info about the group. Somehow I found a cassette tape of another one of their albums, Work for All, in the cheap tape rack of the local supermarket. I grabbed that thing like a starving man grabs a slice of bread and played that tape over and over. As Juluka fever gripped me, I came to learn that they were a mixed race group, formed by two friends, white and black, in the midst of Apartheid-era South Africa. Those co-founders, Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, were essentially doing something illegal in their homeland. The authorities had shut down their concerts, prohibited them from playing at some venues, and in general made the whole crazy idea of a band made of people with different skin colors in South Africa a major challenge.
But Juluka endured and thrived, becoming a major hit on the continent of Africa and eventually all over the world. They were one of the bands that Simon credits with his own journey of African musical discovery. Mchunu would leave the band after a few years to return to his family farm. Clegg continued on with Savuka and as a solo artist. I had the pleasure of seeing Juluka live when they briefly rejoined for a world tour in the 1990’s. I have since seen Johnny Clegg perform here in Ottawa and, let me tell you, if you get a chance to see him and his band, it is an unforgettable experience.
Here is that track that had me from the first few notes and chanted words. If you’ve never heard Juluka, just try and not be swept along by this magical blend of sounds and beats. I dare you. If you need more incentive, remember that it was music like this that ultimately killed Apartheid. Enjoy.