#JohnnyClegg’s music was the soulful soundtrack to our lives

It will be a bitter-sweet moment for rugby fans when the Impi warrior runs out onto the field at Ellis Park this afternoon brandishing his spear and leaping into the air, laying down the challenge to the visiting Wallabies; the man who penned the iconic song that inspired the pageantry is no more.

Johnny Clegg is dead. His music, though, will live on, as many noted this week, as the soundtrack to our lives.

Already, as Rhodes University academic Richard Pithouse observed, the mythologisation of perhaps our most globally recognisable cultural icon is almost complete – just as it was for his best-known fan, Nelson Mandela.

Clegg’s song Impi, off Juluka’s second album African Litany, commemorated the annihilation of a well-armed British battalion at Isandlwana in KwaZulu-Natal, by a Zulu army armed mostly with spears. It was released in 1981, the same year the South African Defence Force launched its most devastating offensive into Angola.

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Johnny Clegg had fervent fans stomping and singing along when he performed some of his greatest hits at a Durban concert in March 2005. 
 SHELLEY KJONSTAD

It’s a nuance that will be lost on many fans bellowing the Zulu chorus from the stands – even if they don’t know what the words mean.

Much of Clegg and his friend and collaborator Sipho Mchunu’s work was like that – providing an excoriating view of the reality of apartheid that most whites chose to ignore; the plight of migrant workers forced to work underground in African Sky Blue or being accused of stealing the liquor in the cabinet in High Country, not even hinting of the civil war that lay ahead but warning of it directly in Heart of the Dancer: Soon the puppet will be the puppet master or of white South Africans being left behind by history in African Litany.

But if there was ever a song to define Clegg – and every fan has a different one – it was in all probability Asimbonanga, the haunting paean to the political prisoners; chief among them Mandela incarcerated in his third decade, actively airbrushed by the regime, and the rising number of activists dying mysteriously in detention; from Steve Biko to Victoria Mxenge and Neil Aggett.

The song was written quickly during the darkest days of the State of Emergency, while Clegg was recording with his new band Savuka in a studio in the south of Johannesburg. “Most white people were afraid of Mandela at the very best and at the very worst they hate him and they are in power,” he said during his Final Journey tour, but Clegg felt forced to reach out.

The lines: Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey, Look across the island into the bay, We are all islands till comes the day We cross the burning water, were as much a reference to Robben Island as they were a homage to 17th century poet John Donne’s No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee, he remembered. The song was banned by the SABC, the umpteenth one of Clegg’s to suffer this fate, but it became a global and enduring hit.

Clegg was always going to speak out about injustice, he could do nothing else; his upbringing demanded it. Born in the UK in 1953 and then brought to Johannesburg as a seven-year-old by his single mother, a jazz and cabaret singer, Clegg was exposed to townships by his stepfather, a reporter on the Rand Daily Mail. It was a very different upbringing for a white boy that went into overdrive when he met Charlie Mzila, a cleaner at the flats. Two years later, he’d meet Mchunu who’d journeyed from his hostel in town to meet Clegg and challenge him to a guitar duel.

They became fast friends. Mchunu would introduce him to Zulu dancing at the Wemmer Hostel in the Joburg CBD and Clegg would be arrested for breaking the Group Areas Act, but it would not deter him.

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Participating in a traditional dancing challenge.

“I never thought when I was growing up in the streets of Joburg, ducking and diving from the police with Sipho or with Charlie that a band would emerge out of this and I would have a musical career,” he remembered.

“I saw myself as an anthropologist who’d be working and getting a salary, teaching and discovering other cultures in a very secluded intellectual environment. A lot of what happened to me was the consequence of choices. I made the right choices but not for the reasons people suspect. I never did Zulu street guitar to make a political statement. I wasn’t politically conscious at the age of 14, I fell in love and it became a massive musical detective story on a hunt to discover the roots of it. When I discovered Zulu dancing, that changed my life. At the age of 15 the whole new world of a warrior culture unfolded. The songs, the words, the movements, were a gift.

“My ambitions were to become an African, but not in the sense of an Afrikaner who is also an African. I – a white person born outside Manchester in the UK – wanted to find my own road and in that darkest of times I discovered an African migrant community that was so happy to have a white kid dancing in the hostels that they accelerated my urban adventure into a tribal world.”

He and Mchunu formed Juluka (Sweat) in 1977, they disbanded in 1985 when Mchunu opted to return to KZN and go cattle farming. By then, six gold and platinum selling albums later, they were an international success. Clegg formed Savuka (We have risen) which would lead to some of his most memorable music, among them Cruel Crazy Beautiful World written to commemorate the birth of his elder son and The Crossing/Osiyeza, written in memory of his friend and Savuka partner Dudu Ndlovhu, who was murdered while trying to mediate in a KZN taxi war. Ndlovhu’s murder would precipitate the break up of Savuka, leading Clegg on a solo career that became notable for its evolution into musical anthropology, which would provide a perfect platform for his Final Journey tour, which he announced in 2017.

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Johnny Clegg at the unveiling of the new Springbok jersey in Cape Town in April 2015. Picture: David Ritchie

He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2015 and immediately underwent surgery. Clegg was put on a course of chemotherapy but continued with his busy schedule, missing only two gigs. In March 2016 though, following a rise in his tumour count, his doctors prescribed an aggressive six-month round of chemo. Still, Clegg continued as normal. It all changed on January 1, 2017 when he was bedridden for a month.

“This chemo guarantees a year of suppressing the cancer,” he said at the time, “we’ve got a window. They said to me, ‘you don’t want to be in a space in two or three years where you don’t have the energy to say goodbye in a two-and-half hour show’.”

And thus, the Final Journey Tour was born. The chemo meant Clegg had lost feeling in his fingers and his feet, but by the time the show opened in July, it was difficult to see. His concerts were a tour de force. Every time he was on stage was an emotional farewell. In each he never stopped evangelising for South Africans to overcome their differences and acknowledge their humanity, while alluding to the deep disappointment he felt about the state South Africa found itself in.

The response from his fans was overwhelming, more tour dates were added – three times – with the last dates pencilled in for Soweto with the last one for Wits University where he had his first concert with Mchunu, but it was not to be. He knew it, but he refused to concede.

“I’ve been living in a parallel universe, the doctors have kind of given me until January in terms of the chemo, after which we are in no-man’s land medically, with radiation next if necessary.”

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At the Baxter Theatre at The University of Cape Town in September 2013. Picture: Leon Lestrade

In January last year, he started chemo again, bringing the Final Journey to an unofficial end, but he played when his health would allow it.

The last of these was in December at the launch of his fund to improve the lives of poor schoolchildren through education. It was there that he was surprised by the video of 56 musicians, organised by musician Karen Zoid, all singing The Crossing, long one of Clegg’s personal favourite songs, which immediately went viral.

Before he had set out on the Final Journey, he had mused: “It’s a song about a life taken prematurely – now when I sing it, it’s ironic.”

This week, the country has tried to make sense of a loss that had been signposted for months but still cut to the core. Veteran journalist and commentator Max du Preez spoke for many when he wrote: “to me #JohnnyClegg wrote the soundtrack for the society we should aspire to.”

The Saturday Star

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