Voice of an emerging nation

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

In his time, Johnny Clegg has been a pop star, an academic anthropologist, a political activist and a businessman. During our interview, he shuffles between all these roles, in a
cappuccino-fuelled discourse on constitutionalism in South African politics under the African National Congress, the rise of the entrepreneurial black middle class, the construction of masculinity in the context of Zulu wedding rituals, and his appetite for musical cross-dressing.

Clegg is passing through London on a breakneck European tour promoting a new album, his best in many years; he has just played a private concert for a South African specialist banking group. That is a far cry from the days of apartheid, when he made himself a lot of enemies. The band he led, Juluka, broke the law whenever it played in public, because it mixed white and black musicians. But he fell out with the anti-apartheid movement as well, because his playing contravened the letter, if not the spirit, of the cultural boycott.

Clegg, who was born in Rochdale, England, in 1953 but moved to South Africa with his mother as a child, became fascinated with Zulu guitar. Another maskanda guitar player, Sipho Mchunu, who was working as a gardener in Johannesburg, challenged him to a musical contest. The two became friends and performed as Johnny and Sipho before establishing Juluka in the 1970s. A tape of the duo at the Cologne Zulu Festival was credited with sparking Paul Simon’s interest in South African music.

Juluka released a series of albums between 1979 and 1984 that combined folk-rock (Clegg is an unashamed Jethro Tull fan) with the strong shouted choruses of Zulu umzansi, or war dance chants. Clegg’s easy facility for the anthemic (“I respond to pop/rock melodies quite strongly; I can’t help it”) and his athletic stick-fighting dances with Mchunu made Juluka a popular live act, although its concerts were held under the ever-present threat of police disruption. The very notion of mixing English and Zulu culture was anathema to the apartheid state’s notions of separate development.

But Clegg’s reinvention of himself as a “white Zulu” was problematic in other ways. He fell foul of the various cultural boycotts that prevented musicians from travelling to or from South Africa. As he recalls ruefully, at the same time that he was working with the anti-apartheid movement in France, he was prevented from playing in the UK by the British Musicians’ Union. “Do I resent it? I did at the time. They banned me; they did nothing about Elton John” (who had played at Sun City).

Many of Clegg’s friends were harassed by the security police, and in the transition to democracy violence became more widespread. “In 1992, I lost a lot of friends,” Clegg recalls.

At this time, the Zulu cultural nationalism that Clegg had explored as an anthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, and espoused as a performer with Juluka, turned rancid. The conservative Inkatha Freedom Party, largely composed of Zulus, fought a low-level war with the more diverse ANC. One flashpoint was Inkatha’s insistence that its supporters should be allowed to carry “cultural weapons”, such as knobkerries and assegais – precisely the kind of props Clegg had adopted. “I was doing something which had suddenly taken on this extra significance – it had been usurped, taken and used as a rallying point.”

When Clegg publicly expressed his support for the ANC, he was warned to stay away from the East Rand workers’ hostels where he practised Zulu dancing. (He is still a “senior member” of a dance team at Jeppe Hostel, performing there every Sunday.) “My support for traditional activities,” Clegg says, “was a means for me to get a cultural identity. Some of these traditional values clash with my western values. Far from being a lucid cultural anthropologist, I’ve been in conflict over where the truth lies. I have a progressive position on women, and in traditional societies women are bound by rules. So I often have a conflict.”

Juluka had broken up when Mchunu returned to Zululand to raise cattle, and Clegg’s new band, Savuka, pursued a more heavily westernised sound, ladling on the keyboards. Although Clegg wrote election anthems for the ANC and performed “Asimbonanga”, a roll-call of the missing and murdered of the apartheid years (also covered by Joan Baez), at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, the precise detail of Juluka’s songs (Mama Shabalala with her “car-tyre shoes”) was replaced by abstractions. Clegg’s new solo CD, One Life, is more overtly political than a lot of his subsequent work with Savuka. “The Revolution Will Eat Its Children (Anthem for Uncle Bob)” is a lament for Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe; “Boy Soldier” stems from his horror on watching a documentary about child soldiers in Sierra Leone. “Asilazi”, a late addition to the South African version of the album that is not included on the European release, sets the complaints of a working-class white South African stripped of his familiar world against a chiding Zulu chorus angry at how long they have had to wait for change.

Clegg himself is cautiously optimistic about the new South Africa and its potential to “emerge as Africa’s first constitutional nation”. “Am I happy?” he asks. “Well, we didn’t go the way of Bosnia.”

Musically, One Life is in some ways a return to his roots. “These are the sounds which permeated my life. And still do: traditional music in South Africa can still sell in the hundreds of thousands.” But its musical palette is varied: the opening track, “Woman of Eden”, has an Afro-Cuban sway that recalls the Senegalese giants Orchestra Baobab; elsewhere, gritty rai rhythms are to be heard. “I like being dressed up in different kinds of attire,” says Clegg. “And I wanted to push the boundaries a little.”

The range of languages has expanded. “Faut pas Baisser les Bras”, with lyrics by Clegg’s international manager Claude Six, is a plea for constant vigilance in the defence of liberty, as well as a nod to his substantial French fan base. “Thamela – Die Son Trek Water”, which compares the itinerant life of the musician to that of southern Africa’s migrant workers, has verses in Afrikaans. This may raise some eyebrows, given the language’s central cultural role under apartheid, but Clegg is unfazed.

“I played a concert in Potchefstroom [the first capital of the Zuid-Afrikaanse Republik and a cultural bastion of Afrikanerdom] to six or seven thousand kids, all Afrikaners, and they all knew the words to all my songs. There’s room for everybody:
everybody’s voice, everybody’s sound. We’re not a nation; we’re a collection of 15 ethnic groups, all on the road searching for who we are.”

Johnny Clegg plays the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, tonight, tel 20 8354 3300.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.