Johnny Clegg – A South African Cultural Icon

Johnny Clegg 1

I am old, but Johnny Clegg is (slightly) older. His jokes about Voltaren hit home with a ring of truth as he brought his tremendous energy and wealth of knowledge about dance anthropology to the Teatro stage in November 2013. However the limitations of inflexibility do not stop him from dancing and singing his way through nearly three hours of fabulous crossover music. Johnny Clegg has always been part of my conscious appreciation of the diversity of South African life. Of course, way back when I first became aware of his music he was a curiosity – a “White Zulu”. I’ve lost track of how many of his concerts I’ve attended over the years. Each time I learn something more about South Africa and a lot more about the Zulu people. I stubbornly don’t believe that there are any white “experts” on black culture, but Clegg with his anthropological academic background and his enormous personal empathetic experience of the Zulu language and the Zulu people comes about as close to “expert” as I will allow – and this from someone who was born in England!

Earlier in 2013 Johnny Clegg performed to a predominantly South African audience in the iconic Royal Albert Hall and now he is touring South Africa with this fabulous concert. It is selling out and an extra concert had to be added at the Teatro, Gauteng’s largest theatre, at Montecasino to satisfy demand for this concert series. The audience on the night I attended was mainly white, natural perhaps for Montecasino in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, but the age range of fans surprised me somewhat. There were people there from every age group, and lots of young people. It is clear that whatever Johnny Clegg is doing is pleasing people from every demographic group in the land. That’s some claim to actual popularity. The only other person who comes close to that is Madiba himself. Actually Madiba features (in multimedia format) in the concert itself, and Johnny Clegg explains that finding himself on the same stage as Nelson Mandela was a high point in his life.

Johnny Clegg 2

The concert begins with Bombs Away. One of the features of this concert (apart from really great lighting) was the use of a background multimedia screening which never impacted negatively on the actual concert. Interesting visuals from all over Africa.

As always in Johnny Clegg’s concerts little snippets of his performing history make up part of the wonderful anecdotal wealth of the show. Sometimes he needs to contextualise the history in which the story arose. The awful political upheavals in KwaZulu Natal come to life as he shares the tale of Bullets for Bafazana, the band’s security guard who was threatened with assassination. It must have been very stressful for all the people concerned even though Clegg makes relatively light of it in view of his own commitment to peace and mutual respect for everyone. As I recall those days it was stressful even just to watch the news on TV never mind be touring the area with people irretrievably involved. “Bafazana”, Clegg informs us, was eventually killed in that political conflict. My respect for Johnny Clegg’s role in music activism grows as I contemplate the story.

The highlight of the first half of the concert was Johnny Clegg explaining the origins of pantsula dancing to an audience, many of whom may not have consciously ever seen pantsula dancing. Clegg must have been a fascinating lecturer way back in his academic days because he puts some pretty complex information across very simply, completely accurately and without ever making his audience feel he is speaking down to them. Then four pantsula dancers arrive on stage during the singing of Gumba Gumba Jive.

The second half of the concert is longer. At each concert Johnny Clegg explains some element of his crossover music to audiences who have little inkling of what is involved in this. The Mbaqanga guitar sound gives way to the accordian which needs to be taken to a “button changer” to give it its distinctive voice for the music of the townships. An amusing story of how Clegg’s personal instrument gets taken to an accordian expert of the Afrikaans folk music variety – one who begs Johnny to teach him how to make these new sounds. We move into Great Heart which features footage from what can only have been Jock of the Bushveld, a movie which I did not see at the time.

Once again one of the highlights of the second half (and most of the second half can be described as a “highlight”) was Johnny Clegg explaining the horizontal and vertical lines of Zulu dancing and how the various Zulu kicks work for the contexts in which they were danced. Zulu traditional dancers arrived on stage. If anyone is interested in both Pantsula and Zulu Traditional Dancing I recommend that they attend the Stepping Stones programme of the Dance Umbrella every year where these styles (and more) are featured quite often by community groups.

Impi is illustrated with line drawings from Isandlwana, the most convincing defeat of British troops ever dealt to them. It was simply another victory for the great Zulu warriors.

Scatterlings of Africa thrills the audience which by now is ready to leap to its feet for every song. The show reached its climax, as good shows should, during the encore when footage of our beloved Nelson Mandela accompanied Asimbonanga. This song was written about Nelson Mandela while he was still in prison and at a time when it was forbidden to talk about Nelson Mandela. Over the years Johnny Clegg has played at all of the 46664 Aids Awareness Concerts in South Africa.

Johnny Clegg and Madiba

“Luvuyo Mncanca” Johnny Clegg introduces his musical team: Andy Innes (Guitar and Vocals), Mandisa Dlanga (Vocals) Trevor Donjeany (Bass Guitar and Vocals), Barry van Zyl (Drums), Brendan Ross (Keyboards and Sax) and Bongani Masuku (Vocals). The reality is that not only is he a singer, songwriter, dancer, anthropologist, musical activist, and family man, he is also a businessman whose business is built with the help of people who are as committed to breaking through the cultural barriers which surround us. Juluka (the name of Clegg’s early band) means “sweat” in Zulu. The sweat that goes into a Johnny Clegg concert is obvious in the precision with which the whole is accomplished. The fact that the newest member of his team has been with him for five years shows Clegg’s investment in people. Is there any weak area of Clegg’s life? Not in public.

Johnny Clegg has an impressive list of awards to his name. Earlier this year I attended the Wawela Awards where Johnny Clegg was honoured in a category entitled “Most Profilic Body of Work”. Other songs in the concert included Kilimanjaro, Africa (What Made You So Strong), African Sky Blue, Digging for Some Words, I call your name, Cruel Crazy Beautiful World and Dela. Truly an impressive “Body of Work”.

I salute you, Johnny Clegg. It was another fabulous evening.

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About moirads

Clergy person, theatre and music lover, avid reader, foodie. Basically, I write about what I do, where I go and things I love (or hate).
This entry was posted in Dance, Music, South African Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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