The son of an English crime reporter living in Johannesburg, Johnny Clegg traveled into the city’s black townships as a teen and absorbed Zulu music firsthand. Later he studied anthropology and began to think about the cultural fusions all around him that other white South Africans were doing their best not to think about. In 1979, he and a friend, Sipho Mchunu, formed a band, Juluka (“Sweat”), and released an album, Universal Men, describing the multiple worlds experienced by a Zulu migrant worker. Under South Africa’s apartheid laws, public performances by mixed-race ensembles were illegal. The band was shunned by radio and harassed by police, but its music spread by word of mouth.
Clegg and Juluka, and later his second band, Savuka, gained a hearing in the U.S. during the heyday of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. “Scatterlings of Africa,” perhaps Clegg’s best-known composition, dates from that period. It’s as profound as it is insanely catchy, with a lyric that moves from enslaved and refugee Africans to the roots of all humanity on the African continent, intoning a hopeful “African idea, make the future clear.” Some of his songs were openly political and resulted several times in his arrest; he called in song for the release of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, who later appeared with him on stage.
After the end of apartheid, Clegg dropped off America’s musical radar, but he remains well known in Europe and even in Canada, to judge by the substantial cross-border contingent that has shown up at his occasional Ark shows. Known by some as the White Zulu, and fluent in that language, Clegg has appeared in the past with a small group of imposing female Zulu singers and dancers, making music reminiscent of a more idealistic Paul Simon from his Graceland era. These South African musicians are quite something to see in the placid Midwest. But almost from the beginning Clegg was more than simply a novelty, a white musician who had mastered Zulu music, and his musical mixtures have helped him express the universal messages that give his music its power.
Clegg’s songs include a good deal of British rock, and they probably both influenced and were influenced by Peter Gabriel. He comes to the Ark on July 10 with a fairly recent album, Human (as recent as we get them here), that leans toward the rock side, although it contains plenty of South African material, and it mixes the two in new fusions. One of the most exciting of the new songs is “Love in the Time of Gaza,” which applies Zulu refrains to rock music and a lyric about a young Palestinian “dreaming of a girl–in her eyes, love and friendship, but will she understand my world?” Now in his sixties, Clegg can still, like James Brown, do a stage kick that raises his foot above his head. He’s a legend; he did nothing less than help change the world; and it’s well worth taking the long view and experiencing him once or more.