Johnny Clegg: Get Up, Stand Up!
Long before Peter Gabriel or Paul Simon delved into their Afro-pop fusions, Johnny Clegg fused his own unique sound. Clegg’s band Juluka—Zulu for “sweat”—formed in 1979 and was the first multi-racial band in South Africa. Early on, the band—whose very existence was an anti-apartheid manifesto—played illegal clubs, Black townships and private homes. Juluka went on to achieve platinum and gold records despite the fact that government controlled radio refused to play its music because of the group’s racial make-up and its audacity to mix African and European styles of music.
After the band broke up in 1985, Clegg reemerged the following year with Savuka (Zulu for “we have risen”). The group had more of Western pop sound than Juluka though essentially picked up where Clegg had left off until it broke up in 1993. While the group has periodically reunited, Clegg primarily works as a solo act.
Clegg returns with a new album, Human —his first since 2006’s One Life. “I think it’s a breakthrough work for me,” he says of his latest effort. “It’s the beginning of a different kind of crossover. I’m trying to tell my audience that I want the license to write any kind of music I want and say what I want to say.”
In the past he’s mixed Zulu rhythms with Western pop, and rock with lyrics in English and Zulu, but Human has a more diverse sound—the anthemic pop of “Love in a Time of Gaza,” the Latin-driven “Give Me the Wonder,” the reggae groove of “Congo” or the traditional African vocals on “Asilazi.” To mark the release of the new album, Clegg will lead his seven-piece band on a U.S. tour that runs from March to May.
“We’ll be covering stuff from all points in my career, but at least half the material will be stuff from the new album,” says Clegg, who has sold five million records worldwide. “For me, it’s been an unexpected pleasure to hear that people are excited to see this energetic band explode onstage. They leave feeling happy and energized by what we do. And this is coming from cynical club bookers who are tough to please because they’ve seen it all.”
Clegg is an animated wonder to behold onstage. Not only does he sing and play guitar, but he also uses many of the dynamic gestures and movements from the Zulu tribal dance tradition that he learned as a child. In between songs, he also shares anecdotes and stories, inviting the crowd further into the music.
While he has performed high profile gigs in South Africa including a performance for Nelson Mandela (who he’s known for many years) as well as a set at the recent World Cup Final Draw celebration, Clegg’s 30th Anniversary in Music concert in Johannesburg was a personal triumph. With 6,000 attendees, the concert featured tributes to Savuka, the tribal dance tradition and even included a reunion of Juluka.
“We had a week of rehearsals and it was like going to the dentist,” Clegg says with a laugh, as he refers to playing with his old band. “The bass player hadn’t played in 15 years and we hoped to do eight songs, but we managed five. We played hits from the early days in the townships and people loved it. It was incredible. The whole thing was a great celebration.”
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