Johnny Clegg, a one-time anthropology prof turned world music pioneer, has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 66. His South African bands Juluka (with creative partner Sipho Mchunu) and Savuka were among the first to merge Zulu and Western popular music, and influenced a wide range of other musicians, from Paul Simon (who name-checked Juluka in the process of creating Graceland and found African musicians through Juluka’s producer, Hilton Rosenthal.)
Clegg’s music drew from his youth sneaking into race-restricted areas in South Africa, where he was often the only white present. He was arrested on numerous occasions, but typically would be released to his parents due to his age, rather than face prosecution. He was fascinated by the Zulu culture he encountered, and ultimately went from the role of visitor to the role of adoptive member. His introduction to Zulu music and dance led him to combine it with Celtic folk, rock and roll, and other forms of popular music, and along with Mchunu, he formed Juluka, which went from playing more or less underground (as an integrated and political band, they were barred from a lot of performance opportunities.) Juluka cut two LPs, handled by Warner Bros. in the US, and that’s how I discovered them in 1983 or 84, during my Freshman year at Transylvania U.
The song I first heard, “Scatterlings of Africa”, was their biggest American hit, and the one I typically used to introduce the band to new listeners. A snippet of it also appears in the soundtrack to Rain Man.
They became one of my father’s favorite bands, and another track from the first album became a standard feature of car trips with my parents.
Both before and after he became a celebrity, he was active against the apartheid state, both on and off stage.Later, during the 1985-6 South African State of Emergency, Clegg wrote “Asimbonanga” in honor of Nelson Mandela, the song becoming an anthem of the anti-apartheid movement. In 1999, Clegg performed the song with a special guest.
Now both Clegg and Mandela have gone, and while South Africa faces a variety of challenges, I think it’s good that they got to see at least a beginning to the nation they wanted.
Scatterlings was likely Clegg’s best album, but my favorite song of his appears on Juluka’s sophomore effort, Stand Your Ground (known elsewhere in the world as Work for All). “December African Rain” rises above the mid-80s production, and there’s some melancholy along with its energy. It reminds me of my circle of friends at Transy, some of whom have gone on to join the majority.
One more thought crosses my mind. We may be lucky that Mr. Clegg, Mr. Mchunu, and the other musicians met when they did. In today’s climate, with its claims of cultural appropriation, I’m not sure the band would have met with the same acceptance it did at the time. (For that matter, Paul Simon caught flak when Graceland came out, and I can remember his having to address a rather hostile crowd at Howard U around that time.)
But in any event, we’ve lost a talented artist, and I was listening to his work just a few days ago. So long, Mr. Clegg — thanks for the songs.