Thursday, July 31, 2014

Johnny Clegg

(this piece was written in October 2013)

Johnny Clegg's gurning 60 year old face is on the front cover of the September 2013 issue of South African Rolling Stone. It is not a flattering portrait. He looks like the kind of beer drinking, braaing older guy who is going to corner you in the bar and bore you for hours with his Border war stories and repetitive jokes.

In the Searching for Sugarman documentary someone claims that in the Seventies just about every South African student household with some pretence to hipness had a copy of Cold Fact. I don't know about that but from my experience in the Eighties just about every radical chic Cape Town student house in Obs had at least one Juluka record, if not more. My guess was that the records were bought and displayed for hipness value and struggle credentials rather than for absolute listening pleasure. Usually there was no sign amongst the record collection that the person listened to any other African music, unless you counted Jennifer Ferguson. There may have been jazz; otherwise it was all singer-songwriter.

I have never much liked Johnny Clegg's music. I'd gotten into mbaqanga in a big way in the late Seventies and owned a bunch of records by local Black groups and although I did not think of myself as a purist, I certainly did think of myself as someone who liked listening to the local acts at the source ab dib the vernacular, and not in some diluted version such as, for example, purveyed by Hotline in the mid-Eighties when it became very fashionable to do that rock-mbaqanga crossover.

The funny thing about apartheid South Africa and the role the SABC played in it, was that it was not so impenetrably monolithic and tightly controlled as people now like to claim. There were interstices, gaps and loopholes that were furiously exploited for as long as one could and before they were closed down. Labi Siffre's "Something So Strong" and Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall Part II" (to name two examples) received extensive airplay on SABC controlled radio before someone actually listened to the lyrics and removed the songs from the playlists. I heard plenty of Juluka on the radio, perhaps not all of their music and probably not the more defiant or socially aware songs, but "African Sky Blue" and "Scatterlings of Africa" were played often enough. From about 1986 onward, when Clegg had already formed Savuka and was receiving massive international attention as the White Zulu, Radio 5 almost fawned over him.

Where I did not much care for the "African Sky Blue" era of Clegg songs, I positively detested the International Tracks era where the hits were remixed as dance tracks to make them more palatable for the international market who, seemingly, preferred Clegg's music in clubs. I must also say here that I generally disliked the fad for remixing all kinds of songs by adding clattering and cluttering percussion to what was already a perfectly good piece of music, just to make it playable in a disco setting.

After his success in Europe Johnny Clegg suddenly became a hot property in South Africa too. Around 1989 and 1990 Johnny Clegg and Mango Groove were the largest concert draws in South Africa for the hipper young White audiences if not for any one else. Two years running both acts filled the Good Hope Centre in Cape Town, which was a big deal for local acts in the days of the cultural boycott. Things were changing but had not yet irrevocably changed. Needless to say I attended neither band's shows.


Mango Groove's Marabi Afro pop style did not sound too bad on the radio but is was still too much of a diluted music for me who would have preferred a proper mbaqanga style. Clegg / Savuka simply sounded like a plodding White rock version of the Zulu style Juluka had developed and therefore no more than a commercialised artefact. And I just did not think that either act were hip or cool in 1990.

After a time Clegg went fully solo and dropped the pretence of having a band and continued touring in South Africa. By the mid to late Nineties he seemed to prefer performing in more compact and intimate venues like Cape Town's Baxter Theatre rather than in the larger venues. Presumably he still toured Europe and France, where he had the biggest success back in the day. My impression was that his career had bottomed out into that of the middle aged, established musician whose creative vitality had been exhausted and who was now running on past success and reputation rather than on constant and consistent innovation. This was no longer the time for being radical; thi8s was the time for collection lifetime achievement awards and honorary doctorates.

Johnny Clegg could fill any size of venue whenever he chose to tour and had no need to release new music on a regular basis. In fact, it seemed that his son Jesse was the guy who was carrying on the Clegg musical tradition albeit as a modern rocker rather than as Son of the White Zulu. Many of my mates went to see Clegg's theatre shows and reported back favourably. Not only did he perform his greatest hits with traditional Zula dancing and all, but he also carefully explained the origins of the music he had been emulating and placed it into musicological perspective, almost like an anthropological lecture illustrated with musical examples. No doubt it was more entertaining than it sounded to me yet none of these reports ever persuaded me to make the effort to catch the Clegg show.

I suppose one should make the time to sit down to listen to the man's back catalogue. For about 10 years now I have made a serious effort to collect South African rock and some associated music. Quite a bit of it is mbaqanga of the old school. It is by no means an exhaustive research project because I do not have the money or the time and in any event the availability of local product is vast and sometimes overwhelming. I have my pet hates as well, such as for the slick, crappy Afrikaans pop that has imbedded itself in die Afrikaner consciousness. I have not listened to the radio regularly for a long time and therefore miss out on what is hip and happening on, for example 5FM, or any of the other hip local stations, not to mention the online radio stations that are popping up everywhere. Even Chris Prior is online.

Anyway, during the last period when I was still a radio listener (Radio 2000 between 2000 and about 2003), Johnny Clegg's song "Impi" seemed to be popular. If memory serves it is one of the Eighties Juluka songs.

"Impi" tells the story of the defeat the Zulu army inflicted on the English at Isandlhwana where the Zulus ambushed their enemies and won a famous victory that did not quite win them the war, but it was nonetheless a great day for being a Zulu warrior. Somehow this tune resonated with me and for the first time I actually had a very positive reaction to a Clegg tune and not the usual ambivalent attitude. Even this, though, never convinced met to seek out the rest of the music for a re-evaluation of my earliest opinion.

There is a bit of a parallel between Clegg's career and that of Koos Kombuis who is only a couple of years younger. Where Clegg was the English rebel finding an escape and avocation in Zulu music, Kombuis (born André le Roux du Toit) was an Afrikaner rebel who dabbled in literary high culture before becoming a musician, and after becoming famous and established returning to dabble in letters. Both of their early careers were on the fringes and of semi-outlaw and Bohemian stamp though Clegg quite quickly embarked on a recording career, which to a degree must have place him in the arms of the establishment, and was a major success in this field long before Kombuis achieved notoriety and fame. In a way Clegg might have had it easier since his position as champion of Zulu music and multi-racialism was embraced by die leftist English speaking circles who, if not in power, had powerful influence, while Kombuis and his peers were out on their own for a long while with absolutely no Afrikaner Establishment behind them. In fact, a great deal of Kombuis's success came from English speakers who endorsed his anti-establishment attitude.

By the mid-Nineties, when Clegg had long been a national treasure and was already a mature artist, even Kombuis was more or less in a mainstream career and by 2013 has become an elder statesman of Afrikaner culture, albeit the more enlightened modern version of it, to the extent that he is on record as disliking the music and antic of Die Antwoord, one of the major musical exports from this country. Koos Kombuis might be big amongst expats in the UK and in the Netherlands and Flemish Belgium, but he is still a big fish in a small pond whereas, presumably, Johnny Clegg still has a significant international footprint. The point, though, is that both men have risen from outsider careers to being mainstream and integral members of the current cultural establishment.

Typically, Clegg is unhappy that the children of the struggle generation do not have the same ideals and motivation as their parents who fought hard and long for the freedom the youth now enjoy with a great love for materialism and shallow entertainment. The wheel always turns. Yesterday's radical almost always becomes today's curmudgeonly reactionary.


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