The White Zulu on stage in SA

Ubuhle Bemvelo (beauty of nature) was
released in 1982.

Clegg receives his honorary doctorate
in music from Wits University.
(Image: SAMRO)

A poster for a concert in the UK shows
Clegg in full indlamu flight.

Clegg demonstrates a dance move during
a visit to Dartmouth College, US, where he
delivered a lecture on Zulu culture in 2004.
(Image: Dartmouth College)

An early picture of Juluka. Sipho Mchunu
stands at the back, while Clegg is front left.
(Image: Talking Leaves)

Janine Erasmus

South African music icon Johnny Clegg takes to the local stage again in September, in a new production titled Heart of the Dancer. Clegg is a trailblazer in South Africa’s music industry, having cofounded Juluka, the country’s first racially mixed group, with Sipho Mchunu in 1979, and thereby changing the face of South African music.

After a successful run in Johannesburg, Heart of the Dancer is set to take Cape Town by storm, playing two shows in September 2008 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. The show takes a look at Clegg’s career, and particularly the role that dance has played in his music and live performances.

Clegg has used various styles of traditional dance in his songs, each style imbuing his live shows with excitement and energy. Today, at 55 years of age he still dances as enthusiastically as ever, although he jokes that the muscles “get a little sore”.

As a solo artist, with his Juluka (isiZulu for “sweat”) collaboration with Mchunu and his later group Savuka (isiZulu for “we have awakened”), Clegg combined traditional African musical structures with folksy Celtic lilts and rock music to create an accessible and hugely successful world music sound. At the same time he managed to encourage deeper respect for Zulu culture.

In the liner notes for the 1992 recording of Juluka’s performance with Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Cologne Zulu Festival, Clegg was described as “symbolising the positive utopia of a freely integrated society”. In 2007 he received an honorary doctorate of music from his alma mater Wits University. The citation read, “Johnny Clegg’s life and productions give meaning to the multiculturalism and social integration South Africans yearn for.”

Singing and dancing

The indlamu is a Zulu dance performed traditionally at celebrations such as weddings. Derived from the war dance of Zulu warriors, it is danced by men and calls for full traditional dress and the accompaniment of drums.

The dance is characterised by dancers lifting one foot high above the head, and bringing it crashing down to the ground. Clegg and Mchunu would perform this dramatic movement to enthusiastic acclaim from audiences worldwide in songs such as Impi, which tells the story of the battle of Isandlwana. In KwaZulu-Natal on 22 January 1879 British forces were slaughtered by Zulu warriors in the largest single military defeat of the British Empire ever, although it was a Pyrrhic victory for the Zulus. An impi is a body of armed men – not necessarily Zulus.

Other dance styles used widely by Clegg include the ibhampi, a lighter form of the indlamu where the dancer lightly bumps his foot down, and the inqo-nqo, which evolved in the crowded hostel environment. Here the dancer lifts his foot only a little way off the ground, brings it down hard enough to make an audible sound, and then throws himself backwards to land on his bottom.

Defying the system

Clegg, a social anthropologist who completed an honours degree at Wits University, was born in 1953 in Rochdale, near Manchester, England. When he was a year old his father left home and was never seen again. His mother moved to then-Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, her homeland, before moving to Johannesburg. Clegg was seven at the time.

While still in his teens he encountered the culture of the Zulu migrant workers who lived in Johannesburg hostels. Mentored by Charlie Mzila, a flat cleaner by day who played music in the street near Clegg’s home in the evenings, the youngster became fluent in isiZulu, the Zulu language, and mastered the maskandi style of guitar-playing. He also gained a deep understanding of and respect for Zulu culture, later earning the nickname White Zulu.

So interested was the young Clegg in the hostel musical culture that he often entered such premises illegally, as the Group Areas Act was still in force, and even took part in dance competitions.

Around this time Clegg met gardener and musician Sipho Mchunu, a migrant labourer from Kranskop in KwaZulu-Natal. The two formed an acoustic musical duo which later grew into the successful group Juluka, named after a bull owned by Mchunu – but which also implied that much of South Africa’s wealth was built on the sweat of migrant labourers. The group’s first release was Universal Men in 1979.

Universal Men still sounds fresh,” said the late bass guitarist Sipho Gumede, who performed on the album, in 2000. “It’s one of those albums that will be there for life. It was an innocent album. We went into the studio with the aim of making great music. No one was thinking about how many units we would sell. We just thought about the music.”

Juluka contravened the apartheid laws of the time and the authorities took a dim view of the group. Clegg and Mchunu were arrested on a regular basis and their music was censored and banned, but they pressed on regardless, fighting against the system in their own way. Their music was a statement of political defiance. Songs like Asimbonanga from the 1987 album Third World Child and One (Hu)Man, One Vote from 1990’s Cruel Crazy Beautiful World carried profound messages, as did many of Clegg’s songs of the time.

The iconic song Asimbonanga (“we cannot see you”) was a call for the release of Nelson Mandela and paid tribute to other heroes of the liberation struggle such as Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge, and Neil Aggett.

Released in 1990, One (Hu)Man, One Vote was Clegg’s reminder that voting is a basic human right that was denied for so long to millions of South Africans. “The right to vote has become a hassle for a lot of people in the West, it’s taken for granted,” Clegg said of the song. “With One Man, I tried to emphasise that this is a universal right that people fight and die for in other parts of the world.”

Taking the world by storm

Juluka disbanded in 1985. Clegg immediately formed another band, Savuka, which was a direct response to the tense situation in South Africa at the time and featured a more conventional pop-rock sound as well as more explicitly anti-apartheid songs. Savuka was launched just one month before South Africa declared a national state of emergency in 1985. The group began touring abroad extensively and by the end of 1987 was the leading world music group touring the francophone countries.

Savuka broke up in 1994 after great international success, including a 1993 Grammy nomination for best world music album for its final release Heat, Dust and Dreams. Clegg felt that the group had lived up to its name. “The Savuka project is over,” he said in 1996.

Juluka reformed for a short time, and Clegg and Mchunu released their last album as Juluka, Ya Vuka Inkunzi (The Bull has Risen) in 1997.

Clegg then embarked on a solo career, releasing albums such as New World Survivor and One Life. The latter, released in 2006, features the singer’s first-ever Zulu/Afrikaans tune, Thamela. The album also included the anti-Mugabe statement The Revolution Will Eat Its Children (Anthem for Uncle Bob).

“The private and political choices we make affect how our one life influences the greater whole,” said Clegg of the album, ”and so the songs look at the politics of betrayal, love, power, masculinity, the feminine, survival and work. We each have a story to tell and many of the songs take on a narrative structure to emphasise the story telling nature of how we make meaning in the world.”

Describing the South African experience

In spite of the political nature of many of his songs, Clegg has never viewed himself as political. “It’s very important to understand that I’m not a spokesman for South Africa,” he said in 1990. “All I’m doing is describing the South African experience. There are already too many politicians in South Africa; it doesn’t need another.”

Clegg is a published academic, with papers such as “The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers in Johannesburg: A Focus on Concertina and Guitar” and “Towards an understanding of African Dance: The Zulu Isishameni Style”, published in 1981 and 1982 respectively.

He was honoured by the French government with its Chevalier des Arts et Lettres (Knight of Arts and Letters) in 1991, and in 2007 received an honorary doctorate in music from Wits University.

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