I’m still surprisingly affected by the news that Johnny Clegg has passed away. Here’s a really nice piece by Richard Pithouse on Juluka’s first album, that gives some good detail and context to why it was so important in South African music. This album and the ones that came after were important to me too, for different reasons.
I was a student in Canada, at Waterloo, and throughout the 80s Juluka and then Savuka came through town regularly. I think that for people a little older than me outside of South Africa, the reality of the situation was made clear to them in 1976 during the Soweto uprising. The heart-wrenching photo of Hector Pieterson having been shot by state police, being carried by his brother with his sister beside them, galvanized much of the world. But I was still fairly oblivious to any politics outside of my immediate vicinity.
Anyway, I was an undergrad and then a grad student, and I saw Johnny Clegg a number of times. I didn’t realize at the time how extraordinary it was that it was a mixed-race South African band playing (I mean, I knew it wasn’t allowed, but I never felt the visceral danger that they must have experienced all the time), or that this funny earnest dancing man was singing about all this pain, and all this hope. I learned names like Neil Aggett and Steven Bantu Biko in his songs.
It seemed a long way away from placid Canada, but Clegg was the reason I had any awareness at all of the injustices in South Africa. He gave this privileged white boy a look at reality for others. And, it didn’t hurt that he did it with irresistible beats and hooks, and great dancing. Arthur Black, host of “Basic Black” on CBC radio in Canada every Saturday morning, used the beginning of “Umbaqanga Music” as his intro, and so this great infectious music burrowed its way into many Canadian’s consciousness during that time. As for me, I just bought up every album I could find, and as I usually do, got obsessive about reading and listening and figuring out just why this guy and his music were so important. And you can’t do that without learning a lot about South African history, and Africa in general. I came to realize that he was far from the only one to have found a unique way to make beauty out of ugliness, and hope out of despair. I learned about Hugh Masekela, and “Mama Africa” Miriam Makeba. I found out about Sophiatown, where amazingly creative things happened when it shouldn’t have (like, loads of stunning photography and powerful writing, and lots else).
So, it wasn’t my first visit to Kenya in 1990 that made me aware of Africa, it was Johnny Clegg. Given how much Africa has meant to me since then, it is with some significant sadness that I say goodbye to him now. Like I said, it has caught me by surprise, how sorry I am to hear he’s gone, even though we all knew it was coming because of his battle with cancer. I last heard him in Orlando a couple of years ago, when he came through with his son Jesse. He seemed to have slowed a bit, but the music was great as always. The moral clarity, and the artistic vision, and the hope were all still there.
So yes, I will miss him. He was one of the very good influences in my life, and I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who can say that.