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Johnny Clegg


HUMAN, the latest JOHNNY CLEGG album, features a host of little people on its sleeve. Created by painter and sculptor Norman Catherine, the wolf-people, leopard people, flame people, fish people reflect both our character and diversity, as well as what brings us together. We’re all different yet we’re all human ! Such is the message that permeates the songs written by the “White Zulu”.

With his dancer friend, the late-great Dudu Zulu, black AND white together on stage, united in dance and the beat, JOHNNY CLEGG was the greatest symbol of the fight against apartheid. His song Asimbonanga (Mandela) was a worldwide hit, his own stand against the racist South African regime, to freeing Nelson Mandela. JOHNNY CLEGG will necessarily go down in rock history as the freedom fighter. Two decades have passed since the day Nelson Mandela walked free and was elected President of the nation hitherto known as the “Rainbow Nation”, with the democratic “one man one vote” firmly established. The troubles are of course far from over in South Africa, where grinding poverty, AIDS, unemployed and violence are still endemic. For JOHNNY CLEGG, as for all those who fought the good fight, the beautiful dream of liberty and democracy was achieved. It now has to become reality for one and all.

Born in the UK, he spent his childhood in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa, JOHNNY CLEGG has always been outgoing, reaching out to people, whether in his neighbourhood, the black townships and hostels, concert halls, and stadiums first with Sipho Mchunu and JULUKA, then SAVUKA. After all, he called one of his songs Talk to The People. It was no doubt his gregarious nature and deep-seated curiosity that prompted him from the outset to study sociology and anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

He soon sought to put his theories of mingling and interconnecting cultures to the harsh reality test of apartheid. With his musician friend Sipho, they came to symbolise, the impossible harmony of the black and white keys on the piano of their group JULUKA (meaning “sweat” in Zulu) by dint of singing and dancing together in South Africa. And right from when their first LP Universal Men was released in 1979, the duo became the thorn in the side of the racist South African regime, defying the law and the censors to put their message across no matter what.

The JULUKA adventure soon brought Clegg into the sphere of producer Hilton Rosenthal for a collaboration which was to last 15 years. Greatly influenced by Dylan and Don McLean’s brand of folk music, Simon and Garfunkel’s rock harmonies and the lyrics of both Jackson Browne and Randy Newman, JOHNNY juxtaposed this American touch with the group’s afro-western fusion. Ever treading a fine line with the authorities, JULUKA nevertheless generated a huge buzz, recording five albums in six years, all of which went gold. Without any help from the every-day broadcasting corporations which were tightly controlled by Pretoria, the duo made waves as far as Europe and America. Nevertheless, in 1985, Sipho decided to head back to his farm in Zulu country and the group disbanded. JOHNNY then invented SAVUKA (“we have risen” in Zulu), forsaking the energy of rock and folk to embrace black culture again. From their first album released in 1987, the SAVUKA cocktail proved truly explosive.

In France, especially, Third World Child had incredible impact, leading to the French dubbing JOHNNY the “White Zulu”. Featuring the song Asimbonanga (Mandela), which means “We have not seen him”, this record contributed to raise awareness of the need to put an end to apartheid (over a million copies of which were sold in France !). For while in South Africa, at the time, it was forbidden to publish a picture of Mandela, for the rest of the world, the oldest surviving political prisoner in the world had become a living symbol of the necessity of economic sanctions to force Pretoria to negotiate with the black majority in South Africa.

With the release of each crucial album and world tour with SAVUKA, Shadow Man (1988), Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World (1989), Heat, Dust and Dreams (1993), JOHNNY saw his dream gradually coming true. Bowing to international pressure, De Klerk finally agreed to talks with the ANC. Walter Sisulu came home, Mandela was finally released and elected as President.

In 1996, JOHNNY reformed JULUKA for a one-off project (Crocodile Love) before embarking on solo adventures such as New World Survivor (2002) and One Life (2006), and continuing to tour the world with his brand of fusion rock and Zulu dance that’s as spectacular as it is emblematic. In his 30-year career, the rock star sold over five million albums and went round the world more times than a space shuttle !

But with CLEGG, records don’t count. The best of laboratories is life itself and to prove his point, he has never let up on observation. Last year, for a documentary film, he travelled the extreme lengths of South Africa to meet over 400 artists, sculptors, musicians, painters etc., anonymous and famous alike, interviewing them as if for a health report on his country and indeed, himself.

His new album HUMAN, fuelled by this intense curiosity, drew on this “rainbow” experience in which rock, folk and the blues blend with the celebrated African soul in culture shock which has always given CLEGG’s music its wings. HUMAN is a pathway, a suspended bridge, linking people and cultures. Recorded in Jo’burg and Brussels, produced by Nicolas Fiszman, who played bass on Juluka’s last CD in 97 Crocodile Love, this 16th studio album with both African and Western flavours offers what CLEGG has always done best : blending his music and telling us stories, proving that he won’t ever be done with anthropology.

From the abyssal African Asilazi summing up his country’s main challenge : the freedom to hold down a decent job, recorded with the Soweto Gospel Choir, perhaps his most powerful melody since the famous Asimbonanga to the U2esque rock of Hidden Away Down inspired by the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, not forgetting Magumede with its infectious Zulu beat reminiscent of JOHNNY’s adolescence and Juluka’s mbaqanga, and the catchy afro-cool acoustic love ballad All I Got Is You, Clegg as Indiana Jones plays with sound in total freedom, seeking his own pleasure… resulting in ours. This South African singer songwriter is not afraid of sticking his neck out, and proves it yet again with Love In The Time Of Gaza, a love story inspired by the terrible situation in the strip, with a wink at the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel Love in the Time of Cholera. CLEGG takes us as far as South America where his Give Me The Wonder is livened up with the pulse of salsa and mariachi brass. Neil Young lamented a couple of years ago that “the time when music could change the world is past” : there may be some truth in that today, and yet HUMAN remains a rock record with the power to take our senses travelling.

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