Nicknamed “the white Zulu”, South-Africa’s Number One singer was also immensely popular in France. Now he has passed away, at only 66 years old.

Asimbonanga… who does not recall the epic song that has become South Africa’s second anthem? Its composer and singer, Johnny Clegg, was a legend, as much for his musical talent as for his declared decades-long mission to overcome apartheid through music. He succeeded. He was at the roots of a civil movement that became instrumental in liberating Nelson Mandela after 27 years in the Robben Island prison. And Johnny was a huge star in France – almost to the level of his name sake Johnny Halliday. On July 16, 2019, he passed away from cancer, age 66.

Johnny Clegg’s musical style – the marriage of Zulu traditional music and Western influences – was the logical continuation of his multicultural biography. Born in Bacup, England, in 1953 to an English father and a Rhodesian mother who came from Polish-Jewish stock, he moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as an infant, and then to Johannesburg, South Africa, at the age of 6. His childhood even included a stay of several months in Israel. No wonder that dipping into different cultures came naturally to young Johnny. His musical prowess also showed early.

Growing up in a strictly segregated country where Whites and Blacks were not allowed to socialize, he got his first taste of Zulu music and dance when he happened upon a street performance by migrant workers. And he was mesmerized. He felt like he belonged. Determined to learn this style, he circumvented apartheid-era laws and hung out with the Zulu youths, circumventing apartheid-era laws (and duly getting arrested on multiple occasions.) It would not be long until his new friends respectfully called him “white Zulu or umlungu omnyama (“the Black White person”), and this nickname would stick with him forever.

In 1969, he teamed up with already-well known Township musician Sipho Mchunu and some other Black friends and started performing as a band under the name of Juluka (meaning “sweat”). Their music combined Zulu and Celtic folklore and were sung in a mix of Zulu and English. Even the occasional Jewish element made an appearance. A complete novelty, both the sound and the interracial group.

Their debut single “Woza Friday”, dedicated to the Black workers who labored under harsh conditions, was a commercial flop. Still, Juluka’s producers believed in them because they realized that the people in the street had taken to the song like a duck to water, and encouraged them to carry on.

Then the band’s second album African Litany catapulted them to international fame. The lead single “Impi“, with its pointedly political lyrics about a defeat of the colonial British army by the Zulus was banned by South African radio but became an underground hit, and a huge success abroad. In 1982 and 1983 the band was invited to tour Europe and North America. France was among the first stops, and fans went crazy over them. However, the British Musicians Union banned them from performing in Britain.

Johnny CleggBut music only took up Clegg’s weekends … he did pursue academic studies of anthropology, and taught for several years. His focus, unsurprisingly, on Zulu culture, music, dance. Of course he mastered the language perfectly by that time.

Juluka was disbanded in 1985 when Sipho Mchunu retired from performing. The following year, Clegg formed his second interracial band, Savuka (meaning: “We arose)”, and it wouldn’t be long until their albums broke international sales records. The anti-apartheid song Asimbonanga, recorded in 1987, was the defining song not only of this band but of an era and of a movement. Meaning “We have not seen him [Nelson Mandela]”, it refers to the iconic South African freedom fighter who at that time was still imprisoned in Robben Island.

Savuka’s international tours were sold out in record time. In Lyon, France, the band drew such a large crowd that Michael Jackson who was scheduled to appear shortly thereafter and sold only a quarter of the tickets that Juluka had sold, cancelled his concert, complaining that Clegg and his group had “stolen all his fans”. In 1991, the French government bestowed Johnny Clegg the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres (Knight of Arts and Letters) distinction. Much later (2015), an OBE (Order of the British Empire) would join the plethora of awards, recognitions, and honorary doctorates.

Britain continued to be a nemesis to the musician though. On Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday on 18 July 1988, the crème de la crème of international music gathered in London’s Wembley Stadium for a “Free Nelson Mandela Concert”. And once again the British Musicians Union stopped Johnny Clegg, the symbol of racial integration, from performing. The argument? Savuka was so famous for being an interracial band that people would want to see them for that reason rather than listen to their music and message… But not one to be easily discouraged, Johnny Clegg continued to fight and advocate for Mandela’s liberation until it finally happened in 1990.

Savuka dissolved in 1993 after percussionist Dudu Zulu, a founding member and dear personal friend of Johnny’s, was shot and killed in Johannesburg, an event that rattled Johnny to the core. However, the band still reunited occasionally for tours. And the moment that Johnny Clegg would call “the pinnacle of his career” happened in 1999, when Nelson Mandela unexpectedly, and unbeknownst to the singer, appeared on stage, grooving along to Asimbonanga.

In the years that followed Johnny Clegg slowed down, partly for health reasons, but never gave up his determined fight to unite South Africans of all colours and ethnicities under one flag. Even though by now apartheid was officially a thing of the past on paper, it was much harder to eradicate it from minds.

When news of his passing came, tributes poured in from all over the world, honouring Johnny Clegg’s musical talent as much as his dedication to bring people together… more sorely needed than ever in this increasingly divided world. An ARTE documentary, currently available in replay, traces the unique life and story of the great musician with the even bigger heart:

His friend and spokesman Roddy Quin stated that “Johnny leaves deep foot prints in the hearts of every person that considers him/herself to be an African. He showed us what it was to assimilate to and embrace other cultures without losing your identity. An anthropologist that used his music to speak to every person. With his unique style of music he traversed cultural barriers like few others.”

And his family asked that as a token of respect and appreciation, donations be made to Click Foundation, which leverages technology to improve foundation phase literacy education in South Africa.

Asimbonanga (we have not seen him)
Asimbonang’ umandela thina (we have not seen mandela)
Laph’ekhona (in the place where he is)
Laph’ehleli khona (in the place where he is kept)

Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey
Look across the island into the bay
We are all islands till comes the day
We cross the burning water

Asimbonanga (we have not seen him)
Asimbonang’ umandela thina (we have not seen mandela)
Laph’ekhona (in the place where he is)
Laph’ehleli khona (in the place where he is kept)

A seagull wings across the sea
Broken silence is what I dream
Who has the words to close the distance
Between you and me

Steven Biko, Victoria Mxenge
Neil Aggett
Asimbonanga
Asimbonang ‘umfowethu thina (we have not seen our brother)
Laph’ekhona (in the place where he is)
Laph’wafela khona (in the place where he died)
Hey wena (hey you!)
Hey wena nawe (hey you and you as well)
Siyofika nini la’ siyakhona (when will we arrive at our destination)

Songwriter: Johnny Clegg
Performed by Savuka

 

another grey line

Lead image by Tilly antoineOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link (edited – cropped); photo of Johnny Clegg beim Open Air Konzert in Valenciennes (Frankreich) by davidata at German Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

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