Johnny Clegg: the Spirit of the Great Heart

I would not have expected that a man born in the United Kingdom would be able to teach me about being South African, but Johnny Clegg is no ordinary man.  Last night, he kicked off his “Final Journey” tour in Cape Town, and Natasha and I eagerly acquired tickets to be part of the event.  In a sprawling three hour concert, Johnny Clegg demonstrated the depth he achieved in nearly four decades of musical performance.

johnny-clegg-valenciennes-davidata-14_07_2009In the zodiac of musical performance, I would place Johnny Clegg in a constellation with Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, and Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam).  Peter Gabriel and Clegg performed duets as part of the “46664” concert series against HIV/AIDS.  Paul Simon, of course, produced the amazing “Graceland” through his connection with South Africa, braving significant controversy to do so.  Yusuf Islam incorporated a Zulu-language chorus made famous by Clegg into his recent song, “Angel of War.”  Clegg may not have the same recognition as these artists in the United States, but in other parts of the world his star has shone more brightly.

Johnny Clegg was nicknamed the “White Zulu” for his love of the Zulu language, culture, and dance.  His mother (born in Zimbabwe) moved their family to South Africa when he was seven years old, and his South African step-father (a crime reporter) introduced him to the townships.  Johnny was taught to play guitar by the housekeeper of his neighbor, and his skills soon introduced him to Sipho Mchunu, an innovator of Zulu guitar.  When the two began performing together in the 1970s, they could only play informal venues due to Apartheid-era restrictions intended explicitly to keep people of different races estranged from each other.

A feature of Johnny Clegg’s career that fascinates me, in particular, was that he abandoned an academic career in order to pursue his musical career.  Earning his BA and Honours in Social Anthropology at U. Witwatersrand, he became a lecturer on Zulu music and dance.  When the popularity of his music with Mchunu produced the opportunity to tour, he took a sabbatical, thinking that he would be back in academia within a year.  Instead he launched on an altogether different trajectory.  He did not lose his love for anthropology, however.  In 2010, he presented a thirteen-part television series with the South African Broadcasting Corporation to explore the connection between the landscape and culture of the country.  This week I borrowed a copy of the DVDs for this series from the Stellenbosch University Library.  I can hardly wait!

The Concert

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Even a bioinformaticist can take a selfie!

Natasha and I arrived at the GrandWest Casino for his concert with approximately fifteen minutes remaining before the concert, merging with a heavy flow of traffic into the parking area.  I had driven past the Casino before but had never been inside.  It is quite the place!  Besides containing a full-size cinema and some of the largest fast-foot franchises I have seen for several restaurants, its Grand Arena can seat 5,000 people.  Of course, it also features a hotel and the casino itself.  We navigated through dense crowds of pedestrians past many young people with trays of goodies for sale.  I decided to purchase a memento from the “official merchandise” table.  For R200 ($15), I acquired a DVD of Johnny Clegg’s favorite Zulu street guitar songs and two CDs full of music.

I was not sure what to expect from an opening act described as “Indie Dark Pop,” but Tailor was pretty entertaining! Natasha and I kept changing our minds about whether she was American or Australian.  When Johnny Clegg’s band took the stage, though, everyone sat forward on their seats.  Since almost every song he sings includes Zulu lyrics, one might have expected an audience that reflects South Africa’s racial diversity.  With tickets starting at R325 ($25), though, the audience was almost entirely white.  Their incomprehension of the Zulu phrases in songs and spoken word was pretty apparent (I was in the same boat).

This concert was structured autobiographically, reflecting that this is Johnny Clegg’s final tour.  He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, which his doctors treated successfully with chemotherapy.  The singer will retire from public life after this tour (and one last album, currently being mixed).  As one might have expected from his reputation as a lively performer, though, Johnny Clegg seemed driven by a restless energy.  When he spun tales from his past between musical numbers, he paced back and forth like a beast in a cage.  His footwork while dancing showed no sign of tiredness, with only a fifteen minute break mid-concert to rest!  When the concert featured pantsula dance or traditional Zulu war dance, however, most of the performance was carried by young people (who had serious skills, by the way).  Johnny Clegg did provide a powerful demonstration that he can still do the moves of the war dance, however, and the crowd roared with approval.

The appeal

What is it about Johnny Clegg that has drawn my attention so strongly during my nineteen months in South Africa?  I would have to start with the shared outsider identity.  It matters to me that South Africa could embrace someone born elsewhere.  I take real delight in what I find in this country, and I want to know that others could see me as part of South Africa’s story, too.  Being “the American” has a limited shelf-life; I want to be seen for what I can contribute instead!

As I listened to Johnny Clegg’s words from the stage last night, he solidified some other reasons I had been drawn to his music.  In introducing “Kilimanjaro,” he talked about the importance of keeping a long perspective, even as the world is convulsed with a self-destructive phase.  The strongest resonance I felt, though, was reserved for “Great Heart.”  As long-time readers will remember, I grappled with language to voice why I needed to move to South Africa.  May I borrow some words from Mr. Clegg?

I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart
To hold and stand me by
I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart
Under African sky
I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart
I see the fire in your eyes
I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart
That beats my name inside
Sometimes I feel that you really know me
Sometimes there’s much you can show me

By coming to South Africa, I have discovered even more than I sought in coming here.  To be part of this country’s struggle touches something vital within me.  I appreciate Johnny Clegg for singing that truth!

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3 thoughts on “Johnny Clegg: the Spirit of the Great Heart

  1. Tracy

    Can you share a few songs from his Final Journey concert? Going to see him in America soon and I know most of his songs but I want my USA friend to come prepared.

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    Reply
    1. dtabb1973 Post author

      Hi, Tracy! I didn’t record the track list, but these are ones Natasha and I could remember (not in this order): Take my heart away, I call your name, The crossing, Third world child, Dela, Asimbonanga, Gumba gumba jive, Impi, Scatterlings of Africa; Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World; Kilimanjaro, Great Heart, One new one with Jessie, One song from his new album.

      I really appreciate the feedback. I hope more of his fans will enjoy my blog about him!

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      Reply
      1. Tracy

        Thank you! Can’t wait to see him. I’m amazed and happy to hear he did Impi! He doesn’t do that one often and I love that song. I hope he performs that in the USA. Great blog post. I’m very impressed that someone so new to South Africa can appreciate Johnny Clegg. Tipping my hat off to you!

        Liked by 1 person

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