Tag Archives: music

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!

The City Choir of Tygerberg

When I first moved to East Tennessee, I joined the choir of the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church.  When I moved to Nashville, I joined the choir of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville.  A couple of years later, I was part of the Nashville in Harmony civil rights chorus.  I am a big believer in making friends through music!  It is no surprise, then, that I joined a choir in Cape Town in January, just two months after I moved to South Africa.

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Tuesday night rehearsals seem to keep the tempo moving well.

The Stadskoor Tygerberg has been performing since 1977.  The name simply means “City choir of Tygerberg.”  The irony is that Tygerberg is not a city; instead, it is a sub-district of Cape Town positioned to the south of the Tygerberg hills.  Tygerberg includes Parow, where I shopped during my first weeks here, and Bellville, where I registered for taxes and my traffic register number.  It is also home to the campus of Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences where I work.  Singing in a choir for Tygerberg keeps it all in the neighborhood!

Some of its members have been with the group for most of its history!  In 2012, Linda Claassen became the conductor for the group.  She has sought to direct the group toward greater musicality, with more challenging classical work and a cappella pieces.  Her own flair for organ performance led in the direction of this season’s premiere piece, the Messe Solennelle of Louis Vierne (1870-1937).  The group will perform this work during the Choral Festival at Bishops Diocesan College in Rondebosch (May 13-14, 2016).

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This organ console supports the organ in the church where we rehearse. We use the piano instead.

One of the key challenges for me in the choir is that the rehearsal is almost entirely conducted in Afrikaans.  I frequently sit with Don, a physics professor who moved to Durban from Canada in the 1970s.  We represent the Afrikaans-illiterate section of the choir (Durban is in KwaZulu-Natal, where Afrikaans is infrequently used).  We’ve both picked up enough of the language to recognize when the director wants only the basses to sing, but I know I struggle when she calls out a measure number from which we should start singing.  Though most other choir members are quite comfortable in Afrikaans, they are almost all completely fluent in English, as well.  They’ve been very welcoming to me, and I feel at home with the group.

Of course, every choir must have its uniforms for performance.  The outfits for men are quite simple.  We wear black pants and shoes with a white collared shirt.  We have a rainbow of neckties from which to choose on performance days.  So far, our group has contributed music for church services, but the coming performances are likely to be more demanding.  I’m hopeful that we show our best colors this weekend!

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Though many things change in another language, one can puzzle out most of the differences!

Stuck in an elevator

No, the title is no metaphor.  I spent the last half hour stuck inside an elevator of the MRB3 building.  A grad student and I had boarded on the second floor of the building.  She left on the seventh floor, and I waited a bit longer as the elevator climbed to the ninth.  The door twitched on my floor, but it didn’t open.  I hit the door open button, but nothing happened.  I punched the eighth floor button, and the elevator moved downward a floor.  The door, however, stayed shut.  I was trapped!

Happily, claustrophobia has never been a problem.  The wobbling of the elevator motion was starting to make me dizzy, though.  I looked at the control panel, and I saw lots of interesting options if I were a firefighter.  Then I looked down and realized it was time to phone a friend.  I plunked down onto the floor and swung open the telephone box.  I pressed the silver button, and in seconds I was talking to the police department.  Meanwhile, the elevator had developed a mind of its own.  It descended to the basement and paused there.  The police seemed unsure who to call, but soon I got the sense that things were happening behind the scenes.  The elevator began to rise again, stopping at the second floor.  I soon heard someone outside, messing with the door.

I started talking with the service fellow in the elevator bay.  He had tried pressing on the door to encourage it to retract, but he didn’t think he had found the “sweet spot.”  Silence descended again.  I began singing some Billy Joel.  The service fellow didn’t know his greatest hits, so I switched over to Tennessee Ernie Ford.  He joined in on the chorus of “Sixteen Tons,” and helpfully he knew the other verses.  We finished our duet as police service officers joined him.  Soon, the elevator specialists were on the scene.  One climbed on top of the elevator car and declared the the door motor was a total loss.  They opened the door, and I stepped into the elevator bay.

I took the stairs up to my office.