Review Summary: R.I.P. Le Zoulou Blanc, 16 July 2019
Being a kid in the 80's in South Africa, I had only a limited idea of the political maelstrom I was living in. My fledgling musical taste was informed by my brother's hair rock collection, so when the 90's rolled round, I didn't really get the significance of Johnny Clegg - to me he just seemed like some pop guy who was desperately uncool.
As I get older, I find his story more and more fascinating - Clegg was someone who tried to unite people. Considering the current worldwide political climate and the rise of dividers on the right and left, you appreciate more what a rare thing that is.
I never realised he studied anthropology, and used to spend time in the hostels in Johannesburg at age 15, learning traditional Zulu dance, the language, and the intricacies of Maskanda music in a time when it was dangerous to do so.
He was a pioneer - Juluka was one of the first major bands to unite white and black musicians in SA, when it was illegal for that to be a reality. And something else - together with Sipho Mchunu he was fusing Celtic folk, Mbaqanga, Kwela, jazz, funk, rock, pop (you name it) into a commercially viable proposition. He was basically creating something rare in this country - a world class pop act. There's obviously a long history of internationally renowned jazz from South Africa, and recently there's been some success with house, but a true pop icon hasn't been common. Clegg actually managed to compete for tickets against the likes of Michael Jackson in Europe - not bad for a local kid.
Savuka was formed after the amicable dissolution of Juluka, and it brought a more polished pop edge to the sounds Clegg had cultivated with Sipho Mchunu, who retired after growing weary of touring. This would be the album that would make Clegg a star in Europe - vital as gig options were difficult for a mixed race band in South Africa.
It contains one of his most monumental songs - 'Asimbonanga' was banned in South Africa while becoming a major struggle song in the rest of the world. Nelson Mandela, the main subject of the track, famously suprised on-stage Clegg while he performed it. A beautiful, lullaby style chant, it sways by while name dropping struggle icons. Such a gentle song would result in constant harassment from officials.
It also contains two songs which are absolutely irresistible - woven into the fabric of South African consciousness as much as say, 'Pata Pata'. The first is 'Scatterlings of Africa' - a re-recording of the Juluka song. It's more tight, clear and concise than the original recording - ready for single status. I still prefer the Juluka version, but this is just a great song. An epic chorus, and iconic group vocal arrangements, it's impossible to dislike. The fleshed out group vocals bring the diaspora theme to life. The second is 'Great Heart', which is as close to pop perfection as you can get. Maskanda acoustic flourishes abound, on a light rock foundation with a soaring singalong chorus. An African percussion breakdown adds drama to the outsized theme. Interspersed between these massive songs, 'Giyani' and 'Are you ready' supply the beat.
The album perhaps sounds little dated after the amazing first act (objectively speaking), with 'Missing' not making the impact of the preceding songs despite the dark subject matter. 'Ring on her finger' may, however, delight dedicated fans of Afro pop. The title track is a wry examination of colonial attitudes, and ironically fuses rock with the African elements to highlight the message.
It's an important album, as it enabled the band to thrive outside the oppressive confines of South Africa. When the tide in SA turned, Clegg could finally be acknowledged as a bridge builder and an active, successful musician. Not without heartbreak - fellow Savuka guiding light Dudu Zulu was killed, possibly as senseless collateral of a taxi war, in 1992. Johnny Clegg passed away recently after a long battle with cancer, and the song he wrote as a tribute to Zulu ('The Crossing') seems fitting for the moment - "We are crossing over those dark mountains, where we will lay down our troubles". Rest in peace, Johnny Clegg.