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Johnny Clegg’s journey through music is a captivating and inspiring tale of self-discovery and the possibility for overcoming separation played out against the backdrop of apartheid-era South Africa.

Clegg is an acclaimed musician, dancer, and performer whose infectious blend of Zulu, African, Celtic, pop, and rock music has made him an international sensation. Knighted by both the French and British governments, awarded numerous honourary degrees, and awarded the Ikhamanga, the highest award a citizen can receive in South Africa, Clegg’s journey through the world with his bands Juluka and Savuka has been filled with musical acclaim and celebration.

Johnny Clegg’s early life was filled with music. His mother was a jazz and cabaret singer when he was young until she became involved in music distribution for CBS records in South Africa. This meant Clegg got to hear all the latest recordings long before they were released to the public in the 1960s. Clegg’s stepfather also “had a huge collection of indigenous music that he would play as well.” Clegg commented that he “grew up with this kind of mixture of music:” a blend that would affect and colour his entire history of performing, singing and dancing.

Clegg describes how, “in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, South Africa was culturally segregated, both on the radio and in the actual physical venues you could play. Each race group was designated a cultural performance space and place and no race group other than that race group could perform there.” This was a problem for the young Clegg, both ideologically and because he performed with Sipho Mchunu, who was black. Together, they played traditional Zulu music in the streets of Johannesburg, but as Clegg describes, “we couldn’t really play in public venues, so we played in private venues like schools, churches, and we did a lot of embassies.” The apartheid segregation laws prevented Clegg and Mchunu performing as Juluka throughout much of Johannesburg, so they set off to the townships. “We started to build up a black following in the townships,” Clegg said because “The farther you got away from the city the easier it was to operate.”

Clegg was a fierce and vocal critic of apartheid and these politics are woven throughout his songwriting. He says, “the main metaphor through all my writing of that period was really to overcome separation.” He saw how apartheid unjustly separated the races, so through music, they “created conversations between different cultural traditions. We sang in English and Zulu on the same song. And a lot of the lyrics were about completeness and trying to be whole in the face of separation.” Apartheid might have been forcing cultural separation, but music was creating a cultural conversation that overcame some of these difficulties and hardships.

When Clegg describes how “Music is a humanizing force in the context of dehumanization,” he recognizes the celebratory component of musical expression in its power to


communicate. He said, “people didn’t want to be preached to when they left work on a Friday night and came to a township. They didn’t want to be told about how bad their life is. They want to be uplifted.” And Clegg provides up-tempo, fun, major key songs with dancers in colourful costumes on the stage.

Clegg reflected on the connection between a band and its audience in those moments when “people would get up and they’d have a drink and they would dance in the aisles.” He paused briefly and reflected before continuing to say that “It was people saying, ‘Yes, I’m connecting to this now. Yes, that’s beautiful it makes me feel good, I’m connecting to it.’” Clegg’s journey into Zulu culture and tradition allows his band to bring an authentic integration of the joyful sounds of African music with pop and rock that will have everyone dancing together.

- Jon Eben Field

The Johnny Clegg Band with Jesse Clegg


7:30PM Thu 7 Apr

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