Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Johnny Clegg

My lovely and talented wife, Ms. Geranium (a.k.a. Luminiferous Ether, a.k.a. Suzy) sort of went on a Johnny Clegg jag a few days ago, which brought back a lot of memories. One of the most amazing concerts I've ever experienced was Johnny Clegg and Savuka on Halloween Night, 1990, at The Barrymore Theater in Madison, WI. The combination of incredible musicians performing great songs at a high energy level, and great sound in the house (which, unfortunately, from my experience at that particular venue, turns out to be a rare occurrence) was incredible in and of itself. Add to it the fact that much of the audience was in costume and dancing, and you have an extra element of atmosphere on top of the performance. It was an other-worldly experience.

For anyone who is not familiar with Johnny Clegg and his bands Juluka and Savuka, I feel it's important to be aware that, while Clegg was born in England, he grew up mostly in South Africa. As the child of a single mother, he was often left to his own devices and spent much of his time with local Zulu musicians and dancers. People frequently mistakenly assume that, like Paul Simon, he borrowed from South African music. The truth of the matter is that he is South African and incorporated other styles, such as Celtic folk and western pop, into the traditional music he grew up playing. Clegg ended up in prison for playing in a mixed-race group. Juluka was banned from South African radio stations for being too political and for being multiracial. Ironically (and stupidly), they also found themselves blacklisted in Europe for playing in South Africa, their home country, at a time when musicians around the world were boycotting South Africa.

The first recording I ever heard by Johnny Clegg was Scatterlings, the first Juluka album to be released in the U.S. I was working in a record store and it was a time when "World Music" wasn't even a category. Apparently, Juluka was all the rage in Europe and Warner Brothers Records in the U.S. had acquired the rights to the group. Scatterlings was a minor hit with the more adventurous record buyers and was followed by a second album, Stand Your Ground, the sales of which were disappointing to the good people at Warner Brothers. I never even had the opportunity to hear that one at the time. Nothing was heard from Juluka on the U.S. scene after that. I assumed they were gone, done for, and they disappeared from my radar. When Johnny Clegg formed Savuka, I didn't immediately make the connection between Juluka and Savuka. Shadow Man was the first Savuka album I heard, and it didn't occur to me that it was the same vocalist, guitarist and bandleader as Juluka until I went back and listened to Third World Child, and thought, "hey, they're doing a Juluka song!" Doh! I loved both albums and when they went on tour in 1989, I was quite pleased to have the chance to see them. They played at a place called Alpine Valley (the same place where Stevie Ray Vaughan died in a helicopter crash), opening for Tracy Chapman and Bob Dylan. Ms. Geranium and I left during Tracy Chapman's set (missing Dylan completely - how many people can say, or admit, that they went to a Bob Dylan concert and left before he even went on stage?) so we could beat the rush getting out of the parking lot and get home to relieve our babysitter.

While the music, itself, is worth the cost of an album, his lyrics also bear listening to. Songs about injustice, history, loss, death, suffering, love and, yes, even soccer. I sometimes reflect on how inaccurate the media's depiction of real life actually is and how it creates unreasonable expectations in so many people's minds. Thus, I found the chorus in Don't Walk Away to be rather meaningful:

This is not a movie
Not a dream
What you see is what you get
This is not a movie
It's for real
You have to face it in the end -
The hard side of love

(Just ask Ms. Geranium about the hard side of love. Uff da! The woman is a saint.)

Speaking as a bass player, I've seen a lot of the famous hotshots. I've seen Jaco, I've seen Chris Squire, Flea and Billy Sheehan. Great players, from a technical point of view, but I have only seen a few bassists that have really grabbed me. Richard Davis is one. Percy Jones (of Brand X and Brian Eno, among others) John Wetton (King Crimson, 1973 - 1975) and Mark Abraham (Enter The Haggis) are three others that come to mind. Savuka's Solly Letwaba would be in that group, and not the least of them. Letwaba died in 2000 at the age of 36 of complications resulting from tuberculosis. He was one of the most exciting bassists I've seen. His death is a great loss to his family and the music world. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to see him play not just once, but three times.

Unfortunately, Solly Letwaba is not the only member of Savuka to die an untimely death. Percussionist and dancer Dudu Mntowaziwayo Ndlovu (Dudu Zulu) "...was assassinated in a very convoluted conspiracy relating to a taxi war that unfolded in his area in 1993. The killers were never brought to book and of the five people who were present when the shots were fired at night outside his homestead, four have subsequently been killed in tribal feuds and taxi wars." [Quote from an interview with Johnny Clegg posted on his website.]

Clegg, too, has been a target of violence in his home country. He still lives in South Africa and has invested much of his money in working to provide clean water for all in addition to an organization which recycles computer components. He doesn't seem to tour the U.S. very much any more, but plays to packed arenas in South Africa and Europe.

Despite the fact that Clegg, his band mates and their country have seen and experienced loss and suffering beyond the imagining of most people, their music is still full of life and joy. Here is a clip from the tour on which I first saw them. I remember them playing this song (Don't Walk Away) and being blown away by the fact that, among other things, the dude could sing while executing some rather physically demanding dance moves. Enjoy.


Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

I listened to Scatterlings many many many times in college.

Anonymous said...

Nice one! I recall Mr. Clegg from a few years ago but have rarely heard his music. Great fun. By the way, Ed,I've replied to your very kind comment at my blog. Yes, please add me to your blogroll and I'll be doing the same for your blog. Sorry for the disappearing act. I've explained a little about it in my response to your comment. Many thanks.


Suzy said...

Aw shucks. I'm just a human bean like everyone else.

I LOVE Johnny Clegg.
(And I love you, EG.)

Aurelie said...

Tracy Chapman's set was not interesting? I love Johnny Clegg too!

Ed said...

Welcome, Aurelie,

The fact that we left during Tracy Chapman's set had nothing to do with Ms. Chapman's music, but was a result of the fact that we had a six-month old child at home with a babysitter and we knew that if we left, we would be home within an hour, whereas if we stayed until the end of the concert, it would have been at least four hours before we got home. We stayed for part of Tracy Chapman's set, but started to get anxious about being away for too long, so we decided to leave and beat the crowds in the parking lot. If our daughter had been older, I would gladly have stayed to see all of Tracy Chapman's set, and Bob Dylan, too, but under the circumstances, it would have been impossible to enjoy it, through no fault of Ms. Chapman's. It's just the reality of being parents of a young child.

Anonymous said...

That Suzy is a saint, isn't she? I'm so glad the two of you have introduced me and educated me on Johnny Clegg. I'd heard the name, but hadn't experienced the music.