South Africa’s Wednesday dawned on a sombre note as we said goodbye to our treasured musician, Johnny Clegg, who at 66, succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
I remember the Johnny Clegg of my youth, the engaging smile, the wide smile, boyish charm who held us enthralled with his foot stomping dance. Such was the music and lyrics that even against my will, I would be happily dancing along Remember this was still the apartheid era and there came along, this young white man who danced right along with the black people, just as energetically and rhythmically as they did… and black South Africans can really dance!
Who was this man who blended right in with everybody?!
Local news (yes, life without Google) proclaimed that Johnny hailed from Lancashire, in England who moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, with his Rhodesian mother when he was six years old. The adolescent Johnny was introduced to South African culture and music by Zulu migrant workers and the rest as they say, is now history.
How? He popped up in places not intended for him and in his inimitable style, got people talking… and dancing. Such was his impact that Sipho Mchunu visited him to find out if it was true, what the black people were saying about this white boy taking the townships by storm. They had a dance off and as we would say back then, hit it off so well, that they formed a band called Juluka, which became all the rage during my adolescence. Heart pumping soulful, energetic, happy music. None of that vulgarity or violence that is now the rage.
Sipho Mchunu went back to his farm and Johnny’s next inter racial band was created, with Dudu Zulu, Savuka. The “scatterlings of South Africa”, “the great heart” and “cruel crazy beautiful world” were amongst my favourites. As a person usually committed to Indian music, I was hooked by Johnny Cleggs’s magical touch. My Dad despaired for the new sounds of music and finally understood the vibe when we watched the song on the newly acquired television. As I grew up and out of the house into marriage, my windows into his music were narrowed but my heart remained committed to the wonder that was Johnny Clegg. During those emerging times, I would call those two decades significant and probably the best of his life.
When humility met humility… Who will ever forget the time that Nelson Mandela danced away on stage with Johnny Clegg to “Asimbonanga”? Yes, South Africa did not “see” Mandela (the meaning of the song) but Johnny went on to educate learners, the guardians of South African to make Madiba’s dream of a united, democratic South Africa a reality.
In his later years, despite knowing the outcome of his cancer, he still launched farewell tours mingling and singing along whilst strumming his guitar with other artists, amongst them, his son Jessie Clegg. Such was his energy and vigor for life, people and music that, one would never say that he had cancer or chemotherapy.
Johnny Clegg emerged from the townships in my view as a white warrior. He was a shining example of how we could be. His great open heart captivated as a youth. He engaged where he was not meant to be, back then in those days. He blended in, learned, lived, taught all the while as a Dad and a husband of some 31 years and now, an inspiration and a living legend.
Hamba kahle Great Heart. Thank you for the lessons, thank you for the music.