In Memory of Johnny Clegg
I was spending a summer back in my parent’s home trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life sometime in the mid 80s. While my brother was away at college he left his big beefy home stereo behind in the room we used to share. I grew up on a diet of pure classic rock and roll. So I often listened to the classic rock station in Duluth Minnesota. On this particular weekend afternoon the DJ accidentally put a record on the air that would change my life.
As the story goes, on that afternoon, that particular DJ made a simple mistake. He put a record on a turn table he intended to listen to off the air, but accidentally flipped a switch that broadcast the record one time across north central Minnesota. The album was nothing that should have ever have played on a classic rock station but I thank God he made that mistake on that particular day. The record was Scatterlings of Africa by a band out of South Africa called Juluka. Turns out this DJ had been exploring the import bin at the nearby record shop infamously known in Duluth as the Last Place on Earth. How appropriate.
The music was a hypnotic blend of African tribal chanting wrapped in a gritty folky funk sound that was unlike anything my lily white ears had ever experienced before. It was both foreign and familiar. It was immensely catchy and immediately made my limbs move despite myself. Immediately I called the radio station. The DJ sheepishly admitted his mistake and then told me where I could get a copy of the record for myself.
That summer I quite literally wore out the grooves on that disk. Side A through side B, again and again. I could not get enough.
I ordered every record I could get through that store. This was pre internet so you had to put your money down and hope that the shady character behind the cash register would come through and deliver more of this fresh alien music to me.
I played the music to everyone who would listen. My close friends will attest to this and maybe roll their eyes a little. I admit it. I was obsessed. When I learned my cool Uncle Bart flew in and out of South Africa now and then, he was good enough to have business associates raid record stores in Cape Town and Johannesburg and ship records and cassette tapes from the other side of the world to me. I was in musical bliss each time a package would arrive.
Of course you cannot love music like this without getting to know something about the artist who produces it. Juluka was fronted by a man named Johnny Clegg. With the Zulu chanting and drumming blended with modern pop, I was shocked to learn that Johnny was white. This is where I also learned about Apartheid. South Africa’s sorry racial past which kept black and white races separated under the established law of the land. I read how Johnny was an English boy who’s jazz singer mother took him to South Africa in pursuit of a music career. Being a small boy unaware of the politics of the day young Johnny befriended a flat cleaner in his apartment who happened to be a Zulu musician. This man took the time to teach this young foreign boy how to restring a guitar so it could be played the Zulu way. As Johnny grew to school age he was somewhat of an oddity to his white classmates as an English kid who knew how to play traditional Zulu music. But this brought him closer to his black classmates who welcomed someone who took the time to know their culture. In prep school and university Johnny met Sipho Muchunu. The son of a Zulu clan leader and also a promising musician and singer. Together, a white man and a black man performing Zulu flavored music was quite a novelty and they gained local fame performing at area college venues and hang outs. Maybe a lot more than a novelty. By performing together these two were in clear defiance against the national laws of Apartheid. In a way Johnny and Sipho became a symbol of how good things could be if it were not for the laws of segregation.
Their popularity grew. Whites would sneak into black venues and blacks would sneak into white venues to see them perform. Police would break us their concerts and Johnny and Sipho would even end up in jail. Yet the message of their music and the symbolism of white and black musicians playing together drew bigger and bigger crowds.
Johnny wanted the chance to express his cultural background too so he introduced pop influenced music and instrumentation into what had first been an acoustic act. More band members joined. Both white and black. And Juluka was formed. And became so big authorities could no longer keep the ever growing audiences from enjoying the music. In some ways, it was the popularity of Juluka that put the first cracks in Apartheid laws concerning the arts.
And here I was just enjoying the music for the music’s sake.
I consider myself lucky that somehow in some way I have been able to meet my heroes. The top two are Neil Armstrong (the first man on the moon) and yes, Johnny Clegg. Both turned out to be humble gentlemen that might have understood the amazing things that had accomplished with their lives but somehow never let it negatively affect them.
There were three occasions where I held tickets to see Johnny in concert and three times I was denied. Either by cancellations, rain outs, or rescheduled shows. Johnny and his band was becoming my white whale. With each miss, I became more obsessed with finding a way to experience his music live.
I am not typically a stalking kind of a fan. But an idea popped into my head while watching Johnny and his band Savuka (a hybrid of Juluka that went on to some international fame after Sipho left the band to go back to farming life with his Zulu people) playing on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Carson seemed to enjoy Johnny’s music as much as I did and featured the band on his show more than a few times. On this particular night, Johnny and Savuka were playing live on television in sunny California the night before performing right here in frigid Minneapolis. I knew they had to fly into town to make the concert. Sure I had concert tickets, but why not go a little further and meet Johnny and the band as they stepped off the plane. It was pre-9-11. Back then you could walk right up to the arrival gate and greet your friends as they stepped off the plane. So I hatched a plan to meet my hero.
Early the following morning I woke up, got dressed and dashed out to my car intending to zip over to the airport. To my shock, there was a fresh three inches of new snow on the ground. It was only mid November. But it seemed Mother Nature was once again conspiring to keep me from experiencing Johnny and his music. But I would not be deterred.
I spun out and slipped and slid my way towards the airport. At one point I hit the curb so hard my car would later need a realignment. But I stayed on target. I was going to complete the mission.
Once at the airport I checked the big board, there were just three planes arriving from different airlines from LAX. With some luck, one of them ought to be carrying my musical hero, right? I met two flights. No South African Zulu funk bands stepped off those planes. I checked the board again. There was one flight coming from Hawaii. I had it in my head that maybe, just maybe, a flight coming that far across the ocean would have had to have stopped somewhere to refuel before heading onto blustery Minnesota. I had nothing but time that morning so I went to that gate just as that jet rolled up to the jetway. There were a lot of colorful Hawaiian shirts and coconut souvenirs tucked under arms along with carryon luggage. But no. There was a pause after dozens and dozens of people left the plane and I was about ready to go check out the next possible flight when… Was that the drummer? Was that one of his singers? And then the man himself, Johnny strolled off the plane and into the gate area where he reassembled with his band mates.
I had a notepad and pen in my pocket thinking I might politely ask for an autograph and that would be that. Mission accomplished. But when I approached the group it became clear that they were waiting for someone. They were waiting for someone to meet them at the plane. Maybe a promoter or a concern organizer or something. But the surprise snowfall outside must have delayed the person. As the band greeted me, it suddenly became clear that they thought I was that guy. The guy who was supposed to meet them at the plane! I quietly tucked the autograph pen and notepad back into my jacket. This looked like it was going to turn into something more interesting than a quick autograph.
I greeted everyone in the band and led them via the conveyor belt like people mover that helps people move between gates with out needed to walk so much. Johnny was pleasant and mentioned that this was the first time they had seen real snow as we passed big windows looking out onto the tarmac. Derek DeBeer (the drummer) was extra chatty with me and talked about how they were promised one more song on the Tonight Show but they ran out of time. I walked the group to the baggage claim carousel and helped pull a guitar case or two off before I noticed someone approach Johnny in an official manner. Clearly this was the guy they were actually expecting. I sort of disappeared into the crowd with a big smile on my face, knowing I had a story I would be telling for years to come.
The concert that night was truly magical. Johnny Clegg and Savuka were opening for Robert Palmer (remember “Simply Irresistible? The hit from the 80s). Me and my small group of friends were up on our feet dancing to Clegg’s energetic songs and marveling at the displays of Zulu war dancing and stories of Zulu culture that Johnny would regale between songs. It was amazing. Well worth the years of waiting for a successful concert to finally come to my part of the world. How good was Johnny live? They whipped the crowd up into such a frenzy that they were called back for three encores. How many opening acts have you ever seen that earned three spontaneous encores? Whats more you could literally see people filing out of the auditorium when Robert Palmer’s band started to play. Robert was not bad live, but the kinetic energy of Clegg’s band completely upstaged the other act. We left early too. It was an amazing evening.
A few years later Johnny was finally touring as the headliner across the United States. While in Europe Johnny was playing to sold out soccer stadiums, he tended to play smaller venues in the United States where less people knew of them. But still, I am sure in the musician circles word got out that no one should try to open for Johnny and Savuka. Lest they be quickly forgotten. Even faster than most opening acts. They were playing the World Theater, the home of the Prairie Home Companion. A snug little music venue conveniently located across the street from my place of employment; The Science Museum of Minnesota. I had front row seats and again brought extra friends so they could experience the same sense of magical discovery I had experienced back when that DJ played that record on the radio by mistake. The show was truly amazing but maybe even topping that, the next morning, Clegg brought his young son Jesse to the museum where I worked. I got a chance to take the both of them on a personal tour of the place, got them in to see their first IMAX movie, and of course allowed them to marvel at our collection of dinosaur bones. Jesse could name all the Dino species. Very cute and another better chance to get to know the man on a personal level. A genuinely nice person.
Its so nice when you heroes turn out to be truly nice people. Believe me. I have met some “celebrities” in my life with far less impressive credentials who turned out to be miserable human beings. Johnny was not one of those people. Not in the least.
As I get older I have come to realize that fate is really a weird thing and Walt Disney was completely correct: It is a very small world after all…
The Science Museum was one of the bigger creators and distributors of IMAX documentaries at that time. Remember when you had to go to a museum to see an IMAX movie? I miss those days. Anyway, the museum was in early production of a movie about Jane Goodall and her work with the Chimpanzees in Africa. When I caught word that the film makers were looking for someone to create the soundtrack music I slipped the director a mix tape I had made of Johnny’s best tunes. A week later I got a call from the director, “How do we get in touch with this Clegg guy to see if we can use his music?” I worked some of the fan groups I was a part of on the internet and ended up in contact with Andy Innes who was Johnny’s lead guitarist. Andy connected me to Johnny’s agent. And about a month later it was official. Johnny was signed on to write and perform songs for the movies soundtrack. I never received credit for this. Thats ok. I know the part I played and its a powerful part of a really remarkable film. It’s still circulating through IMAX theaters around the country. Check it out if you get a chance.
One of the coolest moments in Johnny’s story was when he was playing a concert in South Africa and Nelson Mandela appeared back stage not too long after he was released from decades in prison to rise up and take his country from the horrors of Apartheid relatively peacefully into the more integrated and progressive country it is today. Mandela came out on stage to dance along with Clegg’s music. It was kind of the completion of a story. You can see the moment here…
There were more concerts after that. Still small venues. Johnny never seemed to be able to crack into the pop market in the United States, but thats ok. In the 90s and the 2000s, Clegg music remained razor sharp and topical. Exploring musical influences from other parts of Africa and the rest of the world too. While American pop seemed more and more over produced meaningless self-involved. There was simply no room for something of substance anymore. But that did not seem to bother Jonnny. He always seemed confident that the people who got his music really got it. Really took it to heart. And there was reward in that.
Three years ago I caught a NPR radio interview where Johnny revealed he was suffering from late stage pancreatic cancer. It was like a punch to my heart to hear that. But in the interview Johnny faced the news with such bravery and grace. During a period of remission he booked one last world tour that he titled “The Final Journey.” He said he saw it as one last chance to say goodbye to all the people who had supported him over the years. I saw one of his last shows. The opening act was his now adult son Jesse (yup, the kid who knew all the dinosaur names at the museum). Jesse now has a successful career as a rock musician. His music is worth checking out too. There was a sweetness to these last shows. There was no sense of pity. There was just a grand appreciation of a life well lived. Maybe a personal satisfaction that Clegg must know that In his own small way through just playing the music he loved he managed to change the world for the better.
Johnny released his last album last year. Its a short collection of thoughtful songs that in their entirety bid a fond farewell to his wife, his kids, and the world itself. Its simple and beautiful at the same time.
Johnny Clegg died today. In a weird twist of fate I found out just minutes after the news was announced while listening to Johnny’s song Great Heart during a break at work. It hit me like I lost a beloved family member. I know, I know. Johnny would not have known me if I ran into him on the street despite the few times our paths had crossed over the years. He probably never knew it was me who got him the job on that Jane Goodall movie. He certainly would not remember I was the awkward dancing white guy that was present near the front row during most of his concerts here in the middle of America. Thats not important. I gave it a lot of thought today and the reason I feel the loss this much is because of the immense amount of sheer joy Johnny’s music brought to me from the moment I first heard the “Wa-ho-Woa-Hum” Zulu chanting of that misplaced record played on that classic rock station all those many years ago. Johnny taught me that a little positive energy goes a long way towards making this world a better place.
Please take a moment to enjoy some of his music today. Here are some links….