I have a few musical “heroes” for lack of a better word. Musicians who have influenced my style and tastes — and perhaps even my outlook. But I don’t think any famous musician affected my life choices as much as Johnny Clegg, who died this week at the age of 66.
Clegg was musical icon, a philanthropist, anti-apartheid activist, and even taught anthropology early in his career.
Here are three articles from South Africa’s TimesLIVE:
- I feel like I can keep going forever, but I know it’s an illusion: Johnny Clegg in his own words
- 8 things you might not know about late music icon Johnny Clegg
- When Nelson Mandela couldn’t speak, Johnny Clegg spoke for him
Clegg’s song “Scatterlings of Africa” always comes to mind any time when I hear of people who do not accept that we — all of us — are technically Africans.
Ancient bones from Olduvai“Scatterlings of Africa”
Echoes of the very first cry
“Who made me here and why
Beneath the copper sun?”
His song “Third World Child” frequently plays in my head, here in Madagascar, when I see and interact with Malagasy people who regard their traditions and language as something of a folksy embarrassment.
They said ‘you should learn to speak a little bit of English“Third World Child”
Don’t be scared of a suit and tie.
Learn to walk in the dreams of the foreigner
— I am a third world child
I saw him perform once, with his band Savuka, when they played in Mesa, Arizona — a particularly white, rarefied, and politically conservative place for Clegg to show up. But the house was full.
How I discovered Johnny Clegg
In the early ’80s there were a lot of popular artists blending African sounds into their music: Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, Oingo Boingo. (Not Paul Simon’s Graceland which was a relative latecomer in this trend in 1986.)
I was intrigued. It got me thinking about maybe visiting Africa. I started tentatively listening to more of the Africa-infused rock that was available.
In 1985 I took a year off college. I briefly had a roommate in Denver. We shared a house for about one month. We had precisely one conversation about music, and I mentioned my nascent African curiosity. She said, “Oh, you mean like Juluka.”
It pushed every button: It was rock. The musicianship was fantastic. It was authentically African — South African. It was political. It was anthropological. And it was really good.
Maybe… Probably… Definitely!
I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Listening to Johnny Clegg’s music, the idea that “Maybe I’ll visit Africa” tilted hard towards “Probably.”
(Today I’m writing this from Madagascar in a room filled with guitars — just in case there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t already know that.)
But back in 1985, Africa still seemed pretty intimidating to a 20-something with no passport, raised in the unworldly suburbs of Phoenix. Then I met someone who had done it. A pedal steel guitarist named Glenn Taylor ran an ad in a local arts weekly paper looking for musicians interested in exploring African music.
Glenn had already made two trips to Zimbabwe as musical pilgrim. He not only had lived to tell about it, he had a huge library of cassette tapes from Africa. He curated songs from these tapes into mixtapes that he pushed into the hands anyone who showed an interest.
Meeting Glenn, the idea that “Probably I’ll visit Africa” tilted hard towards “Definitely.”
Within a year I was back in Arizona trying to finish my bachelor’s degree, and learn French — because I’d been told I’d need it in Africa.
Jeans Geans Genes
I saw a flier stuck to a wall at Arizona State. A drummer named Andy Ziker was looking to form a band to do “Africanized Rock.” And we did. I wanted to be Johnny Clegg before ever setting foot in Africa. The irony was not lost on me.
Jumping Genes did two songs by Johnny Clegg: “Spirit is the Journey” from Juluka and “Ring on Her Finger” from Savuka.
In the late 80’s we played for confused audiences in the greater Phoenix area. Confused bar owners expected reggae when we showed up. (Think about that for half a minute.) We were promoted in the paper as “Jumping Jeans.” Once the marquee of the Mason Jar Lounge read “Jumping Geans.”
(We didn’t make it easy for people to understand what we were about. Our logo was a cob of indian corn.)
Immediately after graduating from ASU I applied to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I requested any country in Africa. I don’t give a damn, just make it Africa.
Jumping Genes was plugging along, getting gigs and developing a base of fans. But the invitation from Peace Corps came (Cameroon!) and I announced to Jumping Genes (and everyone else that mattered) that I was going.
I was warned that Peace Corps service often involved many long unstructured mind-numbingly boring days with not much to do. Bring War and Peace, Les Miserables, and Moby Dick, I was warned. You’ll have time, they said.
No thanks and no problem!, I thought to myself — and probably said out loud. I’m bringing a guitar. I’m going to be Johnny Clegg.
I failed to be Johnny Clegg
Somehow, I managed to be very busy in Cameroon with my volunteer assignment. Surprisingly, I actually have a work ethic after all. I took only one guitar lesson from Tita John Fowah — the local guitar legend in town.
I played bass from time to time with some local musicians. I wrote a few songs.
One song I finished in Cameroon, “Walking to Africa,” is pretty brazen attempt to be Juluka-ish.
I don’t know why I’ve never done a fully produced recording. This is a rough demo:
At best I’m a lame-ass Johnny Clegg wanna-be.
I’m okay with that. I have to be.
When I was 14, I was listening to Kiss in Phoenix. I hadn’t even decided to learn to play an instrument yet. When Clegg was 14, he was sneaking through a hole in a fence to make friends with black South Africans, learning Zulu guitar styles, and getting arrested for hanging out in a migrant labour hostel.
My path to Africa didn’t begin until I was 29 years old. I’m a late starter. But nonetheless, it’s pretty solid speculation that I might never have developed the determination to do the things I’ve done in Africa and am doing now if Clegg’s music hadn’t touched and inspired me.
Photo Credit: Mary (CC BY-SA 2.0)