Johnny Clegg ‒ Uhambe kahle, nkosi!

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Johnny Clegg and Carsten Rasch (Hartleyvale Summer Festival, December 1982) (Photo: STEVE GORDON PHOTOGRAPHY)

I was never a friend of Johnny Clegg, and can’t claim to know him at all, really, except that we met twice and did some business once, of the musical kind. I can however claim the probability that Johnny would remember me ‒ correction, would have remembered me (we are all going to have to get used to the idea that he’s gone, forever) ‒ for three reasons: I was the promotor to successfully stage the first Juluka concert in Cape Town in 1982 (though ‘successfully’ comes with a caveat I’m not going into); he had agreed to do the performance based purely on the fact that my voice sounded honest (I know, because he told me so, afterwards); and finally, because I was the least likely promoter-looking type in the country, being something of a spaced out, earringed hippie-punk whose jeans were held up by a discarded dressing gown chord, and who called everyone “bra”, including of course Johnny, albeit with a more respectful tone. He didn’t seem to mind. “Are you really the promotor?” he asked when I met him at the airport. I was 25, and he was 29, or therabouts, but he seemed much older or I felt much younger, for some reason.

We briefly met again a few years later at a concert staged by Paddy Lee-Thorpe at the Good Hope Centre, where I was one of the crew. He recognised me. We chatted some. “Did you guys ever get square on Hartleyvale?” he asked, knowing we had lost money because the Rasta soccer club I had employed as my security team ripped me off. “Nah”, I shook my head, smiling, “doesn’t matter though”, I said, ”I learnt a lesson ‒ and that was one of your best shows, anyway”. He smiled, nodded and gripped my shoulder, “it was indeed”, he said, and disappeared into the dressing room.

Now he’s disappeared into the Big Dressing Room, In The Sky. He’s never coming back, and I’m feeling a bit tearful, writing this piece. I didn’t really know the man, like I said, but he had such a massive impact on my life, an impact that he could never have been aware of, and I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people feeling just like me, strangely saddened, a lump in my throat and eyes ever so slightly wet from tears parking just behind my lids. Johnny Clegg is going to leave a big hole…

At the time of the Hartleyvale Summer Festival, Juluka had just released an album, and needed to tour it. It was already their third album, and they were on the brink of cracking it internationally. The world was at their feet and stardom was beckoning. But Johnny’s phone number was still in the phone book. And he still answered the phone himself. I know that, because I hunted him for 3 weeks, eventually found his number in the Jo’burg phone book, and phoned him, which lead to Juluka’s performance at Hartleyvale. I was dead set on Juluka because I recognised that the music Sipho and Johnny were producing was unique, not just in the country, but in the world. The combination of pop and maskandi was a volatile mix, centered mainly around the beat, which was so compelling even inebriated Boerseuns from Pretoria (and further afield) would awkwardly try and emulate the Zulu war dance on Impi, one of their greatest hits. I used to love checking out their moves in Stellenbosch at the time.

His agreeing to do the Hartleyvale concert with me, a complete unknown, (to paraphrase Bob Dylan), guaranteed the staging of the event, and put me on a trajectory that I am still benefitting from today. The many adventures and experiences I had in the music business, both sweet and sour, all followed from a single phone call that Johnny Clegg happened to answer. I had kind of forgotten that, just like I had all but forgotten about Johnny Clegg himself, until I started writing my memoir three years ago, and then the memories started piling in like spectators at a Juluka concert…

I doubt the youth of today - and not just the white youth - have any idea how revolutionary Juluka really was. (Have they even heard of them?) For sure, every gig they played in this country was technically against the law. White and black musicians were not allowed to play together, of course. And yes, it was also illegal for racially mixed audiences to gather, except if you applied for a permit, which was routinely refused. This was all very subversive, but the real revolutionary act was conceptual. The ingredients of the Juluka sound were much more than just notes and beats and riffs and words. It was the mixing, the successful mixing, of white European and Zulu culture that made this music so compelling to us, the youth of the eighties, and so dangerous for the apartheid authorities. The fact that it actually worked made it more dangerous than any music before. And yet, somehow, it was allowed to exist. It was even played on the radio.

The term crossover had been used before, primarily in the States, to describe the process of genre mixing, but the term truly came into its own when GRC, the record company that had signed Johnny up, started describing Juluka’s music as crossover. This was a stroke of genius not only because it softened and normalised the essentially revolutionary impact of Juluka, it also contained enormous commercial and cultural capital. Commercial because in South Africa, crossover not only meant crossing over genres, but doubling up on markets, meaning the black market and the (white) rock market; and cultural because everyone suddenly realised the potential of using indigenous beats and riffs to produce unique tunes. That’s beside the export potential, which despite Juluka’s success, never quite materialised for the rest. A whole host of crossover acts appeared on the scene, though, and bands like Hotline, Mango Groove and Bright Blue mined this rich cultural vein to the full, but Juluka (later Savuka) remained the undisputed kings of the Crossover sound.

Exciting times, and we can thank Johnny, Sipho Mchunu (and probably Hilton Rosenthal, the record producer who signed up Juluka), for turning the record industry on it’s thankless head, and providing it with a moment of Damascene conversion, an unique opportunity in our musical history that was sadly squandered. But that’s another story…

Johnny Clegg was not a politician, a hothead or populist, but his contribution to the struggle against apartheid was, and still is, seminal. His defiance of the laws of those times was always quiet, reasonable, implacable. He always seemed uncomfortable with his success (to me in any case). His music transformed the local record industry and personified the term crossover. He always answered his own phone, and he trusted his instincts ‒ at least until he met me.

Johnny Clegg is indeed going to leave a massive hole…

Uhambe kahle, nkosi!

Buro: MvH
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