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Culture, Music

Return of the Universal

by Lindokuhle Nkosi / 01.09.2011

This is bizarre. It seems a spaceship has beamed up a nostalgic segment of middle-aged white South Africa and zipped them over to the Grand West Casino to hear traditional Zulu music. Castle Lagers in hand, they shuffle and wiggle their hips to the rhythm. iPhones snap pictures of Le Zoulou Blanc dancing on stage. Biltong is consumed. In unison, the crowd sings along about the plight of being a 3rd world child, mangling random syllables that kind of resemble Zulu words in the parts that they do not know.

Johnny Clegg is a fusion. A brilliant story-teller, singer and anthropologist; his once-off 30 year anniversary performance was a melodic walk in the footsteps of a man who embodies the diversity of the country we live in. Slightly put-off by the suburban middle class crowd, and a security guards who questioned the validity of my ticket, I had a gnawing suspicion that I wouldn’t make it through the night. Obviously, I underestimated the pull of the legend that is Johnny Clegg. The Grand Arena usually reserves capacity crowds for the likes of Kylie Minogue and whichever other long-forgotten international acts are enjoying a brief dance with their fading celebrity on a South African tour. But Johnny Clegg is that kind of legend.

His set is versatile: from 70’s soft rock cleverly infused with classy brass; to hard-hitting, staggered mbaqanga guitar riffs. His music has become a custodian of history, nostalgia and truth. But the man standing behind me grows tired of his inter-song adlibbing. Mr Clegg is talking about “The Crossing”, a song he wrote for a fallen band member and mentor, Dudu Ndlovu who was assassinated in South Africa’s post-91 political instability. The man is bored and resents the history lesson. “Just sing!” he shouts. The irony of his impatience is not lost. Neither is that of the lack of black faces in the crowd.

Although his music is just as “traditional” as that of Ihashi Elimhlophe, but I can’t imagine Ihashi or Shwi noMtekhala would draw the same audience that Johnny Clegg has attracted to the Grand West Casino. Perhaps the key lies in how he blends English and Zulu, both the languages and their respective rhythms, into one fluid song. The English verses act as a conduit that allows this audience to “feel” the heaving Zulu choruses and maskandi riffs. This mixture of context and language, however, is exactly what kept his music off the radio for so many years. In those bad old days, white radio stations wouldn’t play it because the songs contained isiZulu; and the Zulu stations wouldn’t play the music because of the English. It was only when Juluka’s “African Sky Blue” broke internationally that SAUK thought they better start representing. He had to force his way into a market that was reluctant to support him, performing in open fields, migrant hostels and university campuses.

Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu

A deafening roar fills the auditorium when Sipho Mchunu joins the honorary Zulu on stage. Behind them, teenage versions of themselves are memorialised in black-and-white on big screens. The present-day front men of Juluka move vibrantly on the stage. Age has not robbed them of their vigour. Lifting their legs high above their heads, they bring them slamming down on the hardwood stage with the strength of their younger selves, but their old bones betray them humorously when, at the end of the choreography, they take a few seconds to catch their breath and lift their bodies off the floor.
“Yoh, my back!” Sipho Mchunu hyperventilates into the mic.

The first three bars of “Impi” lifts the seated attendees to their feet. They raise their beers in nostalgic homage to a heritage built around braai, beers, Bokke and boerewors; even though the song is actually a post-dated call-to-arms to the Zulu warriors who fought during the battle of Isandlwana. More Irony. More spilt Castle Lager. When Mr Clegg begins to speak about the hardships he encountered in apartheid South Africa, and the ecological damage done by humans to the earth, the Golden Circle concert crowd try to jog him along with slow claps and the odd heckle. Apparently, singing along enthusiastically to songs about tolerance is no indication that you possess any. A large number of attendees leave to refill their plastic cups when a hostel dance group comes to perform on stage. It would seem that while a vast number of people in the audience are happy to jive to that crossover maskandi fusion beat, they want no part in the political motivation that brought Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu into that space.

A Johnny Clegg performance is an enthralling experience, a journey, but in the Grand West Arena it’s patently obvious that being a fan, does not mean we’re ready to board the train.

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