American Culture

Scroguely Works: One Life

One Life, by Johnny Clegg, first released 2006, 16 tracks, ASIN B000I5YROM

We’re on our way home to find our freedom
and I’m on my way home to find you my friend
where we can stand in the light of the people
and breathe life into the land again.

When the System Has Fallen,” Johnny Clegg

“If you have a patch of ground the size of a door, you can feed a family of four,” rhymes my friend, John Broom. John is well over 80 and has been involved in teaching gardening and feeding schemes in Africa for the Quaker Peace Foundation for decades. I believe him.

Africa itself is a vast and fertile land. The small state of Zimbabwe used to be the breadbasket of the Sub-Saharan region, able to supply wheat and maize to tens of millions of people. South Africa still exports some 3 million tons of cereals a year, 33% of production, while feeding a population of 45 million.

Johnny Clegg - One Life

Ethiopia continues to be the poster child for starvation. Five million children a year die in Africa from malnutrition. A third of Africa’s population is malnourished. Yet this continent of 30 million square kilometres produces only 143 million tons of food cereals, less than 10% of the world total of over 2 billion tons. The US, by comparison, produces 450 million tons on less than 10 million square kilometers of land.

Clearly, there is a problem.

Pop stars of the world claim to have a solution.

The Solutions of the Stars

Bono, front-man of Irish super-group, U2, tells African countries that all they need to do is learn from Ireland. “Twenty years ago our economy was down the toilet, the IMF were telling us what to do and the World Bank were down our pants.”

Well, yes, Bono, so what African countries need to do is join the EU, collect hefty subsidies on infrastructure and agriculture, and have tariff-free access to the European market? And on which planet is this going to happen?

In other words, what we learn from an aging, fading pop star is that Africa’s future success depends entirely on what the rest of the world chooses to do. That Africa is an innocent victim of the choices of other countries.

Bono is a twit. As a friend said, “I think the only fair thing, now that Bono has become an economist, is for him to allow all of us economists to join his band.”

To which I respond, “I’m really clear on opportunity cost, comparative advantage, moral hazard and I once saw a guitar … I think I can take over from the Edge.”

Even more foolish is the pie-eyed response from Bob Geldof. Live Aid, in 1984, raised $300 million that allowed Ethiopia’s blood-drenched dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, and his Derg army, to butcher and destroy more people before being overthrown. Ethiopia’s new government has, 24 years later, banned journalists from visiting the worst-affected areas of renewed conflict and famine in order to avoid embarrassment. The UN’s World Food Programme estimates that 9.5 million people – 12% of Ethiopia’s population – need emergency food aid in 2008.

So humming along to, “We are the world. We are the children,” made a really big difference. I think Geldof should let me in his band too.

The world of Juluka

In 1993, Johnny Clegg released a deeply moving album, Heat and Dust and Dreams. His first album, Universal Men, was released in 1979. There are few musicians that endure for such a long period of time, and fewer still who reinvent their musical style to continue to say something both original and relevant over that period.

Heat and Dust and Dreams has the energy and originality of a first album; of a new band. Yet it has the depth of meaning and clarity of understanding that is achieved at great personal cost.

South Africa, in 1993, was a dark and terrifying place. The glacial progress towards liberation was giving way to a chaotic stampede: bomb-blasts going off all over the show; horrific violence as “liberators” wrapped “conspirators” in car tyres, covered them with petrol and set them on fire; riots and damage. No one knew if we would come out of this alive as politicians played brinkmanship.

Heat and Dust and Dreams challenged us to remember why we came here and what we were doing it for. It was an homage to those of us active in the “struggle” to keep going. And a remembrance of those who fell along the way.

In 1990, Clegg’s lead dancer – and anyone who has seen a live show will know that the Zulu war dancing is the focal-point of the music’s energy – Dudu Zulu was shot and killed while attempting to mediate in a violent dispute.

Johnny Clegg’s story is a testament to the astonishing charisma and determination of the man. Born of middle-class Jewish parents, he was captivated by the sound of township music; music produced by migrant Zulu workers drawn to Johannesburg to earn a living and work deep underground in the mines. Clegg used to sneak into the townships – where it was illegal for white people to visit – and beg to be allowed to learn how to play. Then he learned Zulu war dancing.

He took Zulu traditional themes and added a rock score and released an album. The “White Zulu” was born.

I was at a concert of Clegg’s in 1994 with kids – most of us who hadn’t even been born when he released his first album – when he lead into a song with this intro: “You know, it’s quite something when you write a song and, 21 years later, people still want to hear it.”

Then he played “Impi” and the kids tried to jump out of their skins with a roar of delight.

And here’s the thing, “Impi” isn’t a ballad or some power rock song about being a teenager. It’s a history lesson.

In 1879 Mageba, General to King Ceteswayo, led his Zulu impi to slaughter the central column of Lord Chelmsford’s army at the Battle of Isandhlwana. The British had deliberately incited the war by setting the Zulus the ultimatum of submitting to the crown and disbanding their army. Five columns of troops were sent, inappropriately dressed in their red coats and black pants, to engage Ceteswayo.

Lord Chelmsford was another of the spectacularly incompetent generals that the British enjoyed appointing to their colonial armies. He couldn’t be bothered to spy out the land, considering the Zulu to be cowardly. Far from it, the Zulu lay in wait and attacked mercilessly and without warning.

After the battle they ritually washed their spears in the blood of the fallen. The blood ran; a river into a river.

“Impi” – so joyously danced to by the descendents of British settlers – is the rebel yell of Zulus defeating a British colonial army. You can’t beat that sort of irony.

The poet within: Heat and Dust and Dreams

If that was the end of Johnny Clegg’s story that would already be the basis of an astonishing Hollywood move, but it isn’t. Clegg went on to get an Honours in Social Anthropology and went on to lecture at the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Natal. In 2007 he even received an honorary doctorate from Wits.

Go through the lyrics of his songs and you are struck by the complexity, depth of feeling and beauty of the words. Clegg’s music is so joyous, so transcendent, so musically astute and so downright danceable, that the lyrics – a mix of Zulu and English – can get overlooked. Sometimes even by the descendants of British colonists.

The opening lines of the opening song, “These Days,” on Heat and Dust and Dreams:

(the watchman’s fire is burning)
What happened to the diamonds in your eyes,
What happened to the hunger for the day’s chase?
What happened to the electric smile
That danced your life across your face
We used to talk about changing the world
Now all you want to do is change your name
Come on baby don’t surrender now
to the empty heart of these days.
We used to talk so deep into the night
You had the heart of a wild horse running
You bared your soul to me
and we both knew these days were coming

“These Days”

A song of the determination need to achieve liberty and resonated particularly during the terrifying days before South Africa’s 1994 universal sufferance. Or how about “The Crossing,” Clegg’s tribute to Dudu and all struggle victims:

Through all the days that eat away
at every breath that I take
through all the nights I’ve lain alone
in someone else’s dream, awake
all the words in truth we have spoken
that the wind has blown away
it’s only you that remains with me
clear as the light of day
O Siyeza, o siyeza , sizofika webaba noma
(we are coming, we are coming, we will arrive soon)
O siyeza, o siyeza, siyagudle lomhlaba
(we are coming, we are coming, we are moving across this earth)
Siyawela lapheshaya lulezontaba ezimnyama
(we are crossing over those dark mountains)
Lapha sobheka phansi konke ukhulupheka
(where we will lay down our troubles)

“The Crossing

I still weep when I listen to this. And there are others. My anthem in the ’90s was “Tough Enough”:

Picture the end of a cycle
here’s the fire from heaven
There’s a tired planet closing down
no more news at eleven
somewhere the last of a species has died
somewhere a child is born
when I hold you, I tremble inside
can we ride out the storm?
Are you tough enough – can you take the strain?
Are you tough enough – to walk in the burning rain
Are you tough enough – can you take the change?
Are you tough enough – baby just say!
Into the heart of the human dream
into a strange new world
remember me under the Tree of Man
where I first heard your words
gonna make it through, I can feel it

Tough Enough”

Heat and Dust and Dreams was a political anthem. A declaration of what the world will be and what will be required to get there. In 2008, Clegg released One Life, looking at what all that energy has released and created. And looking forward at hope.

Johnny Clegg and the Tyrants: One Life

Anyone who has seen a Johnny Clegg performance knows that they are high-energy.

When Clegg rejoined his original partner, Sipho Mchunu, for a concert in Grahamstown in 1994 at a school hall in the middle of the local township, they danced on an old carpet.

The dust from that carpet was stomped out into the air causing Clegg to go into a coughing fit. “Haai,” said Mchunu, “the old man is tired.” A typically laconic statement from the man who left Juluka, Clegg’s original band, at the height of its success – when world popularity awaited him – to go back to rural Zululand so that he could raise a big family and watch his cows grow fat.

The concert I saw in 1995 was a one-off, and unique. Could you imagine Bono, or any of the rock legends holding an impromptu concert in a large theatre, sitting on his own with nothing but a guitar and speaking about the stories behind the songs?

Clegg sat and gave us a miraculous, beautiful insight into his life, and the history of the music. He played little musical snatches, showing how the music evolved, where it came from. He talked about Zulu dancing, Zulu music, how to rewire an accordion or a guitar to play Zulu music. Hours hurtled past as he sang and he played and he talked.

I love music. I have a lot of favourite musicians. Many of them are top European or American acts. Sting, U2, Evanescence, Nickelback, Eric Clapton, Peter Grabriel. I’m not especially interested in any of them as people. Bono and Geldof prove to me the vacuousness of most of what they have to say.

Clegg is different. He is genuinely smart, sticks entirely to what he knows and doesn’t claim to have the answers. What he does is humanise, contextualise and emotionalise the questions.

And so, via a lengthy introduction, we come to One Life.

It’s 2008. Johnny Clegg is 55 and has been performing for 29 years. He is not as popular in South Africa as he used to be. People aren’t interested in asking the hard questions anymore. He is still extremely popular in France, where the French have an oddly soft-spot for all things African. I think that Clegg has done well out of his music, but he is never going to be a super-star. That he continues to perform and write is because he loves what he does, and he still has something to say.

This album is a great album. Not just great in comparison to his own work, but a great album. And it just works so well. It has the energy and originality of a first album; of a new band. Yet it has the depth of meaning and clarity of understanding that is achieved at great personal cost. And, yes, I said that before.

This isn’t the first album that Clegg has released since Heat and Dust and Dreams, he stepped into purely traditional sounds in between with albums that weren’t especially memorable. We were all, South Africans, lulled into a pleasurable daze following the success of the 1994 democratic transition. No more.

I am a boy soldier
See my eyes’ empty stare
Each day explodes with pain
And it’s more than I can bare
The ghosts of the slain
Are the shadows in my eyes
And I dream tomorrow will come
And carry me away
Every second in No Man’s Land
I hold my life in these small hands
Every day in a world gone mad
Hard to face who I am
Once we were children
Once we played in the morning light
Once we were dreamers
One morning they came, the soldiers took us away

“Boy Soldier”

“Boy Soldier” opens with a hauntingly beautiful base melody. The lyrics and music evocative of lost childhood, of innocence looking out of a tortured soul. There is no anguish, just sorrow.

Clegg nods to two new languages, apart from his typical English and Zulu, and recognises two audiences that have supported him through the years: Afrikaans and French. I don’t think that Afrikaans works as a musical language. You can swear in it, but you can’t sing in it. Clegg does his best, but he really shines with French which has always blended beautifully into African music.

Can Clegg only talk about politics? No, of course not. Many of his songs are about love and the fragile strength and beauty of human relationships. Writing about one of his ballads, Clegg says, “The sun evaporates water but the sea is not scared of the sun’s flames because it’s infinite. In the same way that the sea is tested everyday by the sun, love is tested by human folly and difficult circumstances. Migrant work separates lovers far from each other over long periods of time and distance. This is the perennial problem of the life of a touring musician. Real love is like the ocean which cannot be evaporated by the burning sun.”

He can even be gently humorous:

I would like to be the sky
You could be my blue
You could be a dancing foot
And I could be your shoe
Oh, it’s hot in here and I need some air
I’ll wait outside for you
Come what may, there will be a day
I will wake up next to you…

“Bull Heart”

Lines I sent to my love, so far away from me across the sea. But Clegg is best when he is roaring defiance:

He’s a leader, talks of freedom
He knows the power of the Big Idea
He’s a dealer, he’s a seeker
Of the power that comes from fear
He gave his life to the party machine
Holding onto a secret dream
He knows better than anyone
Power comes from the barrel of a gun…
And he’s rising up against them now
And he’s rising up in country and town
Rising up against them now, rising up
The revolution has eaten its children
I see the river of dreams run dry
I’m so thankful I got to love you
You are the reason I survive

“The Revolution Will Eat Its Children

The defining song of the album speaks truth to power. Don’t trust your leaders, they are human, and their motives may be entirely selfish.

The dry old grass is made young, green and new again only by fire. This means that often hard and difficult experiences in your life make you confront and reinvent yourself giving you a new perspective. We learn some of our deepest lessons through pain,” says Clegg.

Don’t think that this album is only about struggle and survival. It isn’t. It is musically complex, while being a tremendous dance album. The instrumentation is wonderful and you’ll enjoy listening to it repeatedly as the various layers of music and lyric unfold around you.

This is an album that speaks to youth and beginning a life, with all its challenges; those of love and relationships, of loss and horror, but also of dreams and the ambition of changing the world and making it new again.

Oh! this is your time
This is your life
This is your day
Oh! look at the night
These are your stars
They show the way
I feel your heart beat
This is your time
This is your life
This is your day

“Day in the Life”

For Sam, for whom I bought this album and still haven’t actually gotten round to sending it to him. I promise it will be in the mail. Soon.

7 replies »

  1. Thanks for a fantastic piece on Clegg, who is and has been tragically overlooked as an artist. For Americans who don’t know his music, think of Paul Simon’s Graceland, only about 100 times better. I’m not kidding. Find a copy of Shadow Man if you don’t believe me.

    Clegg put on two of the three greatest concerts I’ve ever seen. The third was U2’s ZooTV tour. And yeah, I think you’re too hard on Bono – he may lack policy depth, but he’s put his life on the line to speak truth about cultures in crisis, just like Clegg. But that’s another argument for another day.

    Can’t wait for the CD to arrive. Meanwhile, you’ve got me reflecting on something I wrote about Clegg myself, all the way back in 1989. Great beauty in the midst of a small tragedy…

    Death of a statistic

  2. Bono’s “put his life on the line”? We could definitely have a long discussion about that 😉

    However, Clegg had a tour in South Africa that they (internally) named the Bullets for Bafaza tour, after their tour-bus driver. He is a local chief and had become embroiled in a local war. A group of gangsters was following after them to assassinate them.

    They didn’t stop the tour, but tried to keep a few towns ahead while they negotiated terms with the various factions. Now THAT is putting your life on the line.

  3. Unless the story was a fabrication, the IRA threatened Bono back in their earlier days because he was so vocally anti-violence.

    Still, there’s little doubt that Clegg has put himself squarely in the way of more danger than just about any artist alive (and no, I’m not counting rapper conflict, which is largely self-inflicted).

  4. Bono recieved regular death threats in the US for singing “Pride”. The FBI took those threats very seriously. At one point kidnapping threats very so serious that all the band was asked to have all their fingers and toes printed. U2 rarely talks about these threats but they have been pretty constant throughout their career since “War”.

  5. Great post. I didn’t know anyone else out there listened to Clegg. That was the best article I’ve ever read about him. Simply awesome.


  6. The musical links you posted were wonderful. He is authentic.

    The sound of Africa is so beautiful and she never leaves your soul.

    Thank you.