The Jewish Zulu

South African musician Johnny Clegg talks about his career, the changes in his country and his relationship to Israel and Judaism.

Johnny Clegg 521 (photo credit: Siphiwe Sibeko)
Johnny Clegg 521
(photo credit: Siphiwe Sibeko)
At first, Johnny Clegg was an anomaly. As a 14-year-old Jewish kid in Johannesburg in the late 1960s, at the height of South Africa’s apartheid regime, police figured his repeated arrests in black-only areas were drug-related. So while police warned Clegg’s parents of the “danger” inherent in mixing with other racial groups, they did not charge him with violating the country’s Group Areas Act, which separated the races.
Over time, however, the authorities came to view Clegg as a threat. Throughout the late 1960s and 70s, Clegg regarded the townships as a second home. Despite frequent arrests, he continued to visit the mining hostels that housed black men from around southern Africa who had come to find work in the continent’s financial hub. Even worse, Clegg refused to curtail his performances with black musicians, skirting apartheid laws by performing at private venues such as foreign embassies and churches (mixed-race performances were prohibited in public only).
Now aged 59, Clegg says the passion and energy of the mining hostels instilled in him a deep admiration for African tribal culture, and an unquenchable thirst to learn about the various art forms to which the culture gave rise. After first visiting the hostels with his stepfather, a crime reporter, he found he could not stay away.
“On the weekends, the hostels were teeming with life,” Clegg tells The Jerusalem Report in early November.
“People sold traditional crafts on the sidewalk, diviners performed traditional rites, people were selling fighting sticks and spears and much more. There was an overwhelming smell, a combination of barbecued offal, traditional beer, urine and human flesh. The odor was pungent, but not off-putting, and all together I found the scenario absolutely fascinating.”
Above all, Clegg quickly became enamored with the music and dance competitions that took place every weekend. He met a guitarist named Charlie Mzila; together they would play music and critique each other’s skills. At the same time, he learned how to stick fight, coming home regularly with black and blue welts all over his body, and he learned the physical, aggressive style of Zulu dance that later came to form a central part of his stage persona. Eventually, he began competing on weekend dance teams, where he garnered grudging respect from Zulu and Xhosa men twice his age.
The result of these experiences was one of the defining sounds of South Africa during the apartheid era. By the age of 16, Clegg was known locally as the “White Zulu,” and had teamed up with Sipho Mchunu to form Juluka (meaning “sweat”); the duo released their first single, Woza Friday, in 1976, and their first studio album, Universal Men, in 1979 – nearly a decade before Paul Simon’s landmark South African album “Graceland.” Juluka combined elements of Western popular music, African jazz and Zulu chanting. The music was banned at home by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, but the ban did little to derail Clegg’s popularity.
“I was living this sort of double life,” he recalls. “For most of the week, I lived in white Johannesburg. Like everybody, I listened to the radio and heard the trends of popular music at the time. But then I’d get back to the hostel, and it was sensory overload again. By this time I had several years’ guitar experience under my belt, but I’d never heard music like this. All around the hostels, people were playing instruments – guitar, violin, you name it. But they weren’t the same sounds I’d been familiar with. The instruments had been re-conceptualized, altered and Africanized. Strings had been retuned or moved around. Demands were being made of these instruments that they simply hadn’t been created to fulfill, and I thought it was wonderful.”
By the time Juluka broke up in 1986, Clegg had an international following. His second band, called Savuka ( the name means “we have risen”), recorded four albums from 1987 to 1994, and Clegg has put out four solo albums since then, including a 30th anniversary compilation disc in 2010. In all, his albums have sold more than five million copies, and he has dedicated followings in France, Canada, New Zealand and, of course, in South Africa.
At first, there was little to indicate that Clegg’s upbringing would be anything out of the ordinary. As the eldest child of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, he was born in England in 1953 and moved to South Africa a year later. By the time he was 10, he had lived in three African countries (Zambia, Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – and South Africa), exposing him to a wide variety of people and cultures, but when the family returned to Johannesburg they settled into a reasonably conservative life.
Clegg says he felt little connection to the Jewish community in South Africa, which then numbered some 200,000 people.
Growing up, there was little Jewish content in his family life, and the little contact he did have reinforced a deep network of mixed feelings about organized Judaism.
“I had one religious uncle,” he says. “He took me to synagogue once or twice when I was eight or nine years old. It was very dark, with a bunch of old men davening in a weird language I couldn’t understand.
They said I was supposed to feel connected here, but it was completely foreign to me.”
Eventually, however, Clegg came to realize that parts of Judaism held currency for him and for the life he had forged.
“I’d have to say that my relationship with Judaism has always been a bit fractured, perhaps even schizophrenic,” he says pensively. “On one hand, I’d sit at my uncle’s Seder on Pessah and I’d feel alienated by the exclusivity of it all. We were talking about freedom and liberation, but the discussion was only about us.
“But at the same time – remember, this was the 1960s and 70s, after the massacre in Sharpeville and with Mandela in jail. African communities were all using the same metaphors – Moses, Egypt, Exodus – in the liberation theology of the time. I didn’t really expect it, but suddenly I was thrilled that black communities were connecting with the Exodus story. It meant that my culture, my heritage had something to contribute to the African experience.”
Over the years, that duality has gained expression in Clegg’s music. His 1981 song “Jerusalema” is a Zulu-language ode to the Biblical ideal of Jerusalem as a source of world peace and salvation, and also to the frustration of anti-apartheid activists at the time. “The clear road to Jerusalem/we don’t know when we’ll arrive/ others lose their way/we will never stray.”
Clegg seems to harbor a sense of mixed emotions about Israel and the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. He hasn’t performed in Israel, but says he would be open to doing so if the logistics could be worked out. “We’ve tried to book shows in Israel several times, but we just haven’t been able to find a promoter we’ve felt comfortable working with.”
Clegg’s ambivalence about Israel stems partly from the fact that the Middle East and its issues are foreign to his African soul, but also from a sense of frustration about Israel’s inability to fully realize its goals and ideals. As with many of his songs, his lyrics on this topic expose a deeply emotional and nuanced individual, a person with the ability to be saddened by the situation without passing judgment on either side.
For instance, the 1990 song “Jericho” vacillates between hope and frustration.
“This is Jericho/And the walls reach up to the stars/And outside we were singing psalms/Such a strange, strange place/For we are the prisoners/Of the prisoners we have taken.”
Twenty years after “Jericho,” he expressed similar emotions in “Love in the Time of Gaza” (2010). “I grew up a refugee/my life not fixed or free… The sky is black with gunships , but I’m dreaming of a girl/ In her eyes love and friendship , but will she understand my world?” Sitting today by the pool in a sculpted garden in a leafy Johannesburg suburb, Clegg looks and sounds like the middleaged Jewish man he is. He has grown out of the chiseled physique he maintained as a young man, but is a trim and healthylooking 59.
His music has changed over the years – “Human,” his last studio album, is less heavily influenced by African harmony than his previous work, and 90 percent of the lyrics on the album are in English. Also, Clegg’s subject material has morphed. In many ways, he has swapped the protest songs of his youth for a more reflective discussion of love, family and personal identity.
The progression is a natural one, perhaps – the apartheid system that forms the context for much of his early music has been gone for nearly 20 years. Nelson Mandela, the subject of his 1987 song “Asimbonanga” (We have not seen Mandela/ in the place where he is kept), has been out of jail for more than two decades.
Age has also necessarily altered his schedule. While he still feels a strong connection with migrant workers in Soweto, Alexandra and other predominantly black townships, the weekend afternoons he used to spend dancing at the hostels are now spent with his family (his 24-year-old son Jesse is a popular singer in his own right, and 16-yearold Jaron is an aspiring film producer). Down time is spent with his wife, Jenny.
Perhaps most importantly, South Africa has changed. In addition to a growing black middle class, the election of Mandela and the rise of the African National Congress to government in 1994 brought with it a new openness, both in terms of accepting outside influences and in being accepted by the outside world. That brought an influx of Western culture, including hiphop and rap, new styles of dress and more.
These influences spelled a decline for many traditional cultural forms.
Significantly, while it is clear that life for most black South Africans has improved during that time, the country is still struggling with the lingering effects of apartheid. The country has the highest HIV infection rate in the world (17.9 percent among 15-to-49 year olds, according to AVERT, a UK-based charity that fights HIV and AIDS) and a massive problem with unemployment among non-white communities.
Politically, the ANC has struggled to rein in corruption and current leaders, such as President Jacob Zuma and ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, have been implicated in a host of financial and ethical scandals.
Asked whether today’s South Africa is the country he dreamt of during his days of protest, Clegg smiles. “I think the nature of political independence is that we will have to digest the current ruling party. I’m guessing the ANC will be voted out of office in no more than two elections from now.
There’s definitely a lot of work to be done on the political front.
“But I still believe in this country, 100 percent. We have fantastic human capital here, and the strongest economy in Africa.
When I look at other countries and consider the problems they have – the Arab Spring, Israeli-Palestinian fighting, the ongoing global financial crisis – I wouldn’t change places with anyone in the world. Yes, there are challenges here, but they are the challenges of Africa. Those are all I’ve ever really wanted to meet.”