Generously Johnny

That spirit of the great heart, Johnny Clegg, returns triumphant to the South African stage in a show that brilliantly displays the anthropologist as artist.

Academia’s loss has been the huge gain of the world at large. Years ago Clegg hung up his academic gown and left the Wits University anthropology department to write and perform songs informed by a deep knowledge of aspects of South African culture as well as a profound love of this country. And there was more: Clegg was and remains a triple-treat artist, whose brilliance as a Zulu dancer is undimmed by creeping middle age—a condition to which he jokingly (and frequently) referred during the first performance of Johnny Clegg: The Music and the Dance at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg.

In the show Clegg pulls out a clutch of favourites and worldwide hits from the Juluka and Savuka years and adds a quiver of new songs that will appear on the new Juluka album due out in December and his solo album, Johnny Clegg, set to be released early next year.

There is a particularly revealing moment in the preamble to the number that kicks off the second half: “It took me 48 years to write a song about my father, who I first met when I was 21,” says Clegg before launching into an intense musical reflection.

There is no denying the Clegg compositional character of the new material, which brings with it innate appeal for old fans and new listeners. But a small quantity of the musical arrangement of Clegg classics drifts either towards uncharted—and very atypical—jazzy shoals or goes full-sail into big orchestration. Perhaps the latter phenomenon may have more to do with the venue’s sound system.

But that is to seek flaws in a magical evening of great artistic and personal generosity. Clegg pays tribute to many with whom he worked and made music, explaining poignantly and carefully the origins and meanings of songs that many in the audience know well but perhaps have not engaged with other than aurally.

A highpoint is Clegg’s maskanda for beginners, an effortless and engaging primer on the roots of a way of being and marvellous musical form. This is applied anthropology, vibrant and compelling. No wonder Clegg had to leave the constrained, grey groves of white liberal academe. Transmitted in this way, culture becomes living art and makes high entertainment and an imperishable creative legacy.

There is also Clegg the dancer, whose artistry and inexhaustibility are remarkable. That Clegg is an invited, acknowledged and respected member of a number of Zulu families and communities means this is and never has been a fly-by-night appropriation and exploitation of culture.

Musically, it is transporting to hear the staples of the Clegg repertoire. They remind one of how bleak things were in the 1980s, but also of indomitable human and artistic resistance to state brutality.

Instantly transporting, the old numbers are time machines that work forwards too, in new settings of established sounds. Being somewhat too enamoured of the original versions of classics from the Juluka and Johnny Clegg and Savuka oeuvre, I found a number of the new arrangements hard work. Again, it may have been the sound system that created the occasional impression of over-elaboration and over-production.

At what you think is near show’s end, a company of Zulu dancers takes centre stage and performs with Clegg. Then there’s what must be the last song. Then there’s the encore.

And then, in a hurricane finale, Clegg and his co-stars—backing vocalists and musicians—play one classic after the other. Please go and see and hear for yourself.—Artslink


Johnny Clegg: The Music and the Dance is at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg at 8pm on November 9 and at 9pm on November 10. Book at Ticketweb on Tel: 0821 400 500 or 0831 400 500 or

www.ticketweb.co.za.

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone is books editor of the Mail & Guardian and director of the annual M&G Literary Festival. All Under Heaven, the memoir of his (mainly) Chinese family in South Africa (David Philip, 2004), was shortlisted for the 2005 Alan Paton Award. Accone is a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University. Read more from Darryl Accone

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