The return of the white Zulu

Johnny Clegg still dances every Sunday in the Zulu hostels around Johannesburg, where he is now an elder and referred to as Umgangabovu, which means “the bleeding shins”. “I’m an old man, so if I stamp the ground my shins bleed,” he explains. “It’s typical Zulu, vivid, violent imagery.”

Clegg started the day in Cape Town promoting his latest album.
He returned to Jo’burg for evening dance rehearsals followed by a late-night interview with me, before setting off the following morning for Durban and the Cape again.

At 53 years old, he is now a seasoned performer and his first album in four years, One Life, shows he is still a potent force in South African music. It also marks a new beginning for the white Zulu, who sings in Afrikaans for the first time with the song Thamela: Die Son Trek Water. Clegg says that this Afrikaans volkslied (folk song) is his favourite at the moment. “It is important to recognise Afrikaans as an African language.”

He even sings in French for an upbeat African tune entitled Faut Pas Baisser Les Bras, and there is a Latin-inspired number, Daughter of Eden. But fans can rest assured that Clegg is still in touch with his Zulu musical roots.

“We were not just mixing music, melody and rhythm.” Clegg reflects on his early days as the frontman of his original band, Juluka. “We were also mixing language,” he says, referring to his distinctive blend of Zulu and English, which clearly resonates on the new album. “Crossover is what I do. I have always wanted to mix language. I made world music before there was a word for it.”

Performance and dance have always been a central component of Clegg’s stage presence, and it was certainly a rare privilege to be given exclusive access to his dance rehearsal just before he left for his forthcoming European tour.

When I arrived at the studio, Clegg was busily choreographing young Zulu dancers and a group of break-dancers. Seamlessly blending old and new, urban and rural, all the vibrancy was still there.

Clegg describes how he has “always been shaped by the Zulu values”, which he has adhered to since he was a youngster. “When the chips were down in my life, it was these values that enabled me to continue.

“There were these values of inkhani, which means stubborn determination. Ukuzimisela, which means to cause yourself to stand prepared. The Zulu never go into war, or any kind of conflict, without preparation. Correct preparation is critical.” He reflects also on “the tragedy of being a man, and the tragedy of constantly needing to reinforce your status against all of the other men the area”. Most of all, his Zulu way of life has taught him about endurance and that “life is an endurance test”.

In classic Johnny Clegg style, political protest is never far away on this album. Of course, the issues have changed, and he insists that “culture should never be used as a weapon” as that “reduces its value”. But, he says, “You can make statements about the political realm that bring attention to the situation. I’ve just done this with a very hard-hitting song against Robert Mugabe [The Revolution Will Eat Its Children].” The song is also about “the inability of certain African leaders to relinquish power when it is time to do so”. There is also a song against the use of children as soldiers. “I’ve always spoken out about things.”

In relation to the future, the white Zulu’s optimism shines through. “The country is currently thundering forwards on the sheer momentum of transformation, which is just pushing us through the crime, through the unemployment. At some point it is going to have to deal with these issues.”

He refers to the dangers of xenophobia towards the many African migrants in the country, but that his “experience has been very positive”.So I ask if one day we might even get a Nigerian Zulu. “You never know,” he laughs.

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