From dancing at taxi ranks to world stage
After 30 years Johnny Clegg is as strong as ever – but there’s still one artist he’d like to work with, writes SIHLE MTHEMBU
JOHNNY Clegg, storyteller, musician and something of a South African icon, is not one to rest on his laurels. After 30 years and with a string of seminal albums like the Grammy-nominated Heat, Dust and Dreams, Clegg is still going strong, with his Cape Town fans looking forward to a string of shows at the Baxter Theatre in September.
Speaking ahead of his Durban performances this weekend about what had kept his music so vibrant over the decades, Clegg said he was still very much inspired by the idioms of the Zulu culture he had adopted and which shaped his life.
“I draw inspiration from Zulu idioms, proverbs and spoken language. I also rely heavily on reading poetry,” he said.
Clegg said his songwriting process was very gradual.
“I play chords, some sad and long or happy and short, until I get the music mood right for the song.
“Then I mess around for days and hopefully the music muse visits me and I manage to get things to settle, and they begin to sound like they all belong together.”
Clegg is known for bringing into the musical mainstream a collaborative sound that infused the genres of western pop with Nguni and mbhaqanga rhythms.
His influence on the South African sonic landscape is significant, although few outside of music circles know that he was born in Zambia.
Of his history in Durban, Clegg said the city was the centre of Zulu traditional culture “which shaped and defined me as a young man”.
“I taught social anthropology at (KZN) University in 1979 and 1980, and lived in Moore Road over that period. I danced at Dalton hostel and at the taxi rank under the highway at night. I have special memories of those days.”
Having graced stages around the world and performed with the who’s who of jazz, blues and folk music, Clegg said there was still one South African singer he would like to work with – and that was Zahara.
He said that, like him, she was a storyteller at heart.
“I come from a singer/songwriter tradition, and one of the most exciting artists on the scene now is Zahara,” he said.
“Life is essentially a narrative, and storytelling presents all humans with a linear set of connections that helps makes sense and meaning of their lives.
“Stories are shared experiences, and enrich the teller and the told alike,” he said.
He’s sold more than five million albums worldwide, but Clegg said he wasn’t ready to rest on his laurels.
Discussing how the music world had changed and developed, he said that because of the decline in album sales there was now, more than ever, a need for artists to focus on the live element of their music.
“Live music is where the bulk of an artist’s income is derived from,” he said.
“Today, studio albums are expensive and turn out to be simply promotional items for live shows. CDs are no longer a source of supplementing income except at live shows,” he said.
“Today artists have to have a strong live show to survive even one year in the business.
“I am now looking at recording live shows and new songs played before live audiences, which is a far more truthful and honest presentation of the music.”
Clegg is also very interested in the way technology is changing the way that people both construct and make music, and he said this was something that would continue in the industry for a while.
“Songwriting has been badly affected by sampling of sounds and the digital music revolution. There is so much you can do today with current technology that sounds in themselves can become the message,” he said.
“I think it is a very exciting period and is extremely disruptive of the old-school music structures and formats. Live music fortunately has managed to thrive, even though there is a shortage of good venues and infrastructure.”
What makes Clegg’s music so interesting is that despite the fact that it deals with specifically South African themes, he is still lauded around the world for his abilities as a songwriter. So much so, that in 1991 he was given the equivalent of a knighthood in France.
Currently, he’s also working on a new album, a book about his life as well as an international tour.
Clegg performs at the Baxter Theatre from September 18 to 22. Tickets, from R257 to R390, are on sale at Computicket.
POETRY: Johnny Clegg says his songwriting process is very gradual and relies heavily on Zulu idiom and poetry. ‘I mess around for days,’ he said, ‘and hopefully the music muse visits me, and I manage to get things to settle.’