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

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

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.’

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