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Johnny Clegg: World Music as Global Hybrid

In today’s musical world, where samplers think that the entire globe’s musical catalog is a smorgasboard, filled with tasty tidbits, and musicians roam the planet in search of a little global frill to spice up their sound the way they use salsa to spice up an otherwise bland grilled cheese sandwich – well there’s Johnny Clegg.

Johnny Clegg is no accidental tourist and no musical interloper. This British-born South African heard the sound of the townships, the sounds of traditional Zulu music and did something quite unusual. Instead of being the anthropologist as raider of the lost art, as it were, Clegg took the opposite attack. As ethnographers say, he went native. He’s been initiated into the Zulu culture of his friend and musical partner, Sipho Mchunu.

He learned complex Zulu tribal dances, speaks several African languages fluently, was schooled in traditional musicianship and was married in a Zulu ceremony. In the mid-1970s, under apartheid, he and Mchunu started experimenting with a musical hybrid, merging English lyrics, Western melodies and Zulu musical structures.

The result was Juluka – Zulu for “sweat” – one of South Africa’s most famous bands.

And also one of the most controversial. Just walking out on stage together, Clegg and Mchunu were in violation of the Group Areas Act, and the band was prohibited from performing publicly. For years they played small private clubs in the townships, building a large following. After the fall of apartheid, Juluka performed at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration; Mandela joined Clegg on stage during a rendition of “Asimbonanga,” a tribute Clegg wrote to those killed during the struggle.

For the past decade or so, Clegg has been a solo act, always with mixed bands who fluidly mix traditional and techno, African and western. His hybrid global sound has made him a huge star in France – a country that far prefers Brazilian samba to Lady Gaga – as well as the rest of the world. The U.S.? Not so much.

In fact, “Human” is his first album released in the U.S. in 17 years. One listen and you’ll see why he’s such a megastar elsewhere – and why the U.S. has failed to embrace him.

For one thing, this is a mostly political album. The lyrics are achingly personal, and Clegg sings with an often heart-breaking ache in his voice – but the context is always political. And the politics they express – before Clegg even whispers his first word – are race. And in this country, which fancies itself post-racial, we may not like to be reminded of the power of race and the painful efforts that true racial reconciliation might take. This isn’t about voting for a black man while exempting yourself from the conversation because your parents didn’t own slaves. It’s about how we are all implicated, how the personal is political.

“Love in the Time of Gaza,” which starts the CD, is about the possibilities of young love in that occupied and strife-torn land. “Congo” is a gorgeous song, with a driving African chorus, reminding us of the terrible suffering there for the past decade. “Hidden Away Down” is a driving and inspirational song, sparked by the death of Edward Kennedy.

To be sure, there’s plenty of uptempo fun, and brilliant world music on the CD. “Manqoba” rehearses his earliest Juluka sound, with English lyrics and a Zulu chorus. “Asilazi” and “Magumede” are more traditional Zulu and Bhaca songs, recalling how this white South African strove so heroically to honor African culture in the only way he could – standing with it and immersing himself in it.

In the U.S., musical authenticity bows to technology and tourism. We’re more attuned to the autotuned than the authentic. Occasionally, a band breaks through, like Gypsy Kings, but most hybrid bands that marry western sensibilities to traditional sounds remain the favorites of passionate cults, as has Clegg. In the age of musical as well as cultural diasporas, Clegg’s hybid world music is neither local purism nor fake global techno beat.  It is the music of globalization.

 

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