Stollen Moment
Tom Schnabel
Titres / Tracks

Johnny Clegg (Page 40 - 48)

                  While Johnny Clegg was one of the first musicans to bring the infections rhythms of South African music to America, it was his bi-racial group Johnny and Siphq and latex the larger group Juluka, that brought down the wrath of the authorities in South Africa. His latest group, Savuka, bas released two bit albums and is drawing more people to South African music. His riveting description of his odyssey through the battleground of South African musical culture provided a powerful reminder of the political threat posed by the simple act of musicians getting together to make music.

         TS : How did you wind up in southern Africa?
         JC : I was born in England in 1953. My mother divorced my father when I was six months old and we returned to her place of birth, which was then Rhodesia. I grew up on a farm there. My mother remarried a South African journalist, and we immigrated to Johannesburg when I was seven. We stayed in Johannesburg for two or three years and then we immigrated to Zambia for a little while. Spent two years there schooling. Then we returned to Johannesburg, alter which I stayed there permanently up until now. So I've got quite a checkered background in that regard, having schooled both in Zimbabwe, Zambia and in South Africa.

         TS : Did you always want to become a musician?
         JC : No, I never wanted to become a musician. My mother was a cabaret singer and was very involved with music. I didn't particularly litre the people she hung around with as a youngster. I found I had nothing in common with thé night club scene. I was really turned on to acoustic folk music, Celtic folk music, traditional staff Then when I was twelve, thirteen, I met Zulu street musicians in Johannesburg who were playing and tuning the guitar in a really crazy way, playing rhythms and melodies which in a certain sense are quite reminiscent of the Celtic music that I'd been listening to up until then. I started playing with them, bought myself a guitar, and after one and a half years became completely involved with the Zulu migrant labor street music community.
          I developed a very strong friendship with a particular migrant, Sipho Mchunu, who I played with for about six years, from 1970 to'76, before we recorded our first singles as Johnny and Sipho. Three years later we formed the band Juluka. In thé early years, obviously, we played strictly traditional Zulu music.

         TS : The album Rbythm of Résistance [taken from the BBC documentary of the same name] brought you fame and notoriety in South Africa, because with Sipho you were the first mixed group, correct?
         JC : Well, I don’t think we were the first mixed group. I think if we look back to the fifties, there was quite a strong multiracial tradition, especially in the African jazz music scene. It was the sixties when the cultural segregation really became serious. I think we were the first multi-racial grouping, if you want to call it that, experimenting with culture in the sense of looking at the roofs of Zulu culture and, say, Celtic folk music and trying to find threads of similarity, trying to weave them somehow into a meld or a mix. The band Juluka was the first band in South Africa to effect a full mix of tribal music and Celtic folk music. Later we mixed in general Western pop, from jazz to blues and reggae.
          So we came out of a pretty stifling period, the Vorster period of the sixties where the radio stations were segregated first on a racial basis-that is, black, white, Indian-and then those were further segregated on an ethnic basis. So if you were a white person you had to tune into an English radio station or an Afrikaans radio station. If you were a black person you had ten different tribal stations to tune into. We started to mix the languages on record. We broke ground on that level as well. Language is a very, very politically charged issue in South Africa. We mixed Zulu and English, which of course really upset the programming on radio because people would say, "Is this a Zulu record or an English record?" And we suffered for that on the SABC [South African Broadcasting Corporation].
          The period coming out of 1969-70-71 was a period where cultural apartheid was very strictly enforced. Sipho and myself could not play in public anywhere. We played alternative venues in Johannesburg, migrant labor hostels. There was a very strong street music tradition which you found on the rooftops of apartment blocks. Many flat cleaners were street musicians. So on the weekends we would go onto the rooftops of these buildings and congregate and mix and play there.
          We also played in gambling dons, speakeasies. And there were certain street corners in the industrial side of Johannesburg where the migrant labor hostels were situated, where out in the street on a weekend you could actually meet other musicians and plat'. But we were never allowed to play anywhere near the city hall or any kind of public area. And that started us playing together in 1970. After the June riots in 1976 there was a reaction from the government to give certain concessions on a social and cultural level. They began to open up certain venues for multi-racial performances, although these were very limited in the beginning. There were ridiculous rules, litre if there were blacks and
          Whites on stage there could only be one racial group in the audience. Or if there were many racial groups in the audience, there could only be one racial group on stage.
          It was crazy. And we went through that for about a year to eighteen months. Then it basically became open to everybody. But these open-to-everybody venues were also few and far between, and strictly controlled. It opened up a lot more for us around 1982, 1983, when more and more concessions were given on a social and cultural level, to the point where now at the end of 1987, there's a belt of venues which runs through South Africa, mainly in the built-up areas, where multi-racial performances are quite common. However, in the more conservative areas, in the Northern part of the Transvaal, in many parts of the free state, you tend to find that you go back twenty years in time. We often find we cannot perform there because they do not allow black people into the city hall or into the normal sort of venues.

         TS : You are an honorary Zulu. What does that mean?
         JC : Well, I wouldn't quite put it like that, but I have a special relationship with four clans. The Zulu in fact are a language group very much-if you want to conceptualize them-like the Scottish, in a way. They're a group of clans who are fiercely independent of one another, brought together by a common language and culture. But the clans themselves are very powerful bodies. They have their own rituals, their own history, and in a way, their own little subcultures. Over the period of the past twenty-odd years I've been incorporated into four clans, in a ritual relationship. They have certain claims and obligations over me and I have certain claims and obligations towards them. The clans in particular are the clans of Sipho, the Chunu people, the clans of Ndlovu, which is the clan of the dancer-percussionist who works with us in Savuka, and the clan of Qoma, who's a very special friend of mine. He's a man who makes car tire dancing sandals for Zulu war dancing teams in Johannesburg. He makes his living from this. He's known as Bafazane. I wrote a song for him called "Bullets for Bafazane", during the Juluka period. And also with the clan of the Ngele people. These people were very good to me when I was conducting research into the origins of a particular dance style which I was investigating for my M.A. degree.
          The claims and obligations are essentially that as a clan member I'm obliged to see that if any young member of a clan who arrives in Johannesburg is in trouble, or in jail, or needs a job or bas been arrested, or has a problem, or needs money to get back home, or needs to use the phone or whatever it is-he knows that there's a clan member there. Myself the same way, if I require assistance in any way. Also during certain festivities and ritual celebrations in Zululand, I'm obliged to be present at these festivities, whether it's a Christmas celebration, a New Year's celebration, or a slaughtering for the ancestors.
          It all sounds very serious, but it's also a lot of fun. We're all age mates, which means we're peers, and that's a very important principle in Zulu society, the age principle. Because you grow old together in the world and you're part of an age regiment.

         TS : Does this ever bring on problems with the police?
         JC : In the early days, obviously, I got into a lot of trouble. My first arrest was for trespassing into a black area. In fact it was a municipal compound where the Zulu migrant workers were living. Subsequently I was arrested in all these other alternative venues that I mentioned before-compounds, apartment block rooftops, migrant hostels-even in 7ululand itself, when I went to visit Sipho's family to meet them. I knew him for about a year and a half and I really wanted to meet his family. We went down there, and after three days the security police arrived and threatened to deport me back to England. Sipho was charged and brought to trial for bringing a white man illegally into a tribal area, which is considered to be a security zone by the police. Sipho won the case on a technicality, saying that there wasn't a sign. In all these areas there used to be a very big green board with white lettering saying, "You are now entering a black area. Anybody with white skin bas to have a government permit." And there was no board, so he got off.
          We had a lot of that kind of harassment, at shows as well. We had shows stopped in Nigel, in the townships where we played. Police came on stage with shotguns and said, "That's the end of the show, because white members of the band don't have a permit to be in the township." But all in all, I think you grow up in a situation like that and you don't have anything to compare it with. You deal with it, you know, you go through with it. And of a hundred percent of shows, fifteen to twenty percent you'll have a bit of a hassle. You'll go through some ugly moments but you'll get eighty percent done and that's okay.

         TS : Do you think that Nelson Mandela will be released?
         JC : I think it's definitely going to happen within the next two or three years. There are a lot of problems surrounding this because certain groupings in the broad democratic movement inside as well as outside South Africa feel that they don't want to get involved in tokenism. There are many political prisoners in South Africa who have been in jail as long as Nelson Mandela but who are not as famous and who don't have the kind of public profile that Nelson had. There's a feeling that there should be some form of total amnesty given to all political prisoners, because if in principle if you release one, then why not release everybody?
          So we do know that Nelson bas been holding out and saying, "I don't want to leave without the rest of my brothers and sisters leaving." So there is where the issue is going to settle, I think. I think the government would clearly have loved to just release Nelson Mandela and reap the benefits of the international publicity from that. And I think that people in the broad democratic movement are aware of that and would like to communicate what that release is generally worth to the democratic movement. Because we have many organizations banned, many people in jail, many people in detention. I think that's the issue, not just the individual case. Have you seen Cry Freedom yet? Yes. I had a mixed reaction. I think Attenborough had a very difficult task to accomplish. One was to give a good account and deal properly with the incredible life story of Steven Biko. At the same time he wanted to put together a political adventure movie. I think there was a bit of a problem in the flow of the movie, from that angle. I felt that one of the most dramatic things for the whole of South Africa in that period was the actual trial, the court scene. I think a lot more could have been done with it, because the incredible brutality and the consciously cold-minded attitude of the police at that time was brought to the fore. That kind of a problem is difficult to overcome.
          The movie wasn't essentially about Biko, it was about Donald Woods. And from that point of view, as a kind of South African political adventure movie I think it carries itself quite well. It definitely gives you a feel of what's going on there and what was going on in that period. I recommend that everybody see that movie. It's for people who want to get a general feeling of the quality of the struggle there. But I don't think it's a great movie if you want to understand Biko's life or the issues that his particular story brings out. His story highlights the South African situation. You must remember he's the only person who died in political detention and was legally proven to have died as a result of police actions. Thaïs why he's a very important political rallying point.

         TS : Well, Attenborough certainly made a statement at the end of Cry Freedom with the list of names-"Fell on a bar of soap," "Died while climbing," "Fell on stairs,' again and again.
         JC : Yes, well the sixties especially were a terrible period. The tenth floor of the police building became notorious. People were constantly jumping out of the window, falling from the stairs and things like that. It was a dark period of South African history. But even at this moment, with the state of emergency, there have been some equally brutal and brutalizing situations on both sides. Whether it's necklacing ...

         TS : Necklacing?
         JC : Well, the angry young kids in the township, if they suspect anybody of being an informer or collaborator-and of course, the definition of a collaborator is so broad and so undefined-that innocent people have been killed. A necklace is basically a tire which is put around somebody and petrol thrown over the person and burnt. There was a chaotic period where the incredible anger of the young people and the Peeling of desperation and frustration at the situation boiled over. The anger of the young people is a direct result of the government's repression and its failure to dismantle apartheid. Whether it's in the form of mass detentions, interrogations, or the harsh measures imposed by the state-of-emergency regulations, young black people have had to endure one of the darkest periods of struggle.

         TS : What do you think is going to happen in South Africa? Do you think it's a time bomb that's going to go off? Is there a solution?
         JC : No, I don’t think there's a time bomb that's going to go off. I think we're in the middle of a revolution. W e aren't going to see-well, in the foreseeable future anyway-the kind of guerrilla warfare that went on in the other front lino stator in their liberation. I think South Africa is a specific case of a highly industrialized country where the white settler community has sufficient numbers to actually control. They also have a highly sophisticated military and intelligence set-up. There's also a sufficient amount of competition and confusion between different liberation groups within South Africa for the military option to not be that successful, I believe.
          I think the road to emancipation there is going to bc through the trade union struggle. It's the trade unions who are in fart organizing communities, pushing for rights, raising many issues and taking them on. It's going to be that kind of a struggle, a legal struggle, a civil rights struggle, accompanied, obviously, by bursts and flares of violence and urban guerrilla warfare.

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The Johnny Clegg Discography