South Africa’s Johnny Clegg returns with first U.S. album in 17 years

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When South African musician Johnny Clegg started playing music in earnest in the 1970s, he was something of a trendsetter, one who assembled an integrated band of white and black musicians at a time when his nation’s government officially sanctioned racial segregation in the form of apartheid.

His blend of Western rock, mbaqanga African jazz-pop music, Zulu chants and choreography and multilayered vocal harmonies akin to those of Ladysmith Black Mambazo predated the incorporation of elements of traditional African music by such savvy world-music proponents as Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and David Byrne.

But as Clegg anticipates this week’s release of his first album in the U.S. in nearly two decades, “Human,” he recognizes how much has changed, both at home and around the world. Apartheid, against which he often railed in his music, is no more. Nelson Mandela, who was a political prisoner during most of the time Clegg and his bands exerted their presence in the U.S. on tour and with a string of major-label albums, came and went as president of the Republic of South Africa. And the Western culture that was long suppressed during the apartheid era has flooded through his country.

“From 1994 to 2004, we saw this amazing influx of hip-hop, rap, dance and house music coming in and new styles of dress, a new youth culture, coming up into the townships -- and completely to the detriment of traditional rural music styles,” Clegg, 57, said recently from his home in Johannesburg, South Africa. “All the traditional music forms and styles lost their [radio] airplay and now are relegated to ‘traditional hour,’ which is usually 3 a.m. in the morning.”


That leaves Clegg, the onetime barrier bender who picked up a Grammy nomination for best world music album for his 1993 collection “Heat, Dust and Dreams,” as something closer to a standard bearer.

“We’re keeping a few things alive,” said Clegg, who was born in England and raised in South Africa. “Things are slowly now changing a bit, but the traditional Zulu street guitar music I grew up with has all but disappeared, and the Zulu dancing also has disappeared. A lot of traditional African culture is disappearing as we become part of the global economy.”

Some of it is very much evident on “Human,” in the expansive vocal harmonies of the Soweto Gospel Choir that backs him on the anthem-like “Asilazi,” the Zulu language he alternates with English in many of his lyrics and the skittering electric guitar lines and polyrhythmic beats that abound on the album.

This time out he’s also expanded his signature sound to include some grunge-like guitar textures in “Here Comes That Feeling Again” and a pan-global Middle Eastern Afro-Cuban cumbia melange on “Give Me the Wonder.”

“I’ve been a fan of Johnny’s for years,” said Jim Musselman, founder of the West Chester, Pa.-based Appleseed Recordings label that’s issuing “Human” stateside. “He’s been such an innovator in so many ways, integrating African rhythms with rock beats and African harmonies, putting all those things together and making it work in an incredible way. A lot of musicians have been very influenced by what Johnny did.”

He’s long been a political activist, paying the price with numerous arrests for violating the old laws that enforced segregation between the black and white populations. Because he also performed at each of Mandela’s 46664 AIDS Awareness concerts, it’s no coincidence one of his songs, ‘The Crossing (Osiyeza),” showed up in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film “Invictus,” about the revolutionary changes in South African politics since Mandela was freed from prison in 1990. Mandela also was the subject of Clegg’s song “Asimbonanga.” On a lighter note, his “Dela” was featured prominently in the 1997 Brendan Frasier comedy “George of the Jungle.”

But even though apartheid is officially a thing of the past in South Africa, equality and justice for all have been harder to come by. Clegg, however, believes there remains reason for cautious optimism.

“The language of South African politics is changing. It’s moving away from liberation language to real politics of delivery of social services,” said Clegg, who between tours used to teach anthropology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He still lectures there and elsewhere, occasionally. “Our president [Jacob Zuma] did a fantastic job with the World Cup. South Africans amazed themselves. We know what we can do; it’s a wonderful yardstick and barometer, to understand that we are capable of being an efficient, clear and powerful country.”

The change is apparent in Clegg’s songwriting as well. Where he often wrote in the past about the personal and social dynamics of the struggle for freedom and political equality, many of the songs on “Human” now center more on finding identity, understanding or love in a rapidly shifting landscape.

Clegg has toured regularly through Africa and Europe, and has built a loyal following in Canada that has brought him back to North America periodically. But playing in the U.S. has been a financially dicey proposition. Still, a cadre of followers in the states gobbled up tickets for his performance in New York next April when it was announced recently as part of a North American tour next spring. He expects to add a Los Angeles stop before his 2011 itinerary is finalized.

“We have to battle for support in the marketplace,” he said. “The best thing we can do really is our live act .… A lot of kids today get up on stage with a backing tape and dance around a bit. But when audiences see our full band playing live instruments with a show that is so physical and energetic and uses the traditional dance and music forms, it’s quite difficult for them to compete. We can still knock their socks off.”

-- Randy Lewis