Everyone has a plan that will not work.
Frisbees for cats. Twinkies full of roast beef. Milli Vanilli in Esperanto. A remake of “King Kong.” The Sally Struthers Whining Channel. The list is endless.
But then again, Johnny Clegg, a white guy from South Africa, has a plan that just might be working. He’s trying to unite blacks and whites in his country through his music. You can hear it--and see it--when Johnny Clegg & Savuka will dance, as if their shoes were on fire, all over the big stage Saturday night at the venerable Ventura Theatre.
Does music change people? Just maybe. As a little kid growing up in South Africa, Clegg decided that he liked the local music scene--the real locals, the Zulus. He used to hang out in the Zulu ghetto and learned their music, their language and--whoa--can this dude dance?
Clegg got arrested on occasion because even hanging out with blacks was illegal. Apartheid had a habit of making a lot of things unhealthy. Later, in the early ‘70s, Clegg fronted the first interracial group in South Africa, Juluka, but since 1987 it’s been Savuka, a band that combines traditional Zulu rhythms with Western rock ‘n’ roll. The result: an intoxicating dance music, irresistible to any feet within a 12-block radius.
“Heat, Dust and Dreams,” just released, is the band’s fourth album. But unlike other tours, the group will be headlining in the United States this trip. Big Time everywhere else, the band is still seeking its big break in this country, proof positive once again that there’s no justice in rock ‘n’ roll.
During a recent songwriter’s show at the Ventura Theatre, Clegg discussed the latest.
It seems like your band is always on the road, but fame and fortune in American remain elusive. Why?
We go on the road for four years at a time, then take a break for two years. Right now, we’re most popular in France and Belgium, but we’re selling more records now in America than ever before. I think our new album has more songwriting, and more songs than just grooves. Also, this tour, we’ll be headlining. We just gotta keep playing and gotta keep moving.
Describe Savuka music.
Eclectic. I play hard rock music with traditional South African music--it’s a mixture of both.
What’s the difference between Juluka and Savuka?
Savuka picked up when Juluka ended.
Can music change the world?
Music changes individuals, not countries or groups. I think young people care. There’s something very true about young people. There’s a freshness that they share. They’re the hope for the world. The youth are so full of boundless energy, spontaneity and crazy dreams. By the time you’re 35, you’ve been subdued by the system. I was changed by music--it changed my life. Now I’m privileged to do what I want to do and make a living at it. I don’t like being away from my wife and my kid, so I try to take them with me as much as I can.
So you were in the first mixed-race band in South Africa?
Yes, we broke the law. All groups were segregated, and all groups had to stay with their own race. We broke these rules by mixing Zulu with English.
Were you in any actual danger?
We never wrote political songs, but we were threatened. The police would stop us at roadblocks before a gig and make us empty out a three-ton van. We’d send a car ahead to tell the people at the gig. In South Africa, people are used to stuff like that, so they’d wait for us.
Why is there still so much trouble in South Africa?
We’re going through a transition. It’s a matter of economy. White people aren’t prepared to pay for apartheid anymore because they’ve been paying for duplicate services all this time.
What is the ideal fusion of Western and African cultures?
In Africa, there is a peer group that shares a common name, and a child is brought up by the community and not just the mother and father. There is a sense of community and a sense of belonging. The Western contribution is more analytical. The whole thing is a balance between expression and repression. You need to have both. If you can only express, you won’t get very far; and if you can only repress, you won’t get very far. It’s sort of a balance between a human and a machine.
Tell me about a strange gig.
One time we opened for George Michael in Canada and there were all these 12-year-old girls who didn’t know what to expect. We ended up singing in a language they didn’t understand, but they were doing these crazy dances, anyway.
What bands do you think are cool?
I like Neneh Cherry, Pearl Jam and the Cult, plus a lot of South African musicians.