Band, in Tune With Politics, Back on Tour

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Johnny Clegg and his band Juluka are on a mission to improve things in their native South Africa. And while they've waiting for better days, they make people dance. They, and another serious groove master, King Sunny Ade--who with his African Beats plays a unique brand of Nigerian juju music--should have the Santa Barbara County Bowl swinging Friday evening.

Clegg, as a white kid in South Africa, decided he wanted to check out the local music scene. The locals, were of course, Zulus, and Clegg began hanging with them, learning their music, their language, and let's just say he'd do fine in a dance contest. In the early '70s, Clegg fronted Juluka, the first interracial band in South Africa.

In 1987, Juluka became Savuka, but now Juluka is back. "It's a reunion thing," said Selwyn Solomon, the publicist for Putu Mayo Music, which last month released "The Johnny Clegg and Juluka Collection," a greatest-hits compilation. But the beat remains the same, an intoxicating mix of African and Western rhythms.

In fact, the beat has remained the same for too long--the band hasn't had an album of new material since 1993. But Clegg, an activist off the stage as well as on, has been busy with other things. He spoke about his music and about the political situation in his country during a recent phone interview.

*

It's been a while since you guys have been around.

We haven't been on the road for about three years because we have been going through quite a situation in South Africa with the elections and all, and I thought I needed to be there.

*

How are things in South Africa these days?

It's the best of times and the worst of times. We're going through a transition. Some things have to die before other things can be born. I think, so far, we have accomplished a small miracle. Unlike the Eastern Bloc countries such as Bosnia and Chechnya, we have resisted a major implosion.

We have very many similarities with those places from a negative point of view. We have unemployment and a criminal class, a Mafia, and a government that cannot guarantee things to its citizens. It is unnerving to have to renegotiate reality every day. It's like a cold shower every day.

*

For example?

Well, sometimes you wonder if it's all worth it when the newspaper reports 17 hijackings in a single day. And recently, during these truth commission hearings, the minority government admitted its own political police blew up its own army headquarters in order to make people think the ANC did it. It's serious when your own army is not safe from your own police.

*

You guys have traveled the world. Is there any place you'd like to play that you haven't?

I'd like to play South America and Asia, go to India and lots of places in West Africa and also North Africa. I'd like to play Morocco, Algiers, places like that.

*

Any place you wouldn't want to play again?

You know, about nine years ago we played in the desert in the north of my country in the Namib Desert, inside a huge plastic tent. People were sweating and fainting all over the place. It became an endurance test between us and the audience to see who could last. I remember when you would breathe in a gust of hot air, then exhale, and the air inside of us was cooler than the air in the tent. We managed to outlast the audience, but it was an absolute marathon.

*

Are people the same or different all over?

People are the same, but they respond to the same needs in different ways, and that's what I think is fascinating. They eat the same things, but cook them in different ways, for example. As a trained anthropologist, that's one aspect of traveling I find interesting.

*

How do you survive the rigors of the road?

I carry a small library of books when I'm on the road, so I read a lot. After a while, you tend to lose track of days, shows, places and people, but each night you get to perform a new show for different people; but it's OK once you get into the pace of things.

*

Who attends your shows?

People who are searching, looking for something different. They usually find a really great buzz.

*

What is the primary obstacle that prevents the band from earning Michael Jackson-level money?

I think there's a general misunderstanding in the West about the development of African music. The West gets a bit unsettled when Africans begin experimenting with Western musical forms, yet it's OK for Sting or Peter Gabriel to use African music to reinvent themselves. Mixing is an inevitable result of the globalization of world cultures.

*

If you weren't causing people everywhere to start dancing, what would you be doing?

I probably would be teaching anthropology or history, something like that.

What's next for you?

To go home and come up with a new concept and do another record.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Johnny Clegg & Juluka and King Sunny Ade and his African Beats.

* WHERE: Santa Barbara County Bowl, 1122 Milpas Street.

* WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday.

* HOW MUCH: $28.50, $26.50, $22.50 or $20.50.

* CALL: 568-2695.

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