Johnny Clegg is back with stories — and a stripped-down sound
In the midst of a sold-out stop on the most extensive North American tour of his career, South African musician Johnny Clegg is reminiscing about his first national tour of his native country more than three decades ago.
That was back in the bad old days of apartheid, when his band had to perform in venues on private property because it was illegal for a mixed-race group to perform in public.
His head of tour security was a Zulu man, who came to Clegg one night and told him he’d gotten word of a war erupting between his village and a neighboring clan. “He said, ‘I’ve been warned that they want to kill me. But don’t worry, my people are watching them and we’ll kill them first.’”
At that point, Clegg, now 59, told the audience, “I had to call a band meeting.
“The reason I had this band was to help create cultural and racial tolerance. I told him, ‘We can’t have a road manager involved in assassinations. That wouldn’t look good.’”
The anecdote, one of many Clegg’s shared on this tour, illustrates just how much has changed in his homeland over those three decades.
Near the outset of the same show, he quoted Indian philosopher Krishnamurti’s cautionary words to those who seek enlightenment by scaling mountaintops: “The only insight you get climbing up the mountain is the insight you take up with you.”
Clegg’s 26-year-old son Jesse, a singer-songwriter, is opening for him on this tour, their first together in North America. Veteran actor-singer-activist Harry Belafonte, 90, caught one of the shows in New York City and came away sufficiently impressed with Jesse’s music to insist on getting together over drinks the following night.
“I tried to warn him against getting into this business,” said Clegg, seated at a table about a half-hour after the show, wearing the same black T-shirt and pants, but with a quilted parka added to help stave off the brisk 40-degree weather awaiting him outside.
That said, Clegg added that it was “tremendously fulfilling” to accompany his son in the early going of his own musical odyssey. “He’s struggling,” he said. “But he’s very talented, and there are a lot of things he can do.”
As for struggles, the elder Clegg encountered one he hadn’t expected upon arriving in the U.S. and discovering after a stop in New Orleans that he’d lost his passport. The temporary document he could get from South Africa’s Embassy would allow him only to go home, not move between the U.S. and Canada for various scheduled performances. It took nearly two weeks to get a replacement passport.
The current tour, he said, has expanded on his previous visit to North America in 2010, his first tour in this part of the world in 17 years. This time, the Johnny Clegg Band includes six musicians, with one additional vocalist — longtime foil Mandisa Dlanga — and Brendan Ross moving between keyboards and sax.
This tour concludes in Southern California with shows May 9 at the Belly Up in Solana Beach and May 10 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.
Then it’s back to Johannesburg, where Clegg has nurtured a multifaceted career. In addition to the songwriting, recording and live performance he’s been pursuing — at times against considerable odds — since the mid-1970s, Clegg also has had another career as a university lecturer on social anthropology in Johannesburg.
That skill comes to bear in his illuminating between-song narratives, which come across as part Springsteenian personal history and part academic discourse — except that the mini-classes always lead into some of the most pulsatingly arresting music imaginable.
More than a dozen of his best-known songs are on a new CD, “Best, Live & Unplugged at the Baxter Theatre Cape Town” a live album that was recorded last year during a series of stripped-down acoustic performances.
But when management initially suggested they record the shows for release — something Clegg has never done — “I instantly said no,” he remembered.
The reason? From his early performances in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with his first group, Juluka, to its 1980s and ‘90s successor, Savuka, Clegg had been long accustomed to full-band arrangements using horn players, backup singers and keyboards to supplement the core electric guitar-bass-drums. The scaled-down shows were the result of necessity being the mother of invention, and proving that adversity often can be the mother of inspiration as well.
The recent global economic downturn meant that many promoters and venues couldn’t afford the cost of Clegg’s full production. So he rearranged many of his songs to accommodate a smaller band.
What he discovered was that rather than creating limitations on which songs he could play with reduced forces, “It actually allowed me to add a couple of songs that we’d never found a way to do before,” an unanticipated fringe benefit.
“One of my favorite songs, ‘Circle of Light,’ we could never play it live [with the full band] . . . . But the unplugged version was brilliant. You have those kinds of moments that are really great.”
The Johnny Clegg Band
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach
Cost: $28 to $49
Information: https://www.bellyup.com or (858) 481-8140
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fred Kavli Theatre, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, Thousand Oaks
Information: https://www.ptgo.com or (805) 646-8907
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