Over the last three decades, English-born, South African-raised Johnny Clegg has built a worldwide following through his fusion of his adopted homeland’s traditional music with contemporary instrumentation and accessible lyrics of personal and political expression. Now Clegg has chosen to release "Human," his first U.S. CD in 17 years, on the Appleseed label, known for its roster of musical activists (Pete Seeger, Ireland’s Tommy Sands, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Sweet Honey in the Rock and many others).
"Human" builds on Clegg’s critically acclaimed, massive-selling success with eleven original songs (and a traditional tune) that epitomize his spirit and intensity through yearningly sung lyrics of love and turmoil conveyed by kinetic modern musicianship with an ever-present South African lilt. This is a sound that was embraced by millions of fascinated fans of Paul Simon’s "Graceland" and Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” years after Clegg first mixed the ingredients from an insider’s point of view.
Clegg’s songs portray the possibilities of love during wartime (“Love in the Time of Gaza,” “The World is Calling”), the ache of a distant lover (“All I Got is You”), frustration at the lack of progress in South Africa (“Asilazi,” “Congo”), tentative new beginnings (“Here Comes That Feeling Again”), the contrast between “haves” and “have nots” (“Hidden Away Down”), the desire for a better life (“Gimme the Wonder”), and tribal anecdotes (“Nyembezi,” which starts delicately before reaching a savage electric guitar solo at its conclusion, and “Magumede”). Johnny tells these stories in a yearning tenor, using Zulu and English lyrics and a band that backs his own guitars, keyboards and concertina with dynamically varied, mostly electric instrumentation and strong pop/rock melodies that retain an ethnic undercurrent.
Clegg’s path to million-selling CDs and sold-out international tours was hardly a smooth one. In the late’70s, Clegg and fellow musician Sipho Mchunu formed Juluka (which means “sweat” in Zulu), South Africa’s first interracial band, which recorded two platinum and five gold records in their six year span while defying local airplay censorship and performance bans (and earning Clegg arrests and detentions during Apartheid for violating segregation laws). Clegg continued his Afro/modern fusion with his next band, Savuka, which shared similar problems at home but established Clegg as an international star abroad, netting the band a Grammy nomination as “Best World Music Album” in 1993 for their "Heat, Dust and Dreams" album.
After temporarily reforming Juluka in the mid-’90s, Clegg embarked on a solo career that has yielded several import-only albums prior to Human and an ongoing touring schedule that has consolidated his status as a major “crossover” world music artist. Clegg and his band continue to tour worldwide, and they will finally return to North America for the first time in six years for a 32-date tour starting in March 2011.
ABOUT JOHNNY CLEGG:
Although born in the United Kingdom, Johnny Clegg has become one of South Africa’s most celebrated sons. As a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, dancer, anthropologist and musical activist, his infectious crossover music – a vibrant blend of Western pop and African Zulu rhythms – has not only broken down musical barriers in his adopted country but has made him an international star.
Since the late 1970s, Clegg has sold more than five million albums worldwide, played to huge audiences with his exuberant, unforgettable live shows, and won a number of national and international awards for his music, his outspoken views on Apartheid, his perspective on the plight of South Africa’s migrant workers, and his overview of the modern world. Although he is known in his popular stronghold of France as “Le Zulu Blanc” (the White Zulu), Clegg’s background is as colorful as the “rainbow country” he has called home for more than 40 years.
Born in England in 1953 to an English father and a Zimbabwean mother, Clegg was raised in Zimbabwe, then, after his mother’s marriage to a South African journalist, in South Africa. Clegg’s exposure to African culture was enriched by trips to outlying townships with his mother, a cabaret and jazz singer, and step-father, a crime reporter, exposing young Johnny to a broader perspective than many of his peers.
After graduating college, Clegg was lecturing in anthropology in a Johannesburg university when he conceived of merging English lyrics, Western melodies, and Zulu musical structures. A South African record producer, Hilton Rosenthal, championed this blend and signed Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, Johnny’s musical partner at the time, to his independent label, an unprofitable venture due to radio censorship of “mixed” bands and their music. The Clegg/Mchunu band, called Juluka had similar problems with live performances, since South Africa’s laws brought them into contact with the Group Areas Act, which enforced the geographical separation of racial groups and their cultural facilities.
Forbidden to perform in public venues, Juluka not only played in private venues but defied the law by performing at universities, church halls, migrant labor hostels and private homes. Security police attempted to close down these shows, but the group attracted a core of student and migrant worker fans.
Juluka’s first several albums were bold explorations of the life of a Zulu migrant worker ("Universal Men") and an exploration of the broader aspects of the South African experience ("African Litany"). The latter album was largely ignored by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) because of its cultural mixture, but the record attracted a strong following through word of mouth and sold out live shows. Several more albums followed, including "Ubuhle Bemvelo," recorded entirely in the Zulu language but still mixing Western and African musical styles. Starting in 1982, the band made its mark internationally with its music and tours of the USA, Canada, Germany and Scandinavia. In the six years they were first together, Juluka recorded two platinum and six gold records and became a global attraction.
After Juluka disbanded in 1985, Clegg formed another crossover band, Savuka (“we have risen” in Zulu), and expanded his concept of mixing African music with international rock sounds and other musical forms. Savuka’s first album, 1987’s "Third World Child," broke international sales records in France, Switzerland and Belgium; one of their subsequent releases, "Heat, Dust and Dreams," was nominated for a “Best World Music Album” Grammy. The group toured extensively in Europe and North American from 1988 to 1993 before splitting up, after which Clegg and Mchunu temporarily reformed Juluka in 1996 and recorded a final album.
Following the second Juluka break-up, Clegg became a solo artist, releasing several albums, starting with "New World Survivor" in 2002, and continuing his extensive touring. Between 2004 and 2008, Clegg performed various coast-to-coast tours of the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe, and also performed at all four of Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Aids Awareness concerts in South Africa and Norway. Mandela has joined Clegg onstage during the rendition on “Asimbonanga,” a Clegg tribute to Mandela and other sociopolitical heroes.
Among the honors Clegg has accumulated to date are the 1988 Mayor’s Office of Los Angeles Award for promoting racial harmony, the 1990-91 Le Victoire French Music Award for the best-selling international album sold in France between 1987 and ’88, the 1990 Humanitarian Award from Ohio’s Secretary of State, the 1994 Billboard award for the Best World Music Album, numerous medals of honor from French cities, and was named Knight of Arts and Letters by the French government.