Political strife can inspire great art, and Johnny Clegg’s internationally successful musical career represents that intersection of reality and creativity. The British-born, South African-raised Clegg has spent almost four decades writing and performing songs that reflect the topical and personal turmoil of life in his evolving homeland, pre- and post-apartheid.
Clegg’s new CD, Best, Live & Unplugged at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, showcases many of his most popular, powerful and universal songs. Drawn from the repertoire of his apartheid-defying integrated bands Juluka and Savuka, which built global followings in the ’70s and ’80s, and from Johnny’s subsequent recordings as a solo artist, the September 2013 concert captured here presents these songs in an acoustic setting, although Johnny (vocals, guitar, melodica, concertina) is accompanied by four additional musicians. Clegg’s fusion of Western instrumentation and traditional African rhythms (with some lyrics sung in Zulu) is intimate and infectious on these new arrangements of “Scatterlings of Africa,” “Impi,” “Cruel Crazy Beautiful World” and other Clegg standards. The oldest song on the disc, “Woza Africa,” was originally recorded as a single in 1976 by Juluka. To listen to the CD is discover what influenced Paul Simon’s Graceland
There is a yearning quality to many of Clegg’s songs, declarations of love, frustration, hope and confusion that can be applied to South Africa’s slow path toward enlightenment, to personal and community relationships, to ever-changing life itself. The CD closes with a solemn but uplifting version of “Asimbonanga,” Clegg’s tribute to the late Nelson Mandela, himself a symbol of triumph over adversity and of the unquenchability of the human spirit.
Clegg joined Appleseed’s roster of socially conscious artists (Pete Seeger, Tommy Sands, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and many others) in 2010, when the label released Human, his first US-released solo album since the ’90s.