“Long before Paul Simon got the same idea, Johnny Clegg had been leading interracial bands that mix South African township jive music and Western pop…”
– Washington Post
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.