A pioneering musician in South Africa, Johnny Clegg formed not one, but two multicultural, multiracial groups during the tumultuous years toward the end of apartheid. The political nature of his recordings has always been present, whether documenting the life of a migrant worker (Universal Men), taking inspiration from the trade union slogans of the 1980s (Work for All) or referencing three martyrs in the liberation struggle (Third World Child). Nicknamed "The White Zulu", Clegg continues to serve as musical ambassador, crafting songs with a crossover sound and universal appeal.
Born on June 7, 1953 near Rochdale, England, to an English father and a Zimbabwean mother, Jonathan Clegg had an unconventional and uprooted childhood, living in Israel, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa by the time he was seven years old. His mother, a cabaret and jazz singer, and his step-father, a South African crime reporter, exposed young Clegg to the different cultural perspectives and political realities of the time.
At 14, he picked up the guitar. But it was a chance encounter in Johannesburg with the street musician Mntonganazo Mzila that steered Clegg onto his musical course. He apprenticed with Mzila for two years, studying Zulu music and Inhlangwini dancing, before setting out on his own.
Along with Zulu musician Sipho Mchunu, who had moved to Johannesburg to work as a gardener, Clegg formed Juluka ("sweat" in Zulu) around 1976. The duo was South Africa's first mixed race band, a fact that was frowned upon by apartheid supporters.
To bypass censorship and segregation, they toured frequently. Although inter-racial groups were only allowed to perform in private venues, the two musicians played in universities, churches and hostels around Johannesburg, gaining a loyal following despite several of their concerts being closed down.
The band's first release, Universal Men (1979), received no air play on state-owned radio, but it gained momentum through word of mouth and eventually became an underground hit. Blending English lyrics and Western melodies with traditional Zulu music and chant, the concept album followed a Zulu migrant worker who is caught in a transient existence between his home and the city.
The follow-up, African Litany (1981), included the popular opening track Impi, a traditional Zulu war song that some listeners considered as a call to revolution at a point when South Africa was heavily segregated. Juluka's third release, Ubuhle Bemvelo (1982), brought in two new members, bassist Gary VanZyl and drummer Zola Mtiya, and featured the hit closing track Woza Friday.
By the mid-1980s, South Africa's tense political climate had started to take its toll on Juluka, and, in 1985, the group disbanded. In six years, the ensemble recorded two platinum and five gold albums, toured internationally and, on a social level, spread awareness about the everyday realities of apartheid.
Rising up once more
With Mchunu returning to his farm in Zululand, Clegg decided to form a new band. Savuka ("we have risen" in Zulu) merged African music with an international pop-rock sound. In 1987, the ensemble released its debut, Third World Child, which included Asimbonanga (Mandela), a song calling for the release of Nelson Mandela. The album went on to sell more than two million copies.
Savuka reached its peak with Heat, Dust and Dreams (1993), which was nominated for Best World Music Album at the Grammys. The group had already started to tour extensively by 1988 - including a stop in Montréal at the Festival that same year - and continued to build a following in North America and Europe until it dissolved in 1993.
In the mid-1990s, Clegg and Mchunu briefly reunited as Juluka, releasing the hit album Crocodile Love and touring internationally as the opening act for Nigerian juju musician King Sunny Ade.
In 2004, Clegg and his band embarked on a North American tour for the first time in eight years. The world music pioneer made a special appearance at the Festival that summer to mark the 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa. To celebrate, Clegg was joined onstage by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Lorraine Klaasen, opening the Festival with a concert that was attended by more than 125 000 people and televised worldwide.
Since then, Clegg has pursued a successful solo career with recordings such as New World Survivor (2002), One Life (2006) and Human (2010). The musician still tours regularly.