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'White Zulu' Johnny Clegg mixes music and politics

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Johnny Clegg
Johnny Clegg has been at the forefront of South African music for more than 30 years as one of the leaders of the first successful integrated band and as a cultural observer during the collapse of apartheid.
Photo by Robert Oettle, courtesy of Appleseed Recordings

As a young musician Johnny Clegg saw the inside of many South African police stations.

Clegg was a white teenager growing up during the apartheid era. He often found himself on the wrong side of the race laws as he went to play music in the black townships.

Known as "the white Zulu," he became famous as part of the first successful integrated band in South Africa. Clegg will play in Minneapolis this week.

He was born in England in 1953, but he moved around a lot as a child, first to South Africa, then to Rhodesia and Zambia. "I went to five primary schools in three different countries in five years, so it was really adapt or die," he said.

Having experienced the mixed-race community in Zambia, Clegg says returning to the segregation of South Africa in the early 1960s was a shock. His stepfather was a reporter who covered crime in the poverty-ridden black townships and sometimes on weekends he would tag along.

Speaking via Skype, Clegg says it was eye-opening.

"You know, [South African musician] Hugh Masekela once said a very famous thing. He said, 'The happiest music comes out the saddest places.' It comes out of the townships, out of the ghettos, out of the favelas. And so in a sense the thing that got me when I went to the townships, the thing that got me, was the energy."

As a teenager Clegg found a Zulu street musician willing to teach him the intricate guitar style he heard played by migrant workers in the townships. He began learning Zulu dancing. And as a white youngster moving in and out of the townships, Clegg also began attracting the attention of the police.

"And then i just started getting arrested all over the place," he said. "I got arrested in the streets. I got arrested on top of rooftop buildings on the weekends for trespassing on private property."

Clegg was on those rooftops because that's where his musician friends lived. Often they worked as cleaners in the buildings below. They would gather on the roofs to play and hold musical competitions, which drew complaints from the neighbors, and then the police.

"One of the strengths and weaknesses of growing up in a totalitarian society is that you don't know that there is an alternative," Clegg said.

But in time Clegg did become politically aware. He worked against apartheid as a trade union member. Then he decided to focus on cultural rather than political activism. In 1969 he and his friend and longtime street collaborator Sipho Mchunu formed Juluka, which was to become South Africa's first successful mixed-race band.

"The most important contribution Juluka made was that we got up and sang in Zulu and English in the same song, which was unheard of," he said.

He says some of the songs overtly opposed apartheid. "But really what we were celebrating was African roots, African origins and that there was a conversation to be held between colonial and African cultures: There was a conversation to be conducted musically."

And Clegg has been involved in that conversation ever since, with Juluka, his next band Savuka, and then as a solo artist.

The age of apartheid is over. But Clegg says South Africa faces the struggles common for any young democracy. It's all fodder for new music.

"I just feel that I am still learning," he said. "I am seeing stuff that I thought would never happen."

Clegg and his band will play at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis on Thursday. He says he's not as driven as he once was to react daily to what he sees around him. But he still writes regularly after what he calls a more gentle process.

"Finding common threads of culture, common threads of humanity, common threads of melody, common threads of rhythmic polyphony," he said, "those are things that have always intrigued me."

Watch Clegg and Savuka pay tribute to Nelson Mandela: