The Final Journey

Johnny Clegg shares notes on a storied, game-changing career

By MIKE COTE
New Hampshire Union Leader
October 18. 2017 1:02PM
Johnny Clegg is a South African singer-songwriter and anti-apartheid activist whose career has had an international reach over the past four decades. In 2012, Dartmouth College honored him with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. 
If you go...
WHO: Johnny Clegg

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 So. Main St., Concord

TICKETS: $35 to $65

INFO: ccanh.com; 225-1111

Johnny Clegg has dubbed his latest tour “The Final Journey,” but you could call it a victory lap. While “farewell” tours aren’t taken too seriously, Clegg’s romp through North America resonates more deeply than a classic rock artist padding a retirement account.

In 2015, the South African singer-songwriter and anti-apartheid activist was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and underwent surgery and chemotherapy. Clegg continued working while undergoing treatment, and is in remission now. His overseas trek includes a stop Saturday at the Capitol Center for the Arts.

Clegg’s Concord show comes less than a week before the release of his new album, “King of Time.” The upbeat title track, released in advance of the album, sounds like classic Clegg from his days with Savuka in the late ‘80s. It features a danceable beat, flourishes of African elements — including a Zula concertina — and introspective lyrics. Clegg says the album, part of his new contract with Universal music, also pushes him in new directions.

“Some of the songs are a radical departure for me,” Clegg said during a recent interview from his home in Johannesburg.” “A much younger producer with quite a tough, cocky attitude about where music is now (was) kind of dragging me kicking and screaming into a whole new way of producing.”

Clegg also has been busy working on an autobiography, which is the theme of his tour.

“It’s a consolidation of all my work in an autobiographical show. These songs are landmarks in my life,” said Clegg, 64. “A lot of them are my hits, but there are also other songs people don’t know or they’re less well known than the other songs.”

Clegg aims to present a show that traces his history, back to the days when he fronted Juluka in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, a multi-racial band in a country that was still living under the laws of racial segregation. By the time apartheid came to an end in 1994, Clegg had become an international star, thanks in large part to the work of his second band, Savuka.

“There’s a lot of audio-visual footage. There’s a lot of anecdotal stories to go with the music,” Clegg said. “It’s had a very good reaction from my fans and followers, even from people who have come along for the first time. I’m pretty eager to bring it to the States and just tour it while I can.”

As a teenager, Clegg regularly broke the law and wandered into black areas of Johannesburg, where whites were forbidden. He was drawn by the music of the Zulu tribe — sounds and traditions that he would incorporate into his music. His mother got used to bailing him out of jail.

“I spent my life ducking and diving a lot, getting into trouble, being been chased by people. But the migrant labor community ... was a traditional Zulu community,” Clegg said. “They were very generous and welcoming to me. There was always a pot of gold for me at the end of the thunderstorm.”

In the ‘80s, American and British acts like the Talking Heads, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel began incorporating elements of traditional African sounds into their music. While Clegg counts Gabriel’s earlier work among his influences, he says he wasn’t much affected by other acts picking up on African culture. He was more inspired by Jethro Tull, the Police and Jackson Browne and a project by folk artist Pete Seeger that collected songs from around the world.

“For me it was the first eye opener. You can sing in another language and bring that music and that experience to other people,” Clegg said of Seeger. “It had melody and it had rhythm. All of those people gave me a rough idea of what I could also attempt.”

While South Africa continues to face economic and political challenges, Clegg says the progress his country has made since apartheid is transformational.

“Basically we have a political democracy, which is massive progress. Everybody is endowed with exactly the same rights. The important thing is I don’t have to access power through my race or my tribe,” he said. “I have access to power simply by being a citizen, which has a direct relationship with the constitution. It’s a very new concept for a country that was run on race and on tribalism and ethnic privileges.”

Through it all, Clegg and his bands have delivered music that is as exciting to watch as it is to hear.

“I grew up in the tradition of playing in the townships and the township audience. They would say, ‘We haven’t come to listen to your music. We could put on an album back home and save ourselves the tickets. We want to see you play your music.’

“You couldn’t just stand there, hold your guitar and sing into a microphone. People would boo you off stage. You had to come up with a few moves. You had to come with choreography,” said Clegg, who is known for his high-energy shows. “Even before I got overseas, we’ve always had a very, very vibrant dance component to what we do.”


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