Johnny Clegg Mixes Infuses Music With Anthropology

He is one of South Africa's celebrated sons. Performer Johnny Clegg is a singer, songwriter and dancer who might also be described, without irony, as an anthropologist and a musical activist. Host Michel Martin speaks with the man who popularized the fusion of Western pop and African Zulu rhythms about his latest CD titled "Human."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, my weekly Can I Just Tell You commentary about the calls for change in Egypt, but mostly about human dignity. But, first...

(Soundbite of song, "Asimbonanga")

Mr. JOHNNY CLEGG (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: That is Johnny Clegg singing a song he penned in 1986 for the then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Asimbonanga means: We have not seen him. In this 1999 performance, though, Johnny Clegg did see Nelson Mandela. He danced slowly but surely onto the stage accompanied by another singer and then demanded that band repeat this song to ensure that everybody heard it and was dancing.

Mr. NELSON MANDELA (Former President, South Africa): Well, it is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: That, again, was Nelson Mandela on stage with Johnny Clegg. He is a musician, dancer, Zulu scholar and human rights activist who has built a following in the U.S., Europe and around the world. And now there is a new CD, the first in quite a while - it is called, simply, "Human." And he's with us now from the studios of South Africa Broadcasting Corporation in Johannesburg. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. CLEGG: Thank you. Thanks a lot.

MARTIN: Retrospectives can be bittersweet. When you look back over the course of your career, you can enjoy sort of the moments where you think, wow, that was great, you know, I did that. But then sometimes there's a sort of a sadness that people aren't connecting to some of the things that you love in perhaps the same way that you wish they were.

I'm thinking about the fact that I've seen you talk about in some interviews that some of the traditional music forms that you grew up with, Zulu dancing, a lot of that now is sort of being pushed into sort of the early morning hour of programming and things of that sort. Will you talk a little bit about that, if you would?

Mr. CLEGG: Yeah, sure. What happened, obviously, during the period of cultural segregation, I'm talking 40 years ago, is that a lot of the traditions were kind of frozen in their - in a kind of a cultural straightjacket, which had both a good and a bad aspect to it. The actual real raw mother lode of dance tradition and of course all the various styles of music whether it was concertina, guitar or violin, that has all disappeared. The hostels no longer have an incredible cultural carpet that they would throw out on the weekends onto the street.

Also, the opening up of South Africa as an acceptable member of the family of nations globally, saw the end of the cultural boycott. And the generation that was born in the '80s, they said, you know, we want to take our rightful place in the global youth culture. And we're tired of being boycotted and we're tired of being this little sort of bad place where our music and our dance, it should be, you know, sort of segregated from the rest of the world. And we saw a flood of hip hop, rap, dance, house music coming to South Africa. And, slowly, you know, traditional music has really taken a backseat. And if you really...

MARTIN: Well, you can't object, though, to opening up to the world, right?

Mr. CLEGG: No. I - all I was noting was the fact that this music has disappeared. It's not that it's, you know, niche, it's actually, you don't see it anymore. It's hard to get a hold of. You know, I understand it's the way of the world. Things change, things move on. And those traditions are things that shaped me. I'm really saying that what I was shaped by is now passing away. I still use those forms. I still celebrate those forms. And I still incorporate them into my music.

MARTIN: OK. Well, tell me about the new CD. What was on your mind as you were developing it?

Mr. CLEGG: Well, if you notice on the cover, we have these very extreme figures. It's an artist in South Africa who developed this style of carving and painting and creating these weird expressions of conflict and paradox in the human condition.

And I think what - with "Human," the album - that its title. What "Human" is trying to do is to really look at more deeper issues of paradox. How do we deal with contradiction? How do we deal with conflict? Because it's out of those things that we are really shaped as individuals. And I think there's two or three songs on the album which look at some of the more darker aspects of those dynamics of being human.

MARTIN: Do you feel up to playing one for us?

Mr. CLEGG: Yeah. I can give you a traditional Zulu street song if you want, or I can give you a song from the album, "Love in the Time of Gaza."

MARTIN: Well, how about this, how about this: Since we were talking about the traditional Zulu songs, the music that has influenced you so profoundly, why don't you give us the traditional Zulu song first?

Mr. CLEGG: OK.

MARTIN: And then we'll give you a little bit of a rest, and then you can tell us about the second piece - which, is again, like, is another example of how you're continuing to sort of stay engaged in the world.

Mr. CLEGG: Yes.

MARTIN: OK?

Mr. CLEGG: Yeah. Cool.

MARTIN: So let's have the first one.

Mr. CLEGG: OK.

(Soundbite of a guitar)

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about it. OK.

Mr. CLEGG: This song, I like very much. The Zulu are a, you know, they're a military culture, and so they have many war songs, some of them very graphic. But this one is a song which has got this kind of paradox which I'm telling you is part and parcel of what I was exploring in the album "Human." It says that we are coming to attack a particular area. But then there's this kind of other appeal to say: But do you see our children? Do you see our young people who are still blossoming? Would you be so kind as not to hurt them at all? And it's one of the few songs which I discovered on the street which had this kind of paradox in it. So I'd like to play for you.

MARTIN: OK. Here it is.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CLEGG: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: Thank you.

If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with Johnny Clegg, the musician, songwriter, activist, and we're talking about his new CD, "Human," and whatever else is on his mind.

You know, there's another song I wanted to ask you about. It's the first song on the CD, "Love in the Time of Gaza." Will you tell us a little bit about that?

Mr. CLEGG: Yeah. I was watching, in January last year, the aftermath of the Gaza attack. And I don't even know which program I was watching. I was lying in my bed and watching - idly looking at these pictures that were just, you know, quite shattering. And one of the interviewers is talking to a chap about a particular incident. And I saw, in the back, a young boy of about 17. And there's smoke rising around, and it was just carnage everywhere and helicopter gunships flying overhead. And he was looking at this girl. And she was shyly looking back, and he was - I could see that they weren't aware of the camera. They weren't aware of anything. They were actually focused on each other. And I thought that's an amazing moment, that in this time of absolute carnage, this young person is, you know, is interested in the girl.

I wanted to say something about that, but I didn't know how to do it. It came out much later, months and months later, where I was just standing and I was strumming in the studio, and I found this chord progression, which I like. And I found a melody, and then the line came out, ooh these are my father's people. And then this is where the human tree once grew. Sorry. We are the children of the new world. You've got a new dream pushing through.

And I realized that when I finished writing those four lines, that I was talking about that young guy. So it was, for me, a very powerful moment, because it's a very difficult subject to write about, you know, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And to find an angle which can just release something a lot more deeper and - of all this flat(ph), you know, that we get in the media. And so that song, that's how that happened.

MARTIN: Uh-huh. Well, thank you. Here it is: "Love in the Time of Gaza."

(Soundbite of song, "Love in the Time of Gaza")

Mr. CLEGG: (Singing) I was born inside the rain on a day of wonder, dark inside my brain, memories of thunder. I was born a refugee, my life not fixed or free. I know the world's not to blame, 'cause everybody carries my name.

Ooh, these are my fathers' people. Ooh, this is where the human tree once grew. Ooh, we are the children of�a new world. Ooh, we have a new dream pushing through.

The sky is black with gunships, but I'm dreaming of a girl. In her eyes love and friendship, but will she understand my world? Now I'm like a windswept sea, hope and fear crashing over me. Will she think my world is cruel when I share my point of view?

Ooh, these are my fathers' people. Ooh, we are the children of�the new world. Ooh, this is where the human tree once grew. Ooh, we have a new dream pushing through.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for joining us, particularly after you've been working so hard. And it was really kind of you to come and spend some time with us.

Mr. CLEGG: Thanks a lot.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, what shall we bid farewell on? Is there a song from the album that you'd like us to play as we say goodbye?

Mr. CLEGG: How about "Give Me the Wonder"?

MARTIN: All right. "Give Me the Wonder." It's from Johnny Clegg's new CD "Human," and he was with us from Johannesburg.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. CLEGG: Pleasure.

(Soundbite of song, "Give Me the Wonder")

Mr. CLEGG: (Singing) Tell me new words and break this thirst. Sing me iron songs. Let me be strong. Give me right. Give me wrong. So I know where I belong. Give me dark. Give me light.

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