South African Musician Johnny Clegg On Touring The American South South African musician and artist Johnny Clegg has traveled the world, but never toured the southern U.S. He's on a North American tour right now, promoting peace and racial healing.
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South African Musician Johnny Clegg On Touring The American South

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South African Musician Johnny Clegg On Touring The American South

South African Musician Johnny Clegg On Touring The American South

South African Musician Johnny Clegg On Touring The American South

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/473660047/473660048" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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South African musician and artist Johnny Clegg has traveled the world, but never toured the southern U.S. He's on a North American tour right now, promoting peace and racial healing.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, if you follow events and culture in South Africa at all, then this is a voice you surely know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASIMBONANGA")

JOHNNY CLEGG: (Singing in foreign language).

MARTIN: That's South African superstar Johnny Clegg singing "Asimbonanga." A song he wrote in 1986 for then imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Later, Clegg had the honor of performing the song in person for the man who became not just the president of South Africa but also a symbol of national unity and pride. And that's something that could also be said of Johnny Clegg - a musician, dancer, activist and preserver of traditional South African music with fans all over the world. But somehow his travels have never taken him to the American South. This year he decided to correct that. Johnny Clegg stopped by our Washington, D.C., studios in the middle of a tour that began in Birmingham, Ala., and he is with us now. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

CLEGG: Thank you.

MARTIN: So you started in Birmingham, and then you did some dates in Florida...

CLEGG: Yup.

MARTIN: ...And you did Durham...

CLEGG: Yup.

MARTIN: ...N.C...

CLEGG: Yup.

MARTIN: So what are your impressions?

CLEGG: I think that it's different to - obviously - to the East and the West Coast and in -different to the big cities. The audiences are - they're a listening audience. They're not an energetic, jumping-up-and-down crowd, which, personally I like 'cause then I can actually share anecdotes and stories and give cultural-political and other information, which they really enjoy.

MARTIN: It's interesting that you say people are more willing to listen. I'm interested in that, and I wonder, is it because you had not been there before as a headliner?

CLEGG: Yeah.

MARTIN: And people are more...

CLEGG: I think so...

MARTIN: ...Intrigued?

CLEGG: Yeah. I think - also that, you know, we sing in English and Zulu, and we have a history of crossover and mixing and creating cultural conversations through music, through dance, through body movement and all that stuff. And I think that, you know, America's in a testy period. And I'm an external voice. I'm just bringing a story of music that came out of the apartheid struggle. And I think a lot of people find that enjoyable and interesting because it's like, oh this is going on in another parallel country, or universe, and it's kind of - the same kind of things that we've been dealing with. You know, its a...

MARTIN: Yeah, I'm...

CLEGG: ...Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Curious about that because, in fact, you have - you are visiting places - people in this country do draw the connection to apartheid.

CLEGG: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, they call it the apartheid South. Sometimes...

CLEGG: Yeah, yeah...

MARTIN: ...I mean, people don't always go - they call it, you know, the segregated South...

CLEGG: Yeah, yeah, yeah...

MARTIN: ...But some people call it the apartheid South in that era of strict racial...

CLEGG: Segregation. Yeah...

MARTIN: ...Separation. Was there a particular song in Birmingham, or a particular moment, that stands out for you?

CLEGG: It's funny - you know, we do all our hits and that, but there's a song called "Your Time Will Come," and it's mainly in Zulu, except there's a chant in the middle, which is in English. The lyrics say (speaking Zulu).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR TIME WILL COME")

JOHNNY CLEGG AND SAVUKA: (Singing in Zulu).

CLEGG: Which really is saying everything will come right in the end, and if it doesn't, it's not the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY CLEGG SONG, "YOUR TIME WILL COME")

JOHNNY CLEGG AND SAVUKA: (Singing) I saw the Berlin Wall fall. I saw Mandela walk free. I saw a dream whose time has come, change my history. I saw the Berlin Wall fall.

CLEGG: And the song is dedicated to Nelson Mandela. And this is really about the fact that, you know, change is slow. It's just incremental - it's like justice. You know, justice takes such a long time to unfold and to unravel and to deal with issues. And it can be exhausting - you've got to have a lot of stamina.

MARTIN: One of the things many people may - in this country - may not remember or know, is that yours was one of the few interracial bands...

CLEGG: Yes...

MARTIN: ...Operating in the apartheid period that, you know - so you could not perform in public...

CLEGG: Public, yeah, yeah...

MARTIN: ...Venues and you were harassed in private venues...

CLEGG: Yeah, yeah...

MARTIN: ...And yet you still managed to develop, you know, a following.

CLEGG: It was a cultural thing because I loved all the constituent musical parts that came from traditional Zulu culture. And a lot of the subject matter that I draw on, all come from songs that I heard as a young person and I - you know, it was really an artistic decision to say I want to create a conversation between these sounds and these traditions because they have been forced apart. That's where the politics came because they're not allowed to talk to each other.

MARTIN: So when you perform some of these pieces - did you perform any of them or are you performing them - one of these pieces of the tour?

CLEGG: One of the first Juluka songs, called "Inkunzi Ayihlabi Ngokumisa."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INKUNZI AYIHLABI NGOKUMISA")

JULUKA: (Singing in foreign language).

CLEGG: Which means don't judge a bull by the way its horns stand...

MARTIN: OK.

CLEGG: ...OK? 'Cause a lot of Zulu's do, 'cause they're cattle people. So there's a lot of proverbs around cattle. And it's a very beautiful song and it's a done with a mouth bow.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULUKA SONG, "INKUNZI AYIHLABI NGOKUMISA")

MARTIN: One of the things that you've enjoyed about this tour is that you're allowed to kind of share some of this history with your audiences.

CLEGG: Yeah.

MARTIN: How are people reacting to it?

CLEGG: They enjoy it. I think, also, the whole world is drowned in the permanent present. I don't think people have a sense of history anymore. I think that everybody needs a refresher course in basically understanding that things as we have them today, we went through quite a struggle to get here, you know? It didn't just arrive here on its own. And so people are really interested in that. And I think when I talk and I see them listening, I can see them making connections in their own lives. I've always, in my writing, looked at where fragmentation is and then try to address it and say how do you complete here? How can we become whole? It's about wholeness. Dela in Zulu means - to dela means to be complete and satisfied.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DELA")

JOHNNY CLEGG AND SAVUKA: (Singing) I said dela, dela (singing in Zulu) when I'm with you.

MARTIN: That was singer-songwriter, musical activist Johnny Clegg, speaking to us from our NPR studios in Washington, D.C. Johnny Clegg, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CLEGG: Thanks very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DELA")

JOHNNY CLEGG AND SAVUKA: (Singing) I've been waiting for you all my life, hoping for a miracle. I've been waiting day and night, day and night. I've been waiting for you all my life, waiting for redemption. I've been waiting day and night, I burn for you.

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