Johnny Clegg, A South African Superstar, Says Farewell : The Record Singer and dancer Johnny Clegg — the co-founder of two groundbreaking, racially mixed bands during the apartheid era — is battling pancreatic cancer. He's saying goodbye to his fans on a U.S. tour.
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A South African Superstar Says Farewell

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A South African Superstar Says Farewell

A South African Superstar Says Farewell

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Johnny Clegg is one of South Africa's best-known musicians. He's also known as a songwriter, activist and preserver of traditional South African music with fans all over the world. He was born in England and grew up in Zimbabwe and South Africa and has spent his career finding connections between African culture and music and sounds from abroad. But two years ago, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Now, he's on a farewell tour of the U.S. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has this report.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Johnny Clegg is 64 years old. He's in remission now, but he has a very aggressive form of cancer.

JOHNNY CLEGG: I've come out of my second chemo in February. And in March, I just said to my management, you know, if there was a time to wrap up my affairs while I'm feeling pretty strong and good, it would be now.

TSIOULCAS: For his current tour, he's playing a retrospective of a career that's spanned four decades. Clegg's life and music have moved in parallel to the currents of South Africa's history.


CLEGG: (Singing) Asimbonanga umandela thina.

TSIOULCAS: His song "Asimbonanga," written in honor of Nelson Mandela, became an anthem for South Africa's freedom fighters.


CLEGG: (Singing) Oh, the sea is cold, and the sky is gray.

TSIOULCAS: Johnny Clegg was born in England. His parents divorced when he was a baby. And his mother took him back to her native Zimbabwe, which was then called Southern Rhodesia. She remarried, and the family eventually settled in Johannesburg, where Johnny fell in love with Zulu culture and music.

CLEGG: I stumbled on Zulu street guitar music being performed by Zulu migrant workers, traditional tribesmen from the rural areas. And I just - as a 14-year-old, when I stumbled on that, I thought, wow, this is amazing. And so I wanted to learn it and I did. The chap that taught me was an apartment cleaner around the corner from where I lived. And got I lessons. And then I bought a cheap steel-string guitar, and I was on my way.

TSIOULCAS: His guitar teacher introduced him around in places where he probably wouldn't have been welcomed if he'd been a white man. But the teenage Clegg was really just a kid, and he met another teenager who would become his partner in the band that brought them international attention.

CLEGG: In 1969, when I was 16, I met Sipho Mchunu, who became my partner in Juluka. I joined his dance team which was dancing at a hostel. It was like capoeira or martial arts to music. You kick high, and you stomp the ground, which is symbolically delivering a blow to an enemy or receiving a blow and how you would recover. So it was kind of a warrior theater.


TSIOULCAS: Johnny and Sipho performed as a duo for years, but mixing with blacks was forbidden during apartheid, and Clegg was arrested numerous times.

CLEGG: Sipho and I, we couldn't play in public, so we played in private venues - schools, churches, university. We played a lot of embassies. We played a lot of consulates.


SIPHO MCHUNU: (Singing in foreign language).

TSIOULCAS: The two started thinking about how they could combine Zulu music with sounds from elsewhere.

CLEGG: My stepfather was a great fan of pipe music. On Sundays, he would play an LP of the Edinburgh Police Pipe Band.

TSIOULCAS: And Johnny started hearing connections.

CLEGG: I sometimes heard traditional Zulu war songs in the minor key. And I could hear Celtic melodies - (singing in foreign language). It was ridiculous. And I thought, there's a conversation here to be had.

TSIOULCAS: That conversation led Johnny and Sipho to found Juluka, which means sweat in Zulu. Their first album was released in 1979, and they scored an unlikely hit in the U.K. that took them on a world tour.


CLEGG: (Singing) They are the scatterlings (ph) of Africa, each and every one. We are on the road to Phelamanga.

TSIOULCAS: That band eventually broke up, and Clegg founded Savuka, which means we have risen in Zulu.

CLEGG: Savuka was launched basically in the state of emergency in South Africa in 1986. You could not ignore what was going on. The entire Savuka project was based in the fight for a better quality of life and freedom for all.

TSIOULCAS: A lot of Savuka songs were restricted or banned in South Africa. But eventually, they were embraced. "One Human One Vote" was released in 1989, the year the country held its first universal election.


CLEGG: (Singing) One man, one vote. Step into the future. One man, one vote in a unitary state.

TSIOULCAS: After Savuka disbanded, Clegg went solo. He's writing his autobiography, and he's just released a new album. But he says this U.S. tour will be his last.

CLEGG: It's a farewell. And it's a very bittersweet undertaking, to be honest with you.

TSIOULCAS: Not long after the tour ends, Johnny Clegg plans to head home to South Africa.

CLEGG: The future is open-ended. I have my two sons. They're up and running and in the world. So my wife and I have an open road now for, you know, to do what we want to do.

TSIOULCAS: As he has for all of his life. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

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