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Top musicians pay tribute to Johnny Clegg

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“I’m holding on as best I can, and living my life as fully as I can,” says iconic South African performer Johnny Clegg, who has been battling pancreatic cancer since 2015.
by TALI FEINBERG | Dec 13, 2018

Clegg recently slowed down his legendary musical performances, but his legacy has been in the spotlight over the past week, as thousands of people have watched and shared a video of his song, The Crossing, sung by more than 50 South African musicians in his honour.

As he stepped down from the world stage, local and international musicians felt it was time to celebrate the path he has blazed as an artist, activist, and educator.

“What makes the video and the song so significant, profound, and poignant is what it does not explicitly say – that Clegg, our elder, is growing weaker, having lived with pancreatic cancer for several years, and that soon he will have to say goodbye. He will be ‘crossing over those dark mountains where we will lay down our troubles’,” singer Karen Zoid told Daily Maverick.

“It’s not only this gentle goodbye that threads through the song and the video, but also the sheer joy, energy, and celebration of Clegg’s artistry and music, how it will always be part of South Africa’s DNA,” she said.

In September, more than 50 artists flew to Cape Town to record a unique version of The Crossing at Mothership Studios. It may be the biggest South African music collaboration of all time. International artists included Peter Gabriel, Dave Matthews, and Paul Rutherford.

Although Clegg was not told many of the details of the project, he was asked to choose the song that would be covered. He told the SA Jewish Report that he chose The Crossing because “education is critical in our crossing over into an inclusive and internationally competitive country. Our education system is in many respects hollowed out, and apart from small pockets of excellence, the system is in crisis.”

The special version of the song was produced by Theo Crous, and mastered in Los Angeles by Lurssen, a multi-Grammy award-winning studio. It was performed for Clegg at a private function at Ellerman House in Cape Town on 5 December 2018, five years to the day after the passing of Nelson Mandela.

On the same evening, the Friends of Johnny Clegg was launched, a fund created in his honour to help alleviate the education crisis in South Africa. All proceeds from downloads of this version of The Crossing will go toward this fund, and be distributed by the Click Foundation.

“The Click Foundation teaches 58 000 pupils and operates in 105 schools across South Africa,” said Clegg. “It teaches literacy to learners from Grade R to Grade 3, which are the critical foundational years for language comprehension. The goal is to have one million learners in these early grades reading and comprehending English by 2022.”

Clegg is currently writing his autobiography. He was born near Manchester, England, in 1953, and grew up in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa. His step-father, a crime reporter, took him into the townships at an early age.

As a teenager in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, he encountered the city’s Zulu migrant workers’ music and dance. Under the tutelage of Charlie Mzila, a flat cleaner by day and musician by night, Clegg mastered the Zulu language and the maskandi guitar and isishameni dance styles of the migrants while still in his mid-teens. Through these, he also gained a profound understanding of Zulu culture.

Clegg’s involvement with black musicians often led to arrests for trespassing on government property, and for contravening the Group Areas Act. Undeterred, he immersed himself in the world of Zulu migrant labourers, and was soon entering hostel dance competitions at the head of his own team.

In the early 1970s, Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, a migrant worker and guitarist, formed an acoustic Zulu musical duo called Juluka (meaning sweat). He also studied social anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and pursued an academic career for four years, lecturing at Wits and the University of Natal, and writing several seminal scholarly papers on Zulu music and dance.

Clegg’s record-breaking and award-winning musical career followed, including his cross-cultural band Savuka selling more than a million copies of its debut album. He was declared a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French government in 1991 – an order of merit that recognises significant contribution to the arts.

In 1993, Savuka’s last trademark album was nominated for a Grammy Award for best world music album. Sipho Mchunu of Swaziland named Clegg an official “royal minstrel”, and his alma mater, Wits, conferred on him its highest honour, the degree of Doctor of Music honoris causa, saying that, “Johnny Clegg’s life and productions give meaning to the multiculturalism and social integration South Africans yearn for.”

Indeed, Clegg believes in the healing power of music. “All artistic and cultural expression elevates our sense of self, and puts us into a different quality space,” he says. “This can be momentary, or last a lifetime, like a life-changing book or a song that captures a moment in the listener’s life and presents it back in a new way, forever linking them to that time or moment.”

To young people wanting to succeed in the music industry, he says that today, it is one of the hardest professions to pursue. “You need a lot of stamina and endurance to go with whatever talent you have.” As someone who has integrated deeply into other cultures, his advice to fellow South Africans who want to build such bridges is to learn an African language.

Regarding this new version of The Crossing, he says, “It’s a wonderful validation by my peers, and gives new life to a song which will support a cause bigger than us all.”

On social media, South Africans expressed their appreciation of the project. Mike Abel said that it was, “An incredibly moving tribute by South African musicians to the iconic Johnny Clegg, the White Jewish Zulu who has brought so much African magic and cultural crossover to our beautiful country and the world, especially during the dark days of apartheid.”

Wrote Jesse Brian Micheal Harvey, “A fantastic song with a beautiful message. South Africa has so much potential. I’m sure ‘the tide is turning’, and we will eventually make that crossing to what South Africa truly can be as a nation.”

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