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Remembering the Jewish ‘white Zulu’

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He has been described as a son of Africa, a white Zulu, a voice of revolution, a genius, a teacher, student, and mentor, but before all of these, at birth, Johnny Clegg was Jewish.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jul 18, 2019

Clegg died on Tuesday at the age of 66, after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Ziona Levin, who grew up across the road from Clegg’s aunt, recalls him being “different from most of us. His dad wasn’t around. He was at his aunt [where he was most exposed to Judaism] a lot. He was part of my childhood along with his sister.”

“He was proud of his Jewishness, and he wrestled with it at times,” says his close friend of 35 years, Anthony Chait. “Once, when performing at Sydenham Shul in 2008, he quipped that ‘in the first instance I’m a Zulu, then a Jew’, but he never forgot his Jewish identity, and never hid it or suppressed it.” After this performance, singer Choni G and Rabbi Yossy Goldman went to Clegg’s home to affix a mezuzah with an African casing that they gave him as a gift.

Clegg came from a humble background. Born in Britain in 1953, his Jewish mother took him to Israel, Zimbabwe, and Zambia before they settled in South Africa. He grew up in Yeoville with his family struggling financially at times, says Chait. Decades later, when Chait accompanied Clegg on tour in Australia, he was approached by a man who asked to meet the musician.

It turned out that when Clegg matriculated from Yeoville Boys High, his family couldn’t afford the blazer needed for the ceremony, so this same man, now Dr Andy Garfagnini, had lent him his blazer. “Johnny was so humbled, and remembered immediately,” recalls Chait.

He says Clegg’s mother, Muriel, was a jazz singer, and the musical gene was definitely passed down to her son Johnny, and later to his son Jesse. “As a teenager, Clegg accompanied his crime reporter stepfather to the townships, and encountered the city’s Zulu migrant workers’ music and dance,” says Chait.

“He was really an activist with a guitar – he could quite easily have gone into politics, but music was his preferred language, and his tool for stirring the social conscience,” says writer Gus Silber, who interviewed Clegg over the years.

“Discovering aspects of traditional Zulu migrant-labour culture enabled me to create an African identity for myself,” said Clegg in an interview with Howard Feldman on ChaiFM in 2017. “It was a very intense journey for me. I discovered Zulu street guitar music when I was 14. I realised it was a unique genre of guitar music, like the blues in America. I thought, ‘This guitar style exists only here, and I want to learn to play it.’ It gave me an amazing window into another life.”

In the ChaiFM interview, Clegg said his mother would say, “the Zulus have stolen you away from me” as he spent all his time with them, even being arrested in a hostel when he was 15. But Clegg was smitten, searching for an African identity, and his place in this world.

Under the tutelage of Charlie Mzila, a cleaner who lived around the corner from him, Clegg mastered the Zulu language, and the maskandi guitar and isishameni dance styles of the migrants. He formed the band Juluka with Sipho Mchunu. After their song Scatterlings of Africa became a smash hit, Clegg had to decide if he was going to follow the path of an anthropologist or a musician. “It was a fork in the road,” Clegg said in the ChaiFM interview.

Jewish youngsters at King David Linksfield were introduced to Clegg’s musical prowess when a then Grade 11 pupil, Alain Soriano, organised for Juluka to perform at a King David School Battle of the Bands. “It was 1981, and I wondered how it would be received,” says Soriano, who had seen Clegg perform at venues around Johannesburg. “Juluka had just become a full band, and people had no idea what they were about to hear. It completely threw them for a loop, and the crowd went so wild, I had to beg Johnny to do an encore.”

Another King David pupil at the time, Gary Rutstein, remembers this performance, saying “raw energy rippled, creating a sound wave and cultural sonic boom which awoke us all and became part of our lives through thick and thin”.

Writer, researcher and media commentator Arthur Goldstuck was the South African correspondent for Billboard music magazine during the 1990s. “Every encounter with Johnny was memorable. It started at Wits [the University of the Witwatersrand] when this offbeat anthropology lecturer was invited to give a guest lecture to our psychology class. Even in that dry academic setting, he was captivating, and his enthusiasm infectious,” he recalls.

“As a music journalist in the 1980s and 1990s, it was a privilege to get to know him,” says Goldstuck. “On one occasion, I went with him to the home of another pioneering musician, Paul Clingman, where Sipho Mchunu was living ‘illegally’, pretending to be a gardener because he was barred by the Group Areas Act from living in a white suburb. The interview was inspiring and sobering, highlighting their struggle not only to make music together, but simply to be friends.

“Possibly the strangest memory of that day was giving Johnny a ride from his home to Sipho’s in my first car, a beaten-up old Beetle, because he didn’t have a car at the time. For me, the memory symbolises the extent to which his rise to fame was never easy, and the extent to which his humility was always a defining character,” recalls Goldstuck. “This was when the Universal Men album had already shaken up South African music, and Johnny and Sipho were iconic figures, but had not yet become international stars.”

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.

“It’s a cliché, yet true to say that his music transcended human and musical barriers. But it wasn't merely that he crossed over genres and political obstacles. He infused his cross-cultural vision with a powerful sense of pride, hope, and love,” says Goldstuck. “It was no accident that so many people adored Johnny and Sipho: they spoke to the deepest of our most positive emotions.”

Clegg was declared a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 1991, an order of merit that recognises significant contribution to the arts. He also received an Order of the British Empire, and Chait remembers that he was not entirely comfortable with all the pomp and ceremony.

In 1993, Savuka’s last trademark album was nominated for a Grammy Award for best world music album. Clegg’s alma mater, Wits University, 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.”

In 2007, he won the Art Award at the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards, and a few years later, he returned to present awards.

Two weeks ago, the national executive council of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) unanimously chose Johnny Clegg to be the recipient of the Rabbi Cyril and Ann Harris Human Rights Award at its upcoming national conference in November. Sadly, that award will now be given posthumously. SAJBD National Chairperson Shaun Zagnoev says that the board’s decision was motivated by “the bold, innovative, and in many ways unique role” that Clegg played in furthering the cause of democracy and human rights in South Africa.

Chait says that his friend always remained hopeful that he would beat pancreatic cancer, buoyed by the positivity of his medical team. He did rounds of chemotherapy until the end, but in many ways accepted that his “crossing” was imminent. Chait says Clegg decided his final resting place would be Westpark Jewish Cemetery where his mother is buried.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report in December 2018, Clegg reminded readers that they could always find him through his music. “All artistic and cultural expression elevates our sense of self, and puts us into a different quality space. 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.”

3 Comments

  1. 3 Gary Selikow 18 Jul
    life go's on, Gone too soon RIP brother. ZY'L
  2. 2 Devora Even-Tov 19 Jul
    A true legend and mensch
    Baruch Dayan HaEmet
  3. 1 Brudy Fortuin Fortuin 26 Jul
    I admired his energy and love for his country , at concerts he never dissapointed his audience .In my youth there were only two bands I was always looking forward to see live at concerts , It was Johhny Clegg and Mango Grove.Johnny you left us with great memories , your presece may be silenced but you will live in our hearts forever.You are a true scatterling of Africa with a spirit of the great heart .Rest in peace Jonathan Clegg your ,soul well deserving of the Peace you now have now we will mis you forever.Lala Kahle.

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