Musical Chairs and African Tales …

Under the  misleading warmth of a Winters African sun, I found myself in a pool of shade. It was here that I crossed paths with two incredibly unique storytellers. It was in this space that they told me about their journey through time and music. This is the story of those days gone by. 10950 to be exact.

The storytellers in this story are: Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu. Both of these men are legendary warriors (in their own right) who possess inspired souls, a flair for mixing things up , and sticking to the music no matter what. It’s almost hard to imagine that 30 years have passed. And yet it has …. and somethings haven’t changed.

Sipho was one of 24 brothers and sisters,  unschooled but steeped in the traditions and customs of his people. Johnny was from the other side of the hood. But there was some unique bond that grew within the both of them. A passion for music. Then at 16, these two young souls from two different worlds clashed together and stuck.

They went on to become the best of friends. (which in those times was rather a taboo).

The world around them rattled to its own thundering drum, beating out anything other and new. It clung to its old ways and its own ideals. It  didn’t make space for what we know know as Juluka or Savuka and least of all Le Zoulou Blanc.

But as all good African Tales go with their own share of spots and stripes – none of that mattered one bit. If anything it just made the road that little more colourful...

“We were never political. Politics found us” Johnny Clegg explains. By the sounds of it Politics kept finding them.

Banning them here and banning them there … The road to this day, to this this point in time, wasn’t cut out or pre- defined. After all who said being a Musician is an easy way to go? And yet with all of that working against them, they still managed to be sitting across from me. Two men, still the best of friends, driven by the tales and oppression and all the music that this had inspired.

If you think your band has trials and tribulations – you have no idea what Johnny Clegg had to go through. And if ever there was a more inspirational motivation to keep going – this is the tale that would encompass all of that. So dear fellow little aspiring muso’s, listen up and listen well … these fathers have lot to teach you (so gather around the campfire)

Johnny has always been drawn to the human condition. Having studied and taught Anthropology, his ‘passion for culture, anomalies, and strange experience‘ was something that defined that defined his unique perspective of life. It was that perspective that crept into the music.

“…Even when Clegg is addressing very specific African dilemmas, there is a universality that accompanies the message and, of course, the music that propels the message transcends any attempt to fit it into a particular pigeonhole. On Human, like so many albums before, Clegg is a human making human music. Over the past three decades, few have done that as well as him.” – Cincinatti Beat (Reviewing the latest Johnny Clegg Album :: Human)

It’s a part of that definitive aspect that makes his music what it is. After all, he’s greatest passion is to communicate his carefully crafted lyrics and observations. It’s all part of his “journey to find (his) African self, to understand the world as we know it, and share that experience” Johnny shared. And, what better medium to bring people together then through music?

Again, it wasn’t easy…I was bedazzled by the stories of a time that I vaguely remembered and learnt about from history books. By the osunds of it, they were definitely pushing all the buttons and keeping things radical. ” We loved mixing it up. That was our biggest message. And it wasn’t just the music. We set up the entire show complete with its own unique costume changes. It was experimental and we lived for it“.  Johnny said.

I was watching Johnny and Sipho relive the days gone by : Johnny was bouncing around while he talked about it. It was almost like a little kid the night before Christmas. It’s like in some way nothing changed. That passion, that love for the music, that excited something when you know you’re onto something great – it’s still there. 30 years has passed and the music is sill very much alive and jiving. I just found that enthusiasm so inspiring (and something that I had to share with all of you!)

When they weren’t making music they were living life on the edge. Johnny was arrested at the age of 15. Sipho was threatened with deportation and they got banned from playing in Petersburg. Johnny recalls one photograph of Sipho that really touched him. You’ll see it in the show at Grandwest. This snapshot goes with its own story: Of how Sipho was chased by a group of unidentified men with guns. They fired shots. He jumped over a bridge. He was left beaten. And yet, despite that Sipho went on (bruised, battered, and shaking) to play with the band shortly after that.

The music just kept winning. They just kept going – side by side – for as long as they could.

In that time they went through 80 drummers, 8 bass players, keyboard players…. the whole shebang. Some muso’s didn’t get, some simply moved on, and a couple just couldn’t handle it. When you have everything conspiring against you and radio stations giving you no support … it makes things just that little harder.

” The English stations wouldn’t play it because of the Zulu lyrics and the Zulu stations wouldn’t play it because of the English… so all we could do was go out and play and hope we found our destiny that way…” Johnny commented. “People were offended. They said that we were bastardising European culture and bastardising African Music. They said that all we were making was this low level hybridisation. We knew different. We knew that we were doing something new. That was enough to keep us going”

Hard to imagine isn’t it ? After everything working against you, and very few to none giving you a break, you’d think it wasn’t enough.Johnny chirps up with that Christmas-Kid grin on his face. “That’s exactly it! We knew we were making a new kind of music that nobody had even thought of. Once you are on that path, that alone is sustenance. It gives you nourishment. Because the mere fact that people were so offended by it meant that they were listening. The more offended they got the more you realised that it was making an effect. It was cutting edge stuff.” (pause) ” You know, in life, when you’re onto something there is nothing more exciting. When you’re onto something you won’t let go. There’s just no way you’re letting go.

Aren’t you glad he didn’t let go?

Aren’t you glad some things don’t change?

It’s 30 years later, 10950 days.  It’s the ultimate reunion and the best of days gone by. It’s the story left untold, the one I have not shared with you. The one you have yet to hear, and what better way to hear it from the storyteller himself. With that the campfire moves to Grandwest Arena … Where we all flicker our lighters in celebration of 30 years of mixing things up and staying forever just the same.


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