Johnny Clegg and the years of ‘le zoulou blanc’

Johnny Clegg, who gave a fantastic concert in Port Elizabeth on 24 October 2012 , devoted some time out of his busy schedule to meet the media. He spoke to Bev Mortimer of St Francis Chronicle. Here is our original published interview :


Q: Where do you want to go from here with your singing career? Are you going to make more records or are you going to continue to promote your existing songs?


A: The audience like to hear both the old and new music so in my concerts i take songs from my new album Human, songs from one life, as well as some of my older songs that are old favourites. At least half the show has songs that people want to hear. They pay to listen to the popular songs, the hits. So I play songs like Sinbonanga, Crazy beautiful world..


Q: The apartheid years… During these years you had a cause and  your songs and life were motivated by a cause. Today do you still feel you have a cause?


A: If you look at the new album, Human – and the last three albums – hey all over political and cultural issues.  They share information and most of them are accompanied with stories and anecdotes. Some are funny, some are strange…

My shows are a show and tell


Q: I am glad you mentioned narration. Who is your main influence for story telling or narration in your shows? Is it Dylan?


A: We live in a multi-cultural democracy but we still don’t understand each other.


I use idioms and stories in my shows like the use of the word ‘ama jongosi’ ….this translated means “oxen”. I wrote it for the rugby in 2007.

Animals being castrated can refer to a strapping young man or woman…. and so this giving can apply as reference to either a great soccer player or a young rugby player or even used to explain our young athletes going overseas, men and women.


Q: The French were fascinated by you as being the white Zulu and raved continuously during the apartheid years about “le zoulou blanc”.  How did you feel about being given this name?


A:  It was the editor of Actuel, a French magazine, who first coined the title..He went into Soweto and asked about Johhnny Clegg and they said: “Oh, the white zulu!” (And so the name stuck and spread across the globe.. – Ed)


Q: Do you still have strong Zulu ties?


A: I have always had a mixed band? I use English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, all ethnic groups depending on who I need for a specific show. I have even used a Venda.


Q: How do you feel about your son Jesse following in your footsteps and doing so remarkably well?


A: He is creating his own footsteps. He has had to fight his own battle into the music industry and find his own way in the music industry, independent of the shadow Johnny Clegg, creating his own image. I am proud of him and his efforts… his first album went gold record and he did that all on his own.


Q: I believe you are starting a musical about your life. Tell us about that…


A: I have already started it. It’s my life story on stage in musical form although I am not acting personally. I am the producer.

I am using other actors along with film makers and script writers. It has been a problem to internationalise it because of the language. Some people overseas may not understand our humour or certain references so I have had a British writer to …. transcribe into more international language just to tweak it here and there It is quite hard to make this musical accessible to an international audience.

It is a culture and history specific story. It is coming out in 2014 – a year of big celebration of the Zulu kingdom..

The script is written. All the music is my music and there are 24 songs that are all mine sung through my history.

It has 2 acts, a cast of 20 people and will be performed at Monte Casino Joburg

and then also in Durban.


Q: tell us about the time you got into trouble during the apartheid years while learning gumboot dancing and they (the police) complained to your mother.


A: They raided the Wemmer hostel where we were practicing gumboot dancing. They did not know I was there. I was 15 years-old.

The dancers would tie up the beds against the wall to make space for the dancing. We would sit between each other’s knees for space and then the dancers would stand up. The lights went out and it was dark.

When the police raided they would usually raid for guns, weapons and pass offences. Whites were not allowed to be there. The police walked into the room. At first they could not see me. Then a policeman comes across to me and says: “You are safe now. Are you ok? Have you been harmed? I said I was fine and told him why I was there. Then the policeman got mad at me and said I was not allowed to be there, that I needed a permit. I was arrested.  There was a statutory fine for trespassing but they could not hold me for anything as I was underage.

 I had to go with the police and they berated me as they drove me home.. They knocked at the door and used my mom’s Afrikaans name Pienaar as she was married to an Afrikaans journalist

My mom asked the police what I had done wrong. They explained that I was found in a municipal compound and that I was breaking Group Areas’ Act, that I was underage. Their main concern, the police said was that every time they raided there were 3 or 4 bodies. I was told this was not healthy for me as a kid.

At this my mother was concerned. So I got my friend Zwane, a chauffeur for the MD of Metal Box at the time, to speak to my concerned mother.

He assured her he would drive a car and take me. She was a musician so she understood my passion for music. She asked Zwane to look after her boy. He assured her and came with two of his second in command to fetch me. My mother just said: “Try not to get arrested.”


Q: You studied to be an anthropology professor and lectured at Wits before your music career took over… Do you miss this profession?


A: I miss the world of ideas and the ‘intellectualising’. I have two doctorates: an honorary doctorate of humanity from Dartmouth and, an honorary doctorate from Ivy League in America for fighting unjust laws.


Q: Tell us about the book you are writing?

A: It is following on from ‘30 years of Johnny Clegg’ that has been published.. I have 40 hours of interviews. I have lost close friends in fighting and wars.. it’s about the realities of gang warfare and fighting. It’s a complex reality not a uni-dimensional reality . This is an important thing I want to get across in my book that I am writing. There is a song for each of the 30 years… from jaluka, to savuka.. from 1970 to 1980, to 1990 to 2012…


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