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A tribute to Johnny Clegg

A tribute to Johnny Clegg

My husband turned to me from his desk in our home office and said, “Oh I see Johnny Clegg is doing a final tour – shall we book tickets?”

It only took me a few seconds before I said, “YES – book!” I didn’t even check the date. And I knew this would be the first time we’d have to leave our youngest son, who was just 11 months – but I also knew he’d be fine with Granny, and we’d be able to get him to sleep before getting to the concert.

And I wanted to go to that concert.

The day came and we went to watch Johnny Clegg perform with his current band, as well as his collaborators from the past like Sipho Mchunu. His son Jesse Clegg wrote a song for him, which they performed together, and Johnny belted out his hits like Impi, African Sky Blue, The Crossing, Woza Friday, and Spirit of the Great Heart.


What makes a Johnny Clegg concert special is his storytelling, with history lessons sneakily woven in. An anthropologist by training, Johnny studied Zulu music and culture, but he had been interested in Zulu music and instruments from childhood.

He talks about how in his early teens, he convinced a street musician, Charlie Mzila to teach him how to play the guitar in an African style and how to tune a guitar to play Zulu and African music. This led him to collaborate with Sipho Mchunu, and Johnny and Sipho later went on to form the band Juluka. Of course, during apartheid in South Africa, this collaboration was deemed to be illegal.

The concertina is another key instrument in African music and it features in many of Johnny’s songs. But if you’re playing African music, you can’t play the concertina “out of the box”. It has to be adjusted and re-tuned to the African style – and this is a permanent adjustment – no “undo button”.

So Johnny tells the story of taking his concertina to the guy who was the specialist in re-tuning concertinas. He was a migrant worker living in a hostel in Johannesburg. Johnny chuckles when he reflects on the irony of buying a brand new concertina, and then taking it straight to this guy with the request: “Can you fix my concertina for me?”

He didn’t even shy away from doing some traditional Zulu war dancing, although he admitted that he couldn’t do as much of it as he had in his younger days, and had recruited a group of younger dancers instead.

The stories Johnny told just amplified the emotional connection I felt while listening to each song. Honestly, the music has everything I love – African harmonies, classy guitar work, and beautiful lyrics.

And my kids love his music! When we know we need a crowd pleaser for all four of the very strong musical opinions in our family, then Johnny’s Best Of Album is our Go-To!

Going to that concert and being influenced by Johnny’s music makes me so proud to be a South African. It also convicts me and makes me mourn for the years that we were disconnected as a country during apartheid.

Johnny Clegg’s music reminds me that music has power. It has power to change hearts, to unite communities and to change the world.

And yes, music has power, but as Nelson Mandela remarked when he appeared on stage at one of Johnny Clegg’s concerts, “Music and dancing makes me feel at peace with the world and at peace with myself.”

Music has power, music brings us peace. And we cling to that peace now, as we mourn Johnny Clegg’s passing.

“It’s funny how those so close but now gone, still so affect our lives.”

Johnny Clegg passed away yesterday after a 4-year battle with pancreatic cancer. South Africa is devastated, and I know people all over the world join us in our grief. I am certainly writing this post with the tears streaming.

The collaborative track was made by a group of South African musicians, the Friends of Johnny Clegg, in his honour.


Johnny Clegg leaves us with a legacy. Yes, he leaves us with a vast discography of albums and tracks that play a huge role in telling the South African story. But he leaves also leaves us with inspiration that I believe will last for generations.

For me personally, Johnny Clegg is has inspired me to share the joy and the power of music – particularly South African music – with kids.

I think music is the antidote to the divisive, zero-sum mentality that we are barraged with every day – and that our kids are exposed to as well. When we make music together, we learn about each other’s cultures, we work together to make a pleasant sound, and it doesn’t even feel like “work” because we have a whole lot of fun together in the process.

And differences are what makes music magical – loud and soft, bass and treble, soprano and alto, fast and slow, electronic and acoustic… I think that is such a beautiful metaphor for our children of what living together in harmony looks and feels like.

“It’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world.”

The word that comes to mind when I think of Johnny Clegg and his music is “eclectic”. He was able to weave together different musical styles, weave his anthropology training into his music, weave together individuals into a community, and really demonstrate the beauty that comes with diversity.

So thank you Johnny Clegg – Siyabonga! Hamba kahle and rest in peace, knowing you’ve left a powerful legacy.

(A little author’s note - here’s a great article from Daily Maverick that goes into more detail about Johnny Clegg’s life and work.)

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Rain Dance ("Rain" from Beat Bugz)

Rain Dance ("Rain" from Beat Bugz)