Before I get going…
There are songs missing from this list and which I’d love to have included, like Johnny Clegg’s Asimbonanga (We have not seen him [Mandela])….”
Around about a year after I first wrote that, Johnny Clegg died. The news of his death came as I was preparing dinner on an ordinary Tuesday in July. It seemed that suddenly the world, and South Africa in particular, were the poorer. Another voice in the soundtrack of my life silenced forever.
This is what I wrote exactly a year ago today. Mandela Day and the anniversary of that great man’s birthday. With hindsight, rather apt.
A necessary digression
I was seventeen the first time I heard a Juluka song. I was at boarding school, and as seniors, we were allowed to have our own transistor radios.
At the end of the preceding year, 1979, the first independent radio station in South Africa had been launched. Broadcasting from the beautiful and then pristine coastal village of Port St Johns in the “independent” Transkei, Capital Radio 604 was essentially a music station that broadcast music and news often not heard on
mainstream state-owned radio stations.
The line-up, I clearly remember, included a mishmash of folk: Englishmen (pukka) an American and South Africans – black and white. Unheard of. As a young, unaware kid, the significance was totally lost on me. As was the fact that one of the most popular songs of 1980 was banned in South Africa: Pink Floyd’s Another brick in the wall. It was also on this radio station that Juluka’s song, Africa topped the charts. It was their first hit.
I listen to this song and am immediately transported into the cell-like room in which I stayed for at least one term. It had no windows and could literally just take a narrow single bed, the “tin shanty” as we called our bedside lockers and the laundry box that stood at the foot of the bed.
In my childish ignorance, I did not know that the African language melded with the English, was isiZulu. I had only been exposed to a little isiXhosa. Of course, I sang every single word, but my words in the isiZulu verses were all mondegreens. It’s only as an adult, searching for the lyrics that I learned what they meant:
As he grew, people told him, son, don’t you trust anyone, you don’t learn how to trust a stone,
This is not a gentle land, and it breaks those who never learn how to be alone.
Afrika kukhala abangcwele
eAfrika kukhala abangcwele wena (Africa be holy to you)
And so, he walked in the passion of his land, until at last he cried out,
Can anybody hear, hear me, hear the song in my heart?
There’s a song to be sung that can heal these broken men,
Let us sing and we’ll walk through the dark, hand in hand, hand in hand.
The soundtrack to many South Africans’ lives
They took on a new poignancy for me yesterday when I saw this Facebook post from Andrew Boraine:
While in solitary confinement in 1980, I would pace around my cell and sing to myself over and over a Johnny Clegg and Jaluka song [Africa], to strengthen my resolve in the face of my interrogators:….
RIP Johnny, I will miss you and your music. It saved me when I was a young man. It is part of the soundtrack of my life.
That Clegg, Jaluka and Savuka’s music was integral to the soundtrack of so many South Africans’ lives, was the overriding theme to all the tributes I heard yesterday: from the celebrities and musicians who worked with him, to ordinary people, whom he may or may not have actually met.
Clegg, in an interview, following his diagnosis and in advance of his Final Journey Tour, said two things that resonated for me. He didn’t go looking for politics, but rather that “politics found me”: because he had simply followed his passion and curiosity, spending time with the people with whom he felt most connected. The second was that he had toured every year since 1983.
Dancing to a political awakening
This made me realise that when I was at university, and the first time I saw him perform, they were on that first tour. The venues had to be places where he and Sipho Mchunu could perform together on the same stage: the liberal (white) universities and townships. I remember the Great Hall at Rhodes University, filling up with students, armed with their
joints cigarettes, cheap wine and/or beer. The music, in modern parlance, was epic, and even thirty-seven years later, the image of the two of them doing the high kicks of Zulu dances, is as vivid as if it had been just last night (without the side-effects of alcohol and second-hand dope-smoking).
How far we have come: a friend of mine from those days, now living in London, was at both that concert and at the London show of the Final Journey Tour. He and I have not seen each other since we both lived in Johannesburg in the mid- to late 1980s, and this was our exchange on Facebook the night Clegg died:
The years, 1982 to 1986 were also the time of my real political awakening: I have alluded to it elsewhere, but it was driven home in 1986 when I spent some of my happiest ever times dancing the night away to Maskanda and Mbaqanga music in the depths of Soweto. I tell you: this white girl could dance. She was, in those circles, made an “honorary Sowetan”; an honour I still hold dear.
The following year (1987) saw the release of Asimbonanga (We have not seen him [Mandela])….”. Many young people don’t know the double entendre of “we have not seen him”: any likeness, image or photograph of Nelson Mandela was also banned. In about 1988, an early memoir of Winnie Mandela emerged, written by Fatima Meer. It contained photographs of Winnie; not one of Madiba. Asimbonanga, with its most haunting melody, celebrates and mourns people killed by the Apartheid regime. At the time Clegg wrote it, neither he, nor I dreamed that Mandela would be free, let alone be South Africa’s first democratically elected President. One can only but imagine how he felt, singing this song and discovering Mandela behind him. I watch it now, and have, many times. Still the tears come.
I could reel off and find other songs that I love, especially from the first two albums whose songs take me back to the common room at boarding school and parties at university, but I shan’t. There is, however, one that must not be glossed over. Clegg wrote it after the death of a band member. That year, 1997, was a year of crossing for me, too. It was the first time I had to confront the sudden death of a colleague and friend. It also marked a crossing point in my first marriage.
It is the song that a group of Clegg’s friends recorded for him – as a surprise gift – and as a celebration of the man – just eight before his death in 2019.
Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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