by Gail Dee/We Want Music Without Borders
Although I had watched and shared several of his videos over the past couple years, I didn’t know what to expect in a live performance at this stage of his 40 year-long career. Having been an ethnic dancer myself, I was especially fond of watching him pound the earth in the warrior Zulu dancing as a young man in those older videos. But I wondered how would he translate today? I knew he had been bold when it mattered. In the years of apartheid in South Africa he had created his music with an interracial band and he had broken ground by combining both English language/rock music with South African native Zulu. However those moves were decades ago and many of his hits are from the mid 80’s had a pop vibe about them. I sort of half expected a Phil Collins of South Africa. My assumption was totally wrong.
To my delight, I discovered why the French, British and South Africans as well as many others around the world love him. His songs are thoughtful, heart-felt and intelligent. From the beginning of his career when he imaginatively combined English rock/pop and Zulu musical language in his songs, he has made the difficult look easy. The intertwining of the two cultures is so seamless, the fusion is taken for granted as he sings and his tight-knit band rock the audience with bright rhythms and interesting phrasing.
His sincerity and musical activism completely charmed me above all else. His deep appreciation for the native people and culture of South Africa very evident throughout the show. I especially enjoyed seeing him using instruments like the “remastered”concertina fitted to play Zulu music and traditional mouth bow. A wonderful storyteller he related stories about what had motivated some of his songs. “Digging for Some Words” he told us, sprang from the ritual of hunters and gatherers digging a hole in the ground and leaving an “offering” to nature for having possibly disturbed the balance of the world when they hunted and killed an animal. He explained their belief that they lived “inside” Nature consequently they also believed that social discord and imbalance within the community caused severe weather like drought and floods. The clincher to his story is that South Africa had been in the midst of a 7 year drought during the apartheid when he wrote the song. Part of the lyrics asks “Who can send an emissary to speak to the seasons?” (to intercede for balance and harmony). I could only think of the Climate change denying Republicans. Another song reminded me of Bernie Sanders and his young followers when he fervently reminded us to keep on dreaming our dreams in “Your Time Will Come” using the collapse of the Berlin wall and Mandela being freed from prison after 30+ years as striking examples that social justice can prevail. Love songs also had their due as he sang “I burn for you”. “Spirit” figured prominently as a theme in several songs and I found myself along with the rest of the audience being uplifted. My friend who attended the show said “South African music is joyful” a good way to sum up the evening which also included hits like the Crossing, Scaterlings of Africa and Asimbonanga.
The show opened with a set by Jesse Clegg; Johnny’s son. Unfortunately I missed most of the set but the audience seemed happy. One of the songs I did catch, Jesse’s voice has much of his Dad’s beauty and he was doing original material. He told us his new album had just been released.
April 15, Friday night at City Winery Chicago is already sold out. However he’s coming to Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota April 16; then on to Colorado followed by California. Maybe City Winery Chicago can squeeze you in tonight. www.citywinery.com
More on his tour at www.johnnyclegg.com
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