When, a few years ago my partner and I did a road trip through the US South, our biggest decision was what road music to take. We bought some CDs at Barnes & Noble in Buckhead, Atlanta, and the best of the bunch turned out to be the sound track from "Elizabethtown" (Ryan Adams, My Morning Jacket, Tom Petty, Lucinda Williams and other alt country supernovas). So if you are planing a road trip in South Africa, what road music do you take that will do justice to the magnificent scenery?
I would certainly recommend some of the old favorites like Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba. But but for the most part I'd stack up on the music of Johnny Clegg. My partner berates me that he is “so last century”, but that's like saying Bob Dylan's music is last millennium – we're talking music for the soul here, and there's no sell by date on that.
Le Zulu Blanc
Outside of South Africa it is the French who have taken to him in the biggest way, dubbing him le Zulu Blanc (the white Zulu). In short, he was taught to play acoustic guitar and sing traditional Zulu songs by his family's gardener, Sipho Mchunu. They formed a local Simon and Garfunkel duo, called Jaluka (meaning sweat) and started out playing in the male singlequarter hostels on the Joburg mines on weekends.
From there they progressed to students “free concerts” before they finally cut a record deal. When Jaluka morphed into the more rock-oriented Savuka (to open up), Sipho took his royalties and retired to a small-holding back in Zululand to raise children and cattle.
A Man of the Land and of the People
Meanwhile Johnny and Savuka continued to document the country's social and political landscape, creating an opus of the finest, most soul-stiring music ever by a South African in the folk and rock idioms. Last decade, perhaps, but the body of his work is – again to liken it to Bob Dylan – a musicology of his country.
His songs, typically with the driving beat of African drums, all tell stories : stories about working down in the sweat-chocked gold mines, about glorious battles between Zulu impis and the British army, about dispossessed farm workers, political prisoners, the great big blue African sky, Kilimanjaro. Songs about the land and the people.
What to Buy?
If you can hold of a copy of any of the old Jaluka albums you're getting gold for your cash. If not, try one of the Johnny Clegg and Svauka "best of" collections that you'll find on the Kalahari website. Or else, if you like that kind of thing, take a gamble on the “Power of One” covers album (John Baez and the Soweto Gospelllll Choir, Jimmy Buffet, TePendergrass, Dj Dino Bravo Ft Skwatta Kamp, Afroblue and so on).
Like Johnny sometimes explains at his live concerts, this is music made to travel by, typically a young Zulu person, with a harmonica or a simple guitar made from an oil can, walking over the hills to visit his girlfriend or to look for lost cattle, or a longer journey, walking to a job on the faraway mines, or maybe an even longer journey as a refugee into exile. Music for the road and for the soul.