The spirit of the Great Heart
or a great many people, Johnny Clegg’s passing last month brought to a close a story that has accompanied them through South Africa’s transition to democracy. His music – with Juluka, then Savuka, and as a solo artist – was the soundtrack to the struggles and hope that were experienced by people of all races from 1969 until 2017 when he retired following the return of the pancreatic cancer to which he would eventually succumb.
Born near Manchester, Clegg moved to South Africa as a young boy. In his teenage years, he met migrant Zulu workers and became fascinated with Zulu culture, eventually forming Juluka with Sipho Mchunu in 1969, blending Celtic and Zulu musical styles with energetic Zulu dance.
At the time, mixed race bands were banned, but throughout his career he would continue to break down barriers, performing at home and abroad in defiance of the authorities, building a strong global following.
Johnny Clegg is considered a national hero by many, recognised around the world as an influential figure in race relations in South Africa.
With 13 albums, his music catalogue is impressive. But here are the seven Johnny Clegg songs everyone should have in their library.
Scatterlings of Africa
From Juluka’s fourth album, ‘Scatterlings’ announced Clegg to an overseas world. It also appeared on the soundtrack of Rain Man in 1988. Clegg sings about his love of the ‘scatterlings of Africa’, the diverse people who came together to shape a beautiful continent. The song is the personification of what unity among a people, especially a previously divided people, can look like.
Clegg wrote this tale of the Zulu victory over the British at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879. (‘Impi’ means ‘war’). Despite its joyful background chant and stomping of feet, the song laments the loss of life that war inevitably brings. Adopted as a sort of unofficial national anthem, the song is frequently sung at South African sporting events, particularly when the opposition is England.
I Call Your Name
The biggest single on Savuka’s second album, I Call Your Name was written a few years after the end of Juluka, after his friend Sipho Mchunu had retired from the music business. Despite the engaging melody, it is a song about missing someone, about heartache.
Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World
Written with Savuka as apartheid was drawing to a close, Clegg uses the song to speak to his infant son of the world he is growing up in. The opening lines talk of chaos and change, but the music attempts to invoke a sense of confidence in the future.
Possibly Clegg’s most famous song, Asimbonanga (“we have not seen him”) is a tribute to Nelson Mandela, written during the politician’s imprisonment, and includes a poignant section where he names several murdered anti-apartheid activists. In 1999, Clegg surprised the crowd at a concert in Paris by bringing Mandela out onstage.
The ultimate love letter to Africa, full of nostalgia and hope for what is still to come: “I’m searching for the spirit of the Great Heart under African skies”.
If ever you wanted an iconic, joyful song about Africa, this is it. It’s a hopeful and carefree track in which Clegg sings about “sitting on the top of Kilimanjaro”, imagining a future of endless possibilities: “I can see a new tomorrow”.
Written as a tribute to Savuka’s percussionist Dudu Zulu, who was killed in 1992, The Crossing is an inspiring song that speaks powerfully about a people overcoming their challenges. It featured in the film Invictus.
Image credit: EDB Image Archive / Alamy Stock Photo