CityLife Arts

Scatterings of Africa revisited as Johnny Clegg’s memoir is released

By Edward Tsumele

I still remember the year very well. It still feels like it is only a few months ago, and yet it was 2018 when I and a group of journalists were at a Sandton hotel to meet and chat to Johnny Clegg, the Wits anthropologist who left the more certain and stable world of academia to take on a career full of uncertainties, but fulfilling to the soul, that of an artist. Not just any artist but a maskandi artist for that matter. To many people, even those liberal, it was sheer madness for a white guy from a middle class white family background to take on a traditional music genre that was not even at that time part of the mainstream urban vibe, even among the black people. The only places that kind of music was appreciated were the hostels where he and fellow maskandi traveler Sipho Mchunu, initially confined their performances to. That was before they pulled it off, taking this originally rural sound transplanted into hostels, to the rest of the then apartheid South Africa, going as far as the hinterland. Sooner it went beyond these places.

Back to the Sandton meeting. Clegg at the time was meeting the media to tell them about his musical journey, in general, but specifically about his last performance at Montecasino in Fourways. It was a second concert for him to perform at the same venue within months, simply because people wanted some more from him as If they knew his days were coming to an end, and hence he prepared to give them another one. But at the Sandton Hotel meeting, Clegg had more to share with the media that morning tghan the concert itself. He had cancer and the disease was slowly but surely advancing. He told us. He was quite open about it to the extent of appearing casual.

In fact he came out as someone who knew very well that his days on this earth were over. We empathised with him, but at the same time we understood we were talking to a man who had come to terms with his demise, scary as the news  may have sounded to us, it sounded so surreal and therefore scarier that the man who was slowly facing his demise, seemed to have come to terms with it. We also begrudgingly accepted that the man who had entertained all of us with his maskandi guitar riffs and energetic indlamu dance steps was to leave us behind, transitioning into another world.

It was in the middle of his hilarious tales about his musical journey from the dark and scary crevices of the hostels around the reef, to the rural hinterlands of South Africa, taking him to the world’s most sophisticated and advanced capitals and metropolis, getting both men and women of status that it dawned that we were in the company of cultural greatness. I mean Clegg’s performances over several decades, drove men and women of high social status, such as Presidents, Queens and Kings, as much as it did drive mere souls like the rest of us to stand up and dance to his rhythmic music and mellow melodies. It was during that meeting that it dawned on us that this man was a cultural repository of a big chunk of South African cultural heritage.

Yes, he had stored most of that in his several albums that he had released over the years, but without seeing a word, that group that surrounded him, to hear this man give his last media interview before his last performance, we felt yearning for something more from Clegg.

“I am almost done with my memoir and am not sure whether I must call it biography, but it should be published soon,” he said matter-of-factly, almost as casual as when he spoke about his cancer that was slowly spreading around his body. That sentence however put all of us, with saying a word, at ease. So there is a book coming. We all spontaneously felt a sense of relief as we had a collective, but silent sigh of relief. We could see that on each other’s faces.

Of course Clegg went on to give a sterling performance at the Montecasino, and that is according to those who attended the event, where his son Jesse, was also part of the show. And of course, a few months later, the White Zulu, as Clegg was fondly called throughout the world, died, sending the country into a collective mourning period, for a man who had transformed ur rural sound into a sophisticated sound palatable to the rich and the poor, bizarrely sharing the same musical taste, something so many sounds fail to do. It takes agenius like Clegg to achieve such a feat, where a servant and his master can share the same cultural experience with equal excitement. It sounds bizarre and unbelievable, but in reality that is what Clegg managed to do with maskandi over the years..

Now here is the good news for Clegg’s fans: that book is now out. His posthumous publisher Pan MacMillan alerted the media yesterday about Clegg’s biography being on bookshelves soon. I was one of the people who got excited when this literary news break popped into my inbox yesterday. To tell the truth, for years since Clegg’s passing, I was wondering whatever happened to that book that he spoke about at that Sandton Hotel meeting, a book which clearly should tell us more about this man than his music did, about his colourful life. I mean that epic cultural journey  saw him globalise a sound that originated in deep rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal, promoting and synthesizing it into a sophisticated sound that mesmerized even the most urbanized among us. The White Zulu,  as Clegg got to be called in his lifetime, almost single-handedly, made maskandi to be acceptable even to the most cynical urbanized ears.

“Pan Macmillan is proud to be releasing Scatterling of Africa, a memoir by Johnny Clegg in October 2021,” the publisher confirmed yesterday, quoted the following passage  from the book.

 There are moments in life that are pure, and which seem to hang in the air, unhitched from the everyday world as we know it. Suspended for a few seconds, they float in their own space and time with their own hidden prospects. For want of a better term, we call these moments “magical” and when we remember them they are cloaked in a halo of special meaning.’

Though you will have to get the book to get the rest of his story, but his is a bit about this legend’s colourful life. For 14-year-old Johnny Clegg, hearing Zulu street music as plucked on the strings of a guitar by Charlie Mzila one evening outside a corner café in Bellevue, Johannesburg, was such a ‘magical’ moment.

The success story of Juluka and later Savuka, the cross-cultural celebration of music and language, story, dance and song that stirred the hearts of millions across the world, is well documented. Their music was the soundtrack to many South Africans’ lives during the turbulent 70s and 80s as the country moved from legislated oppression to democratic freedom. It crossed borders, boundaries and generations, resonating around the world and back again.

However less known is the story of how it all began and developed.

“Scatterling of Africa is that origin story, as Johnny Clegg wrote it and wanted it told. It is the story of how the son of an unconventional mother, grandson of Jewish immigrants, came to realise that identity can be a choice, and home is a place you leave and return to as surely as the seasons change. 

This memoir of the early days is filled with extraordinary stories of the determination with which Johnny pursued his quest to play the music he wanted, to the people who wanted to hear it. Written with passion and humour, it is also a record of the absurdity and tragedy of the times,” his publisher gives us a bit about what we should expct from this important book in cultural and anthropological terms.

The Clegg family has this to say about the book: “We are hugely proud to be able share this memoir that Johnny worked so hard on for several years. For Johnny, this book was both a process of coming to terms with his own cultural identity and reliving the most special, formative moments that defined his journey. This unique South African story is a testament to the power of human connection and friendships across cultural, political and social divides. In his own words, he takes us on the great adventure of his early years with all its hardships, complexities and self-discoveries. Discussions are underway with a prominent director for the screenplay and an announcement is due shortly.”

 Terry Morris, Managing Director of Pan Macmillan South Africa, says: “What a privilege for the Pan Macmillan team to bring Johnny’s remarkable memoir into the world. This book will find its way into the hearts of readers and fans through the mesmerising stories, musings and reflections in which Johnny reveals a world of music and dance and grapples with identity and his own sense of belonging in the world.  Johnny’s writing is steeped in humour and wisdom and you will be richer for having stepped into his world.”

About the author

Johnny Clegg was born in England on 7 June 1953. He grew up in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and spent a formative year in Zambia as that country transitioned to independence in 1964. Together with Sipho Mchunu, Clegg formed the multiracial band Juluka. They toured the length and breadth of South Africa, performing in township halls and at music festivals. The song  Scatterlings of Africa, a hit in 1979, launched their international career. Clegg died on 16 July 2019, leaving his wife Jenny, and sons Jesse and Jaron.

Please share

2 thoughts on “Scatterings of Africa revisited as Johnny Clegg’s memoir is released

  1. Thank you for this article- your appreciation is reflective of many people’s love and admiration. Just a correction though: I think the Montecasino shows and also the concert at The Dome were in 2017. Johnny did do some final shows in SA in early 2018 and two final ‘Southern African’ shows in Mauritius and Zimbabwe in October and November 2018 respectively.
    I’m also very excited about the book- we were getting worried about the delay in its publication.

  2. Hello
    I cant seem to find any way to buy a copy of this book Scatterling of Africa: My Early Years.
    I live in Australia. Would you know how I might purchase a copy?
    Thank you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *