Bye-bye Johnny Clegg, African rain and sky man
"We were only kids. And Johnny Clegg’s music became the soundtrack of our lives," writes Murray Williams.
I first heard his voice on the back of an old Datsun bakkie with four blood brothers.
It was 5am, the early ‘80s. Delivering pamphlets, with the urge to vote “no” to the racist, divide-and-rule tricameral Parliament.
The blue paintwork on our old skorokoro was faded. But the black-and-white sticker on the back was clear: “All God’s beaches for all God’s people.”
We were only kids. And Johnny Clegg’s music became the soundtrack of our lives.
Much like the USA’s Bruce Springsteen, Clegg’s a storyteller. He and Sipho Mchunu’s weaves were sewn on the streets of Joburg, the epicentre of that monstrous ill: migrant labour. They sang of our “African litanies” – our Struggle against poverty, oppression, violence, apartheid. And how we coped, as humans.
“The warrior’s now a worker and his war is underground; With cordite in the darkness he milks the bleeding veins of gold; When the smoking rock face murmurs, he always thinks of you; African sky blue.”
Back home, a child was “keeping the home fires burning, while papa’s out earning the pittance he calls his pay”.
In another dry valley: “An old lady walking down the dusty farm road; Looking for a simple home; She’s old and she’s bent, her eyes can hardly see; And she’d lost everything she ever had to lose; So she picks up her walking stick and puts on her car-tyre shoes…”
A continent ripped apart by war: “Will this be the end of the rain and the birds?”
Clegg’s songs carried both pain and resilience, like the “Kwela Man, singing under the street light; With a cheap guitar, he gave his sorrow a smile”.
In time, RSA’s stories became interwoven with our own. A world seen through “Old Eyes”.But he also sang of hope! “African sky blue, your children wait for the dawn; soon a new day will be born; African sunshine, soon you will warm your children’s eyes.”
He cried: “Sing me the songs that taste of freedom; Liyeza, ilanga lami seliyeza (It’s coming, my day is coming).”
And he danced. The Western suit is an everyday straight-jacket. Deliberately designed to constrict excessive expression, to keep its captive on the straight and narrow. To make absolutely sure, the neck-tie strangles the sorry soul into guaranteed submission.
Zulu stick-fighting and dance, by contrast, are a language the whole body speaks. “Dedela umoya, wami Baba (Set my spirit free, Father).”
It’s tempting to say, as the “copper sun is sinking low”: “Where did the time go? Can you tell me where did your life go?”
But I’d prefer to say, instead:
“Johnny Clegg: I burn for you.”
* Williams’ “Shooting from the Lip” column appears in the Cape Argus every Monday.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.