Johnny Clegg. Picture: Supplied

‘The farewell is very bitter-sweet but I realise I am very fortunate to have enough time to say my goodbyes,” says Johnny ‘Le Zulu Blanc’ Clegg, who is bidding the performance life goodbye due to ill health, adding that he’s eternally grateful to have come full circle in his career, with a beginning and an end. 

“Something not everyone is fortunate to be able to do.”

Clegg’s ever-evolving world-renowned career spanned a 15-year partnership with Sipho Mchunu that gave birth to a powerful musical group, Juluka. This was followed by a group Clegg started called Savuka, that produced albums such as Heat, Dust and Dreams.

He earned a Grammy Award nomination and went on to build a strong solo career internationally. And now he has reached his finale. And to bow out, a world tour dubbed “The Final Journey” was staged that brought him mixed emotions.

Speaking at an intimate press conference this past week, Clegg took us down memory lane on his musical journey that started from sheer curiosity at the age of 14. How he discovered maskandi music, where he learnt the various ways of the Zulu nation. And how he went on to build a huge fan base.

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“When I stepped into that (the cultural journey), I never left. It was for me a huge journey,” he says. “My fans have been amazing. You must understand that I was 37 when we had the breakthrough in 1988 in France, so people my age brought their children. So now I have young fans who are around their late 20s who were forced to listen to my music,” he jokes.

Throughout his 40-year career, Clegg has been well-known for his cross-cultural music skills, through which he became fluent in isiZulu and ‘humanness’.

“All culture is human culture and in all its forms it tries to give purpose, meaning and a framework for daily behaviour and for coping mechanisms for the problems we experience. It was a conscious decision (breaking down cultural barriers), an artistic intention to create a genre of crossover music.

'Le Zulu Blanc' and Sipho Mchunu, with whom he started out in Juluka. Picture: Supplied

“I wanted to create a soundscape that accommodated different pieces of music traditions and made them feel as comfortable as possible in the same song,” he says.

Juluka, Clegg says, was a crossover experiment. And although at the time it had political ramifications due to the policies of cultural segregation, it was not a political decision to make this kind of music.

“It was a creative decision driven by the love of Zulu maskandi music, the desire to create a conversation between this form of music and other traditional Celtic and western styles,” he says.

That love has seen him achieve on many grounds and win many local and international awards for his work. One career highlight was when Juluka showcased for the first time at Orlando Stadium in 1980 - a show promoted by Solly Nkutha. Another was when the group broke on to the UK charts in 1983 with Scatterlings of Africa.

“There are so many highlights: discovering Bhaca, Ishamani and Umzansi Zulu dancing and becoming proficient in these forms. Learning the rules of composition and performance of maskandi guitar music. Opening for Men At Work in Germany in 1984, doing university campus tours across SA and filling the 3000-seater Massey Hall in Toronto in 1984,” he says.

Never did he imagine what a world icon he would be when he was sneaking into hostels and carrying out his passion of learning. 

“I don’t think anyone ever knows how their decisions will pan out. You can make plans but you can’t plan the outcome. I was an academic in my fourth year of teaching when our fourth album, Scatterlings, got into the top 40 in the UK in 1983. I could never have planned that and this single event led to me resigning and becoming a full-time singer/songwriter.

“Most of what has happened in my life is simply the fact that I kept on keeping on,” says Clegg.

This special concert tour of reflection has been a magical journey for him, he says, and is staged in an autobiographical way. The pace is structured around storytelling and audiovisuals of the people he had encounters with, depicting specific incidents, ideas, moods connected to the songs. 

“It is a very special story to tell, a very special show. There is nothing like it.”

Due to popular demand, Clegg is bringing the second round of these final performances back to Johannesburg as a way of thanking fans, where it all began. It will be at the Ticketpro Dome on Saturday, November 11, and Clegg will be joined on stage by friends including Prime Circle, DJ Kent, Karen Zoid and the Parlotones.

And even though he feels physically strong, the massive contradiction he is dealing with is in his mind - the ending he has finally reached.

“When I am on stage performing, I feel like I can do this for ever. I feel awkward because I stand and think ‘this is my last gig in Joburg, it is the final thing’, yet I feel fine. It is weird.” A moment in his life he also describes as disheartening.

But through all the fame, learning and now his illness, Clegg is grateful for his time on stage and the send-off is, in fact, a celebration.

@AmandaMaliba