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Clegg: A Supersalesman for Fusion of Pop and South Africa Music

November 27, 1987|DENNIS HUNT | Times Staff Writer

There's been talk that Johnny Clegg and Savuka, who play a fascinating fusion of pop and South African music, are Johnny-come-latelies who've crept onto Paul Simon's bandwagon.

All most pop fans know about South African music is what they've heard on Paul Simon's multi-million-selling album, "Graceland." But Clegg, a South African singer, dancer and guitarist, is a real pioneer. Years before Simon's involvement, he was playing a similar fusion in a band called Juluka. But in this country, hardly anybody knew about this band because its two Warner Bros. albums sold so poorly.

"This band (Savuka) will do better," Clegg said over lunch in Beverly Hills. "People are more receptive to this kind of music now." This is largely attributable to Simon's Grammy Award-winning album.

Does Clegg harbor any resentment toward Simon for upstaging him?

"I'm not mad at him," Clegg said. "He's helped build an international audience for South African music."

Local audiences can see Clegg and Savuka--a multiracial band--on Tuesday at the Roxy. "It's going to be a great, great show," Clegg said.

Such hype is typical of Clegg, 34, an impassioned talker and an avowed fanatic about his spritely pop-Zulu fusion.

"I've had to sell this music to people," he said, his clenched fist underscoring his fervor. "I've become a supersalesman. I believe it in so strongly. I believe in what it represents. I don't believe in what South Africa has been, which is racist. I believe in what it can be. This music is all about what it can be."

The big difference between his old band, Juluka, and the new one is that Savuka's music is much more political.

"With Juluka, we made political statements every album or two," he recalled. "But we have to be outspoken now. The world is aware of what's happening in South Africa."

Being too outspoken can be dangerous, said Clegg, who lives in Johannesburg. "I watch what I say," he said. "If some very critical statements I made about certain things happening there were heavily publicized and got back to South Africa, I'd have problems there--like being arrested."

Clegg, reared in Johannesburg, has always been a rebel. As a teen-ager, he fraternized with blacks, a practice frowned upon in South Africa.

To Clegg, one of the Zulu culture's big attractions was its music, which he was introduced to in his mid-teens by a Zulu janitor. Clegg loved its fascinating rhythms and the exotic dance forms that go with it.

In the '70s, music was just a hobby for Clegg, who was a university lecturer in social anthropology. The records he was making with his black partner in Juluka, Sipho Mchunu--then a gardener--got little attention because they were bilingual blends of Zulu street music and Western pop.

"Radio stations played either records in Zulu or English but they didn't play mixtures," said Clegg, who formed Juluka with Mchunu in 1975. "You couldn't make a living at that kind of music but we had other incomes. We just kept on recording albums."

In 1982 they lucked into a hit in Britain, which spurred them to become full-time musicians. Juluka flourished for a few years--in South Africa and other foreign countries--before hitting a snag during its efforts to make it in America.

Warner Bros. asked the band to scrap four songs on the second album, hoping to boost sales beyond those of the first album, which according to Clegg sold only about 70,000 in this country.

"They thought the songs were too Zulu," Clegg recalled. "They said no African language song ever made the (American) Top 40."

The four substitute songs Juluka came up with didn't drum up any further interest in the band. Though Warner Bros. was still supportive, the band was reeling and never really recovered.

"We didn't know who we were any more," Clegg said. "We wanted to go home and find our identity."

But then Mchunu, who had always planned to quit to be a farmer in his homeland, bowed out, ending Juluka and forcing Clegg into a solo career. But he didn't last long as a solo artist. He formed Savuka and signed with Capitol Records.

"I loved Juluka but it's probably better that I'm with a new band," Clegg said. "It's important that statements be made about what's happening in South Africa. This band is probably a better vehicle for that. I can't keep quiet about what's going on there. I hope it won't be the death of me."

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