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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Johnny Clegg Brings Savuka to the Roxy

December 03, 1987|STEVE HOCHMAN

When South African Johnny Clegg led the biracial band Juluka a few years ago, the American pop world wasn't quite ready for the infectious mix of Zulu and Western styles. Now, with Paul Simon having made the blend familiar to the masses, Clegg's new band Savuka should be welcomed with open arms. It certainly was welcomed Tuesday at the Roxy by the sardined audience, which--judging by the accents overheard--consisted of many South Africans as well as Angelenos.

A winningly energetic performer, the muscular Clegg and his five-piece band enthralled the crowd with 95 minutes of material that superimposed soaring pop hooks on percolating African rhythms--just as Clegg matches traditional Zulu chants with warm English lyrics expressing the hopes and fears of (to use the title of the group's recent album) the "Third World Child." Both new songs and older Juluka numbers (including the 1982 near-hit "Scatterlings of Africa") were more forcefully presented than in the recorded versions, thanks largely to the pounding bass of Solly Le Twaba.

The frequent political nature of the material was amplified by Clegg's brief explanatory introductions, but most of the songs are more observations than tracts, and therefore less clumsy than much commentary in pop music. But even an anthemic roll call of people imprisoned or slain in the fight against apartheid worked movingly on much the same level as Peter Gabriel's "Biko."

For the most part, though, Clegg let the music and performance speak for itself, which it did most powerfully when he put down his guitar and engaged with percussionist Dudu Zulu in some complex, synchronized Zulu dance routines. That this kind of cross-cultural brotherhood can develop even under the shadow of apartheid is itself message enough.

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