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Clegg Faces Up to the Pain of Life : Pop music: The singer, who'll play in Solana Beach, sees no point in running away from the world's changes--even though some have caused him grief.

August 12, 1993|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the '90s opened, Johnny Clegg watched in awe at the radical changes in the world around him--the kind of changes that politically active musicians such as himself often cry out for, but all too rarely witness in their lifetimes.

The British-born, South Africa-reared singer-songwriter touches on the feeling of viewing history in the making in "Your Time Will Come" from "Heat, Dust and Dreams," the new album by Clegg and his band, Savuka:

I saw the Berlin Wall fall

And I saw Mandela walk free

I saw a dream whose time has come

change my history--so keep on dreaming

The stinging irony is that while he was in the midst of recording that album, his friend and fellow band member Dudu Zulu was shot to death while trying to mediate a dispute between feuding South African clans.

Where all too often the wholesale brutality in the outside world forces the individual to take refuge in life's small victories, Clegg found himself in the position of looking to global-scale political upheaval to provide a sense of balance in the wake of an intensely personal loss.

"It's an irony," Clegg said in a recent interview. "But I think South Africa is a country of ironies. It's just the pain of living: You get the beautiful moments, you get the painful moments. You try to unravel them and make some sense out of them, which is what I was trying to do on the album."

But there are some wounds even art can't heal.

"It's still a hole for me," Clegg said, a few days into Savuka's first U.S. tour in three years, and its first without Dudu Zulu. That tour brings the group through the Southland for shows Friday at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, Saturday at the Ventura Theatre and Sundayat the Belly Up in Solana Beach.

In addition to his role as one of Savuka's percussionists, Dudu Zulu played a highly visible role as Clegg's partner and foil in energetic Zulu dance numbers that climaxed each performance.

Clegg said he even considered disbanding the group when he began to feel it might be "cursed."

*

During the recording of Savuka's previous album, "Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World," a professor and fellow anti-apartheid activist, David Webster, whom Clegg considered a friend and mentor, was assassinated in Johannesburg.

Ultimately, Clegg heeded his own words in "These Days," from the new album: "Got to get up, got to move out / Face the tide beyond the door / Outside there's a whole world changing / We can't stand here, trapped inside."

If anything, he said, Zulu's death "has brought us closer together in a way. The band is stronger than ever."

Clegg wishes he could say the same about the euphoria he felt immediately after the 1990 release of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment, when the South African government took the first official steps toward dismantling apartheid and after the collapse of communism and with it, the Soviet Union.

"After the Berlin Wall, Mandela, Tian An Men Square, the pro-democracy efforts in Africa, what have we got? We're left with a racist Germany, a huge ethnic conflict in ex-Yugoslavia, a very, very fragile situation in the East, a complete mess in South Africa," Clegg, 39, said.

"That's what 'These Days' is about: We who dreamed that we could change the world, or at least contribute in some way to making it a better place, must not be disheartened by these events. We must have a long-term view.

"One senses a certain embarrassment in the liberal-progressive community. Some people are basically saying, 'Maybe we were a little utopian, maybe we set our aims to high and we should have been more modest.'

"There are people who basically say, 'I've done my bit, I don't have any more energy, I just want to get on with my life.' . . . This song is saying, 'Look, you can't run away.' It's not a matter of disengaging; we've got to get more engaged."

It's hard to think of Clegg managing to get more engaged.

Since he was 15, he's been arrested numerous times for running afoul of South African laws aimed at keeping in place the wall separating the ruling white minority from the country's black majority.

Mostly Clegg's run-ins with the law stemmed from going places whites weren't supposed to go, doing things whites weren't supposed to do.

"To me, they were fun things, things I wanted to be a part of: dancing with Africans at a migrant workers' hostel, playing with them at night on the roofs where they live, and things I wasn't allowed, because of the apartheid laws, to do," Clegg said.

His own two bands--Juluka (Zulu for "sweat") and then Savuka ("we have arisen"), which formed after Juluka broke up in 1985--have flaunted the status quo with racially integrated lineups.

Clegg's songs--sometimes overtly, sometimes metaphorically--frequently challenge any group that would deny equality to another.

He's been phenomenally popular in South Africa--mostly through the band's exuberant concerts (radio has often refused to play Savuka's records)--and in many European countries.

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