By Litha Hermanus
An essay on the true legacy of one of South Africa’s musical geniuses
READ: Part one
Impi and Woza Friday also interest me deeply, but there is no space to delve into them here. I can only do that with one other song – The Crossing.
The Crossing was familiar to me as the soundtrack to the dawn of our Demo-crazy. While Scatterlings of Africa is from the album Scatterlings (1982), The Crossing is from Heat, Dust and Dreams (1993). In The Crossing Johnny Clegg’s Savuka sound has evolved and his delivery is of one who is at the pinnacle of his powers. The steadiness of his voice, the wonderfully arranged and robust instrumentation, as well as his writing, are done at a noticeably elite level.
Written for his slain dancer, Dudu Zulu, who was killed in the political violence of the early 90s, Mr Clegg creates a metaphor of crossings with multifarious meanings. Besides the reference to the political deaths, the song was also the crossing from an old divided South Africa into a new unified – one filled with hope. As a result this is a song that is imbued with both lamentation and hope.
From the get-go the poetry is deeply imbedded into the words. ‘Through all the days that eat away at every breath that I take’. Jesus Christ Superstar! The writing! That is ugly mortality made delicate because it is couched in beautiful poetry. Those are days he talks about, that is time – and it sinks its teeth into your existence. It eats away at you, essentially. There is a sense of inevitable desolation – death. A bad writer may have simply sad: ‘As I get older…’, which does not have the bells and whistles of Clegg’s line.
There is another line that spells desolation for me, in a different way. ‘All the words in truth that were spoken, that the wind has blown away…’ There is a loss of truth because the words that were spoken in it, have been carried away by the wind. There is bleakness in a world without truth. But even with the image of him lying alone in somebody else’s dream awake (another uneasy image) there is ever hope in the words of the singer. That is because even in the barrenness and uneasiness he evokes, he holds on to something. It is this thing – a parent-like spirit – he is coming home to in the chorus. ‘O siyeza… we Baba no Ma.’ Not only is it the only thing that remains with him, but it remains with him as clearly as the light of day. ‘Oh it’s only you that remains with me, clear as the light of day,’ he sings. It is this parent-like spirit that gives him the courage and fortitude to make the crossing across metaphoric dark mountainous lands. The song’s message for me is resilience under fire in making one’s crossing, whatever that crossing may be. Dudu’s was to a realm beyond…
Nowhere though is this resilience painted more vividly than in following words where another evocation of refuge in parenthood exists.
“A punch drunk man in a downtown bar takes a beating without making a sound
Through swollen eyes he sways and smiles ’cause no one can put him down
Inside of him a boy looks up to his father for a sign or an approving eye
Oh, it’s funny how those once so close and now gone can still so affect our lives”
We are introduced to a man who is not fighting for his life, but one who is taking a beating. We have an image of fists raining on him as he sways, perhaps a little from alcohol (it is a bar after all), but definitely because of the fists pounding him. Instead of cries, which are reasonable to expect since the man is not fighting back, we are told he is smiling in the face of this assault. What is keeping him up and above the chaos of the moment? It is at this point that Clegg zooms inside the man, and inside him we are introduced to two figures. The swaying man sees himself as a boy, and that boy is looking up to his father ‘for a sign or an approving eye’. The final line takes us home here with such emotional force, especially for those who have lost loved ones with whom they have unbreakable bonds. ‘Oh, it’s funny how those once so close and now gone can still so affect our lives.’ Such is the bond of the punch drunk man with his father, that though he is no longer alive, his son looks up to him in his darkest hour and finds a reason to keep standing in the face of those who would see him down.
It would seem to me that while Johnny Clegg left us music, his truest legacy had almost nothing to do with the crossover sounds that he and Sipho Mchunu created. I have heard people say: ‘His music will live forever in our hearts.’ Well, I have news for you. Your heart has a limited journey – It won’t tick forever.
The man’s truest legacy was at fourteen years old, in stopping to greet Charlie Mzila in a crowd full of people after being drawn to the uniqueness of the sound that was coming from his guitar. It was the whistle, two years later, that halted then migrant labourer and gardener Sipho Mchunu in the street. Johnny would invite him into his home for the beginnings of something the world had never seen. This was in a world where Africans and white people were demanded by law to not mix. Once he found the link to the music that would define him, once playing a certain musical sound became a conviction of his, it did not matter what the laws and perceptions of Clegg’s own people were. It only mattered that he was interested in a particular sound as a creative being. He connected honestly with the people with whom he played and discussed that sound, such that they let him into who they were and vice versa. In this interview, Sipho Mchunu speaks of the respect that was in his and Clegg’s eyes when they met and how that was something that would set the tone for their love affair with each other through the music.
Again the truest legacy is not so much in the music but in daring to make it when everything around him would have told him to not go in the direction where the music lay. He was not political and had no interest in being active in politics with his music creations. It was politics that found him because it became an impediment to moving freely within the expression of his art. But still, against those politics and the apartheid terror machine he dared to create, tour, and break the law by being in places and spaces that were wrong for him. However, this daring to do is not courageous most in that it went against the grain of society and triumphed. It is courageous because the rest of us simply never dare to turn into reality the dreams and whispers of our hearts (while our hearts still have the ability to tick). Juluka and Savuka made many songs. Since the coming together of Johnny and Sipho in 1969, Johnny created an almost unending discography.
A discography does not make itself. It takes work. It takes a dream. He did not defy the police and the system for their sake. He didn’t fight to make this almost unending discography just so he could rage against the machine. Johnny Clegg was simply doing something many of us aught to do. He was following an interest – doing something he loves. In my estimation, the kernel of Mr Clegg’s legacy is in showing us that we should locate that which touches our interest at our core, and if that interest should rise to the level of conviction, we should pursue it with everything in us until we have nothing left of ourselves, because, sooner or later, there will be nothing left of us. His truest gift is in quietly reminding us all to find something fruitful to do with our lives that will certainly cause us to go against any unjust authority that would stop us from doing it. But even more central than that, my friends, it is to remind us to find that one thing that urges us to get up and make sure it is done, that one thing that makes even the least amount of procrastination feel like a grave injustice to ourselves. It is from this that any creation follows and a legacy is even possible.
Litha Hermanus is the author of new Penguin release: The Eyes of the Naked – a political and psychological novel. He is a freelance writer with an MA degree in Creative Writing and an Honours in Media Studies, both from Wits University.