Friday, November 26, 2010

Johnny Clegg's Latest Winner

I have been meaning to write a review of the latest album by my favourite singer, Johnny Clegg. It was released in late October and I received it in the mail on the day I was set to take Amtrak to San Francisco. This trip allowed me to listen to the CD quite a few times. Whenever I get a new CD, I generally will listen to it over and over to get a feel for it. If it grabs me, its a hit. If it doesn't grab me after several back to back listens, its a dud (such as the last U2 album). That's just the first impression listen, though. Sometimes, I don't like an album on the first few listens but it grows on me. This happened with Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor, which I was disappointed by at first, but two years later, it was still getting frequent play on my CD player. The music of that CD is really that irresistable.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is also the album that I love at first which does not have longevity and I end up not liking it as much. This was the case for Johnny Clegg's 2002 album, New World Survivor. He experimented with a new sound that was quite popular at the time (including the electronification of his voice). While I love some songs on that disc, most of the songs were not as great as his long catalogue of songs. The new sound did not work. It was a refreshing change for Clegg, but in the end, a big reason why I love his music so much (for twenty years now) is because he used a lot of African instruments, musical traditions, and the Zulu language to create many awesome and exotic sounds. This is his trademark. Save the electronica for the likes of Cher.

In 2006, when Clegg released One Life, I was so relieved that he returned to his signature sound. I love this album. He even recorded his first song in Afrikaans, which is awesome to listen to. I've long considered Afrikaans to be one of the most interestingly strange languages I've ever seen and heard. This is the kind of innovative ideas I like Clegg to use in his music. Thankfully, though, he did not make an entire album singing this language. The standard mix of English with a Zulu chorus works well for me.

Now we come to Human, which is the first album he has released in the U.S. and Canada since 1993's Heat, Dust, and Dreams. Due to some licensing problem, three of his albums were not released in North America: 1997's Crocodile Love and the two I mentioned above. I was only able to know about these releases through a Scatterlings fan club mailing list and I bought them from the fan club's president. I'm so glad that he was able to find a distributor for this release, so I could receive the album much sooner and cheaper than the ones that had to be ordered from South Africa. Along with this album, Johnny Clegg has scheduled a tour in North America next year, which I can't wait to see. Portland is not on the schedule, though, so I might have to travel to either Eugene or Tacoma to catch a show. He last performed in the U.S. in 2004 and I was able to meet him for a third time, giving him one of my old license plates from Utah, which I had personalized with his former band's name: "SAVUKA". It was a cool license plate, too, because it features the orange Delicate Arch with a blue sky background. When I gave him the license plate backstage, he actually remembered me from 1996, when I had given him one of my old Virginia license plates with "SAVUKA" on it.

As far as the album Human goes, its classic Clegg. This means his signature sound and chants are apparent in several songs, there are some creative song titles and the lyrics are timely and international in scope. I don't mind waiting four years for an album when its this well-written and produced.

The album begins with a song called "Love in the Time of Gaza", which is about young Palestinians finding love during the current conflicts between Israel and the PLO. Johnny Clegg is ethnically Jewish (his mother is Jewish), but as far as his spiritual beliefs goes, it seems to be a mix of Judaism, Christianity, and Zulu spiritual beliefs. In other words, he's a universalist like me, so its not surprising that he would write a song that presents Palestinians in a positive light. I love how the song title makes an obvious reference to the modern classic novel Love in the Time of Cholera.

The second song also happens to be the first single released: "The World is Calling." This is far and away the best song on the album. I especially love the lines: "But I most rise now and leave your company, the world is calling and the road is longer..." I almost used this line in my annual Christmas newsletter (which always features key lyrics from a song which describes some aspect of my year or message I wish to convey), but there were two other song lyrics that better described my feelings and I only had enough space to feature one of those songs. The other thing that I really love about this song is that it has an incredible sound at one point that is like crack cocaine to my ears (not that I know what it feels like to be on crack). I can listen to that piece of music over and over. I love it!

"All I Got is You" is a bouncy, feel good song with a cool line and melody: "helter skelter in the swelter through the hard night give me shelter." The next song is "Asilazi" which was taken from his One Life album and has a Zulu intro and chorus. This is what makes Clegg unique on the music scene. "Give Me the Wonder" has a kind of Spanish dancing style to it and I love the lyrics: "In the dark night of the soul, I know I will never be alone." I'm just emerging out of a four year long "dark night of the soul" myself, so I appreciate the timely reference. "Congo" has an interesting carousel sound to it. The song is a commentary on the current situation in Congo (formerly known as Zaire), which the American media has not reported on, which is a shame. Glad that Clegg is continuing to raise awareness through his music.

"Here Comes that Feeling Again" is probably the weakest song on the album for me. According to the liner notes, Clegg said that this song is "about a new beginning...having to re-negotiate each day and find new space and perspective." Yep, that describes my new life. This is followed by my second favourite song on the album, "Hidden Away Down" which I hope will be his next single. Its a hard charging song with an awesome sound. Clegg wrote this after being inspired by CNN's coverage of Senator Edward Kennedy's funeral. In the song, he incorporates a famous line by Ernest Hemingway and adds his own creative spin to it: "the world breaks everyone and often which you will find some stronger in their broken parts in the wild mountains of their hearts." In the liner notes, Clegg says this about Ted Kennedy: "In the end, Kennedy found love, made peace with his demons and gave good laws to the disadvantaged people of his country. I have always been inspired by people who overcome deep wounds that are inflicted either by their own choices or by events that make them unwilling victims of circumstance."

"I Know That Sound" is a ballad that would have fit well on his album Heat, Dust, and Dreams. "Manqoba" is from the movie The Colour of Freedom which I'm glad that Clegg included on this album. I love that song. I especially love the bagpipe sound in the beginning.

The final two songs, "Nyembezi (Tears)" and "Magumede" are perfect closers on this album. He sings both in Zulu, the first one sounds like a lullaby and is about the tribal culture where a young wife is accused of witchcraft by her in-laws until she bears a child. Young girls getting accused of witchcraft happens to be very current in Africa right now. Geez, this is "proof" that Africa is about 400 years behind the U.S. We went through that with the Salem Witch Trials and all it amounted to was false accusations, paranoia, and needless death of innocents. Hate that this is going on in Africa, where ancient superstitions never seem to die. The final song, "Magumede" is classic Clegg from his Juluka days. Its a high energy Zulu dance song with his signature "hum oh hum" style of chanting chorus. What a brilliant way to end an awesome album! The Johnny Clegg that most of his American fans love is back and better than ever. This is the kind of song that you simply cannot sit still for! With this release, Johnny Clegg shows that he still has it. His unique musical style, often blending genres, is on full display here. Though he uses his signature sound and chorus lines, it still sounds fresh. With pop music in such bad shape these days, you can't go wrong with a true classic. Clegg is it!
The photo above was taken during his photo shoot for the Heat, Dust, and Dreams album in 1993. What I liked about Clegg's style is that he showed me that it was okay to wear a bolo tie without a button down shirt. I had worn a bolo tie without a button down shirt once and got heavily criticized for it, which shocked me. I love his style. I've liked bolo ties since elementary school, but did not like the western style (Cowboy-ish) centerpiece (sliding part) that most of them have. Though you can't see it in this photo, his bolo tie has an arrowhead for the sliding part. I have a similar one. I also have one of a wolf howling at the moon, which I love because in his song "Dela", there's a line he sings: "I know why the dog howls at the moon." If I manage to get backstage passes at his next concert, I may give him that bolo tie.

So, if you're willing to hear some unique music and expand your music library a bit, I highly recommend buying Human by Johnny Clegg. Its worth the investment, especially when so much of the music played on the radio is complete trash. This album is a celebration of what makes us human.

1 comment:

Julie said...

hm...i may have check out some of these songs! i used to live in Congo. thanks for posting about this album!