Thursday, June 07, 2012

22 Years of Johnny Clegg

The day after I graduated from high school, 22 years ago, what did I do? I decided to take some of my graduation money and head over to the Sound Warehouse, a music store near my school. What I loved about this store is that they had a "money back guarantee" on new music that the store recommended and advertised. The normal policy is that once you take off the plastic wrapping, you can't exchange the cassette for a different one. But this record store had a money back guarantee, along with a discount rate ($5.99).

One of the albums in this special promotion was Johnny Clegg and Savuka's Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World. As you can see above, the album cover is catchy (it's my all-time favourite album, as well as all-time favourite album cover). I had heard of Johnny Clegg and Savuka before. He was hugely popular in France and was on the cover of French music magazines in 1988. I actually thought he was French! I even saw his music video "Take My Heart Away" played on MTV in 1988. I thought the song was okay, but it did not inspire me to go out and buy his album Shadow Man. With this low price for his new CD and a money-back guarantee, I figured, "Why not?" I had plenty of money from graduation gifts given by family and people at church. This was a small investment, so I bought a cassette and hurried home to listen to it.

From the opening tribal chanting of "One (Hu)Man, One Vote", I was hooked! I had never heard anything like it before. The entire album was a breath of fresh air. It was an initiation into a new world of music and sounds. The music deeply resonated within me and it wasn't long before I bought Johnny Clegg's other cassettes: Shadow Man and Third World Child. I learned that he had a previous band, Juluka, and I sought out those cassettes but only saw a CD of Scatterlings, which became the very first CD that I bought (I didn't even have my own CD player and had to sneak listens on my dad's stereo).

This new music discovery really opened up my world and resonated deep within my soul. I was euphorically blissful whenever I listened to Johnny Clegg's three albums with his band Savuka (which is Zulu for "We have awakened" or "We have arisen"). I probably get the same rush from listening to his music that drug users get from taking a hit of their drug of choice. I've never needed to use or experiment with drugs, because 80s pop music gave me that good feeling vibe that we all want for ourselves. Now, the 90s were here and I was moving in a more international direction. My love of Johnny Clegg's music led to my buying Midnight Oil's Blue Sky Mining in 1990 and becoming a fan of this great Aussie band (I had also heard of them in 1988 with their MTV video hits "The Dead Heart" and "Beds Are Burning"). In the 1990s, I'd buy all kinds of African music...Kotoja, Manu Dibango, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Aster Aweke, Youssou N'Dour, and Angelique Kidjo, to name a few. Then there was Deep Forest (French D.J.'s putting pygmy singing to music, similar to what Enigma did with Gregorian chants).

Over the years, I managed to amass a complete collection of Johnny Clegg's albums...both as cassettes, then again with Compact Discs. I've seen him in concert in 1990, 1994 (at a mall in Sandton, South Africa!), 1996, 2004, 2011, and he's coming back to Portland in August to play at the Oregon Zoo as their summer concert series (he's shares billing with Ladysmith Black Mambazu, though I'd rather just see Johnny Clegg for the entire time). I got to meet him four times now, including giving him my personal license plates from Virginia and Utah that had "SAVUKA" on it.

I did not learn until 1998, though, that Johnny Clegg's birthday is June 7th. What an amazing coincidence! In 1990, I happened to buy his album on his birthday, on a whim (I did not even know about his album before I walked into Sound Warehouse that day). He's had new albums in 1993 (Heat, Dust, and Dreams), 1997 (Crocodile Love), 2002 (New World Survivor), 2006 (One Life), and 2010 (Human). Each year that there's a new Johnny Clegg album was a pretty good year for me. He's the only artist where I still get excited when I learn that a new album is about to be released. I have to have it AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, even though in some cases, they were not released in the U.S. and I had to special order them with his American online fan club.

It's always amazing to me when I meet an American who has heard of Johnny Clegg. Most people have not, so when I meet someone who has heard of him, they automatically come across as "cultured." This was the case with my fellow BYU roommate during the Washington Seminar, Matt Baker. He heard of Johnny Clegg, even though he's from a small town in Utah. Janell, another friend during that internship also heard of Johnny Clegg because her father had lived in South Africa and she visited him as a teenager. She used to remark that I seemed like a contradiction to her because she could not understand how someone who listened to Johnny Clegg could also listen to Britney Spears. I just love music, even though Johnny Clegg's music would be top of the line, high quality music and Britney is merely amusing pop fluff.

A part of me wishes that Johnny Clegg's music would be better known and more popular in the U.S. Some of his songs have appeared in movies such as Rain Man, Career Opportunities, Opportunity Knocks, George of the Jungle, Krippendorf's Tribe, and Invictus. I wish he was well known enough to inspire an English language biography (I have a French language one), a biopic (Paul Reiser would be the perfect actor to play him, though a younger unknown actor would be more likely), and perhaps even a Broadway show based on his music (as have been done with Billy Joel's, Abba's, and Frankie Valli's music).

Most of all, though, I'm just extremely grateful that Johnny Clegg made music his life's work (he was an anthropology professor when he formed Juluka in the 1970s). His music, above all others, has made a HUGE impact on my life. In fact, I could not imagine what my life would have been like without his music in my life. And it all started 22 years ago when I took a "risk" and bought Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World. Needless to say, I did not return to the store to ask for a refund! Happy 59th birthday, Johnny!!


104kesh said...

I am with you. Been moved by this man since I was 10 years old, when my dad was friends with HIlton Rosenthal's cousin who had brought LPs home from a visit to South Africa.

104kesh said...

I am with you. Been moved by this man since I was 10 years old, when my dad was friends with HIlton Rosenthal's cousin who had brought LPs home from a visit to South Africa.