One wet summer night in 1990, my brother and I went to see a concert at the Jones Beach Amphitheater on Long Island, just east of New York City. Tracy Chapman headlined the show, but we actually went to see the opening act, Johnny Clegg & Savuka. Johnny Clegg had first come to prominence in his home country of South Africa as the white half of the legendary musical duo Juluka, who boldly broke down their country’s social and cultural barriers with their eclectic, multilingual music. As a white man singing songs in English and Zulu, playing Zulu-style guitar, and performing Zulu dances on stage, Clegg proved to be a particularly striking and controversial figure. His partner Sipho Mchunu retired in 1985, but Clegg carried on with a new backing band called Savuka and reached out to international audiences. At the time of the concert at Jones Beach, I had been very impressed with the three Johnny Clegg & Savuka CD’s and the only Juluka CD I could find. Nothing on disc prepared me for what I witnessed that night, however. For forty-five minutes, Clegg whirled and spun across the stage like the Tasmanian Devil while Savuka crunched out one infectious groove after another. Percussionist Dudu Zulu came out and joined Clegg on a series of frenetic Zulu war dances. The staid folkies who had come to see Tracy Chapman did not know what hit them at first, but their reaction steadily segued from stunned to intrigued to delighted to ecstatic. Within fifteen minutes, all the aisles were filled with dancers, and the party did not stop for the rest of the set. I’d never seen the opening act get called out for an encore before that night, and I haven’t since, either.
Sadly, the ensuing years have not been so kind to the members of Savuka. Dudu Zulu was murdered in 1992, a victim of the escalation in violence during the death throes of apartheid, and Savuka dissolved after one more album. Bassist Solly Letwaba and backing singer Mandisa Dlanga continued to perform with Clegg, but Letwaba was felled by tuberculosis in 2000. While Clegg did temporarily reunite with Sipho Mchunu for a new Juluka album and a couple of tours, he has spent the last five years performing as a solo artist. This past year, he decided that the time was right to release a DVD consisting of concert footage and music videos spanning his entire career. The first half of the DVD captures Johnny Clegg & Savuka in their prime, at a concert in Paris in 1990. The remainder of the DVD consists of videos from both the Savuka and Juluka eras, some brief concert footage of Juluka, a pair of songs from post-Savuka live performances, and a brief interview from the late eighties where Clegg explains his musical history.
The Paris concert in 1990 featured the definitive Savuka line-up, consisting of Clegg on guitar, concertina, and vocals; Dudu Zulu on percussion and dancing; Mandisa Dlanga on backing vocals; Solly Letwaba on bass; Keith Hutchinson on keyboards and saxophone; Steve Mavuso on keyboards; and Derek DeBeer on drums. While Clegg has never been more than a well-kept secret in America, he was, and still is, quite popular throughout Europe, especially in France. As a result, Clegg could afford to put on bigger shows in France than he could in some other places, and the Paris show included an extra percussionist, a trumpet player, and three additional Zulu dancers. Of these, only the dancers significantly affected the performance. Watching the show brought back many fond memories, even if a DVD cannot quite do justice to what I experienced in person. Aside from a couple of brief introductions to his songs, Clegg never stopped moving. He and Savuka rattled off one great song from their repertoire after another. Whether dancing or playing percussion, Dudu Zulu kept a boyish grin on his face the entire evening. His joyous enthusiasm ignited both the band and the audience, providing an element to the performance that was both vital and, in hindsight, irreplaceable. The extra dancers elevated the acrobatics well beyond the already high level of a typical Savuka concert. Just like that night at the beach in 1990, I was left wanting more.
Predictably, the music videos could not match the enjoyability of the live footage. For one thing, Clegg clearly had a limited budget to work with on the videos. More significantly, though, most of the videos tended to take Clegg out of his element. “Great Heart” and “I Call Your Name” feature the band in performance and work really well, but the rest of the videos from the Savuka era feature only Clegg, often seated, and make half-hearted attempts to be conceptual. After the Savuka clips comes an acoustic live performance of “Giyani” from Thailand in 2001, featuring most of Clegg’s current backing band. The performance is solid, if not quite at the intensity level of a decade before. Four videos from the Juluka era follow this performance. These suffer from even greater budgetary limitations than the Savuka videos, but still manage to obtain a certain campy charm. The Juluka videos are followed by two songs taken from a Juluka concert in Cape Town in 1983. The recording is a bit grainy, but the footage is still priceless. This DVD would have been much better served with a full hour of a Juluka concert in place of most of the videos, even if the quality of the recording was subpar.
These two songs are followed by a live performance of the song “Asimbonanga” in Frankfurt in 1999. “Asimbonanga” was written by Clegg in 1987 primarily for Nelson Mandela, but also for those who died in the struggle against apartheid. Its Zulu chorus translates as “We have not seen him, we have not seen Mandela, in the place where he is kept.” On one occasion, the South African police stormed the stage and terminated a concert when Clegg and Savuka tried to perform this song. It must have been enormously gratifying for Clegg, then, to have Nelson Mandela come on stage during this Frankfurt performance and exhort the audience to get up and dance. After this comes another live dancing piece involving Johnny Clegg and Dudu Zulu, this time from a Juluka concert near the end of that band’s existence. The DVD then concludes with Clegg describing his discovery of Zulu music, his history with Juluka, and his need to continue with a more updated and expansive sound in Savuka. This is an excellent and informative clip, although it might have worked better as an introduction to the DVD rather than a conclusion.
As good as the concert performance on this DVD is, and as good as the live concert I saw from Clegg’s recent American tour was, those shows are forced to compete with the memory of a night whose legend grows with each retelling. Somehow, I get the feeling that anybody who caught Johnny Clegg & Savuka during 1990, when they were quite likely the best live act on the planet, will respond to this DVD similarly. They will still greatly appreciate the reminder of what it was like, though. Any new fans of Johnny Clegg’s music will likewise want some idea of what they missed, and this disc will provide that for them. The DVD also provides an acceptable introduction for people not familiar with Johnny Clegg, too. Perhaps somebody is putting this DVD on for a group of people with no idea what to expect, even as I write this. They won’t be sitting down for long.
(Red Distribution, 2004)