Friday, July 07, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 017: Juluka: Musa Ukungilandela

Johnny Clegg, a London-born Jewish boy raised by a single mother, met Zulu guitarist Sipho Mchunu on the street in South Africa in 1969, when he was 16 and Sipho was 18. Sipho had come to Johannesburg from his tribal homelands to find work, and John was casting around for a path toward manhood. John was already aware of the fantastic Zulu syncretic music and dance styles pioneered by street musicians, including the magnificent guitar styles called variously ukupika and izihlabo (the guitar, tin whistle, and concertina had all come to play an important role in South African music after having been introduced by Christian missionaries in the colonial era). Zulu culture across ethnic groups was marked by powerful roles for music, story and dance, usually divided into different idioms along strict gender lines. Various forms of men’s dance and stick-fighting were learned and performed as rites of passage, and they were profoundly attractive to a fish-out-of-water lonely kid.

Sipho taught Johnny guitar and dancing and they began performing together, at a time and place (apartheid-era South Africa) in which there were severe potential penalties if the two races simply listened to, much less played, music together. Along with other apartheid-era musicians like Mzwake Mbule and Dudu Pukwana, Johnny and Sipho (first as a duo and later as a band, Juluka) specialized in hit-and-run concerts, playing for small mixed audiences and vanishing before the security forces could intervene. Throughout the 80s Juluka toured the world, and it’s a tragic irony that, in the post-apartheid era, various intolerant, ill-informed, and cowardly musicians tried to argue that Clegg and Mchunu must have “sold out”, simply because they had had the temerity to perform under apartheid (an old friend from Bloomington, a classical flutist who also speaks and performs in two different Zulu traditions, couldn’t get an orchestra gig in South Africa for the same reasons). But Johnny and Sipho have all the beatings, arrests, and persecution on their resume to permit them to ignore these amnesiac, classless assholes. Eventually, Sipho’s father died and he went back to the tribal homelands to inherit, while Johnny continued with a new band, Savuka—though he and Sipho occasionally still re-unite for concerts.

And the music is just fantastic. Zulu choral singing features deep-voiced male choirs singing modal parts in 4ths and 5ths—a raw, beautiful approach that sounds like Western plainchant sung over African grooves (Nans ‘Impi), beautiful call-and-response vocals over izhilabo guitar (Zodwa), and the fantastic tuneful bass lines adapted from mbaqanga (Izinhlobo Nezinhlobo Zabantu). And this doesn’t even address the staggering power of the singing, playing and dancing in the group’s live shows. Though this disc is something of a swan song for Juluka (1984), before Sipho’s departure and John’s foundation (with the same players) of the more pop/rock-oriented Savuka, it’s a beautiful, thoughtful, and mature record.

We used to play some of these tunes in the horn band in Bloomington. And I had the great good fortune to be playing them, live on stage, on the night that Nelson Mandela walked out of prison. What a privilege that was.

Bonus tracks: from 1999’s Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World with Savuka: the lovely, heartfelt and tuneful love song Dela, and the titanic Warsaw 1943, based on the poetry and essays of Warsaw-Uprising poet Czeslaw Milosz: a song which finds its way, with great insight, simplicity, and compassion into the heart of a frightened revolutionary who has informed on his friends:

I never betrayed you, and I never betrayed the revolution
I just didn't want to die alone, I needed you to see me home
And if I could save you, and if I could find a solution
I would die a thousand times, to get you out of here

Sharing the same cold cell
Betrayer and betrayed
An island with two frightened castaways
Not a word is spoken,
How can he explain?
Through swollen eyes they watch the dawn's first rays
It's all over now
They stand backs to the wall
Waiting for the fascist's sword to fall
In the desperation of a young life about to end
He turns before the bullet
And forgives a friend

That is the same forgiveness that let Nelson Mandela walk out of solitary confinement after 27 years and find a way to “peace and reconciliation” for his damaged country. Few American musicians, NO American politician I can think of, has ever displayed as much moral courage.

[Unsurprising sordid trivia: as a US Congressman, Dick Cheney voted against a congressional resolution calling for Mandela's release. The Dick has been true to the most contemptible, selfish priorities for his entirely-too-long public career. What a sorry excuse for an inadequate human being.]

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