Bookend Fandom: A Letter of Gratitude to Johnny Clegg

Photo by David Govoni

It was Scatterlings that hooked me.

I was in first year university at the U of T Scarborough campus, moving from one class to another, when I first heard the unmistakable joyful beat of a Johnny Clegg song, this one from his first group Juluka. Fairly soon after that, I bought the album.

Campus radio was a great place to get exposed to all kinds of different music and it introduced me to what became known as World Music, one of my favourite genres. It tapped me into a music scene I’d otherwise not be aware of and I’m pretty sure this was also where I heard about Juluka coming to Toronto. I promptly got tickets to that concert at Massey Hall.

It was also the first time I asked a boy out. The date part was decidedly uninspired, but the music lit a fire in me. That evening in 1983 was the start of a (so far) 34 year love affair with Johnny Clegg’s music.

It started with Juluka — I have all their albums, even the very early ones that are hard to find — then moved on to his next band Johnny Clegg and Savuka. After that there was Johnny Clegg and Juluka, and then came his solo career. His last album King of Time comes out this Friday and you bet I’ve pre-ordered it.

All these years later, I know the words to many of the songs and that includes the Zulu words. Well, that is, not the click. I can’t do the click. In my next life I’m doing immersion learning in South Africa.

And I’m not the only one. Last week, I went to Johnny Clegg’s Toronto stop on The Final Journey tour. It was a fantastic evening of revisiting old favourites and hearing stories from a career that has spanned four decades. His son Jesse opened and joined Johnny on a few songs, as well. Listening to Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World, written for Jesse when he was a baby had an extra poignancy. And listening to the two of them doing a duet on a song that they co-wrote closed the circle with so much love.

And that was what this event was. It was an evening of love and gratitude from the fans to Johnny, and from Johnny to his fans. He mentioned that Toronto had a special place in his heart, that the city has given him a lot of support ever since that first concert in 1983.

I didn’t know the concert at Massey Hall was the first time he played in Toronto. Realizing that I was there at the beginning and there at his final tour was really special — knowing that I’d been part of these bookend experiences to an incredible life and career in music emphasized how much that career and that music have been a soundtrack to my life.

The music reflects the man. It’s passionate, joyful, political, meaningful, thoughtful, and it has the kind of beat that means you can’t sit still. Last Wednesday, I went into the concert with my neck seized up in pain, the muscles as stiff as a board. After (chair) dancing for close to three hours, the pain was gone and my neck could move again. That’s what this music does. It gets you moving, and singing ,connecting to the joy that is within you and in this world.

And it heals. Juluka was the first interracial band during the time of apartheid, at a time when that was illegal. The music couldn’t be played in South Africa, but the rest of the world loved it. Songs such as Asimbonanga brought attention to what happened under apartheid, and were part of what brought it down.

Thank you, Johnny. You have given me so much over the past 34 years (including now an introduction to your son's excellent music). Your albums will continue to make me sing and dance and connect to the world. I look forward to reading more of your stories when your memoir comes out. Be well. 


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