Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
He’s a superstar in his South African homeland, but Johnny Clegg – also known as the White Zulu – had his biggest American success nearly a quarter century ago with his band Savuka and their album Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World. And the last time that he made a tour-stop in Nipperland was way back in 1990 when Savuka shared the stage with Tracy Chapman for a double-bill at SPAC.
But his music – which seamlessly blends South African township and more traditional Zulu folk music with a wide range of urban, contemporary pop styles – remains as delightfully infectious as ever. And at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall last weekend, the sheer joy that poured from the stage during his performance was undeniably contagious.
By the time he picked up his concertina to launch into the second song of the concert, a handful of audience members had already begun dancing at the front of the stage. And while the Music Hall is one of the least get-up-and-dance-friendly venues around town, the entire audience was on its feet during Clegg’s finale back-to-back volley of “Scatterlings of Africa” and “Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World.”
“Please don’t let the drums stop beating,” he sang during the opening “Heart of the Dancer,” and drummer Barry Van Zyk obliged, keeping the groove going throughout the more-than-two-hour concert. Of course, he had plenty of help from the rest of the band, too, including guitarist Andy Innes, bassist Trevor Donjeany, keyboardist-saxman Brendan Ross and vocalist-dancer Mandisa Dlanga.
As the co-founder of Jaluka, South Africa’s first racially integrated band, Clegg and his music are still intimately tied in with the tumultuous history and politics of his homeland, and his anti-apartheid anthems remain potent and necessary pleas for unity, community and cultural tolerance.
And when he finally wrapped up the night with encores of “Asimbonanga” – a solemn but soaring tribute to the late Nelson Mandela – and “Dela,” the crowd was singing along, too.
Clegg’s son, Jesse Clegg, opened the night accompanied by Innes, rolling through a short acoustic set of alt-pop, highlighted by the Crowded House-ish “Heartbreak Street” and the funk ‘n’ falsetto-fueled “Clarity.”
JOHNNY CLEGG SET LIST
Heart of the Dancer
I Call Your Name
Take My Heart Away
Bullets for Bafazane
Africa (What Made You So Strong)
Digging for Some Words
Circle of Light
(Zulu warrior dance demo)
The Crossing (Osiyeza)
Scatterlings of Africa
Cruel Crazy Beautiful World