Johnny Clegg and the Story of My Great Shame

Apartheid-Era South African Rock Star Comes to Town

Johnny Clegg and the Story of My Great Shame

Robert Oettle

JOHNNY CLEGG At one point, he was as popular in France as Michael Jackson.

I must begin this article about the South African rock legend Johnny Clegg by making a confession. This is something that has been on my chest for a quarter of a century. Indeed, there is not a month that passes without the memory of this bad, awful, shameful, disgraceful, dishonest thing I did resurfacing and weighing on me. It will follow me to the grave. But at least you, dear reader, will know exactly what this dishonorable guest is taking to the earth, exactly what is being covered when the gravediggers throw dirt on my coffin. And all of this has to do with Johnny Clegg.

The time: 1989. The place: a cafe in the University District (Espresso Roma, now Cafe on the Ave). The situation: I'm trying to seduce a young woman. She, like many Americans, has only a vague idea of Africa and no idea of Zimbabwe (the country of my birth). I have just settled in the country as a foreign student; she is from Walla Walla, Washington. When she is not talking about apples, she is talking about her father. When she is not talking about her father, she is talking about a trip she took to Mexico after graduating from high school. At one point in the conversation, she asks, "What kind of music do they listen to in Africa?" Instead of telling her that they listen to lots of different kinds of music in Africa, and that I'm from a very small and by no means representative part of the continent, I come up with a brilliant idea. In my backpack is a Walkman. And in this Walkman is a tape that contains a tune: "Fever" by Juluka.

Juluka was a band that Johnny Clegg, a white anthropologist, formed with a black gardener, Sipho Mchunu, back in the early 1970s. The group blended American rock with South Africa's brand of Afropop. Juluka was a multiracial band at a time when no one in South Africa could realistically see the end of apartheid—a system that officially segregated blacks, whites, Asians, and mixed people (known as coloreds). It was just fucking bold to burst onto this scene with a band that flaunted the unity of blacks and whites, of rock and African music. Also, Johnny Clegg often sang in Zulu. To not be impressed by this fact is to not know why, at this time, a white man singing in an African language was revolutionary. Whites spoke only their languages, and blacks had to speak their own languages and white languages. A white person could easily spend his or her whole life in South Africa without learning one of the prominent black African languages. Clegg, a white man, completely broke with this rigid custom and brazenly sang in Zulu, "Woza Friday," the group's first hit: "Webaba kunzima kulomhlaba/Webaba lomsebenzi uvukile/Webaba nemali ayingeni/ Engathi leliviki lingaphela/Ngithi woza, woza Friday, my darling."

Translation: "Oh father, it is difficult upon this earth/Oh father, this work has awoken/Oh father, the money is not coming in/It is as if this week could end/I say come, come Friday, my darling."

Juluka went on to become one of the biggest bands in the history of South African pop. In 1982, they released Scatterlings, which contained the hit "Scatterlings of Africa," the video of which featured Mchunu and Clegg doing Zulu war dances (or at least what looked to me like war dances). Clubs swinging through the air, bare feet slamming and smashing the dry earth, dust rising into the copper sun—Clegg became known in Europe as Le Zoulou Blanc (The White Zulu). Then something unexpected happened: Mchunu left the band for apparently no good reason. (It is said that his father ordered him to return to the family's farm to raise cattle, and he did as he was told—he left rock fame for the cows.) Clegg then began a new path with a band called Savuka, which had even greater commercial and international success than Juluka. At one point, Clegg was as popular in France as Michael Jackson, packed stadiums across the world, and sold loads and loads of albums. The music of Juluka is, in my opinion, better than that of Savuka, although many of the themes and song structures that brought Savuka success on the global market are present in Juluka's albums.

One such tune is "Fever," which is on Juluka's sixth album, The International Tracks, and was on a tape in the Walkman I pulled out of my backpack at Espresso Roma. The Walla Walla girl watched me as I searched for the track on the TDK cassette. I loved "Fever" and rated it as one of the great pop songs about the city—along with Glenn Frey's "You Belong to the City," the Eurythmics' "This City Never Sleeps," Prince's "Erotic City." I particularly loved these lines: "Walking through the night street/In the cool of the evening/I can feel my body heat/Moon rise to meet me/The night is a promise/I feel it to the core..."

The young woman was thrilled to finally hear a real African song. I tried to cool her excitement by explaining that it was not really African, but a blend, and so would function as a great introduction. She put the headphones on. I pressed play. As she listened, the smile on her face grew and grew. And here is where things went terribly wrong. She said to me: "I love the lyrics—very beautiful lyrics." And I said: "I wrote them." I have no idea why I said that lie. It amazed even me. And she believed me, and before I could take the damn stupid and fucking embarrassing lie back, it was far out of the gate. She wanted to know more about my lyrics writing, about how I became so good at it, about how she could become good at it, and so on. I couldn't stop her new interest in my imaginary songwriting abilities. Even to this day, I can't stop her asking me these questions. But she is now a ghost and can't hear me when I say: "I never wrote that damn tune. I was just lying. Please listen to me. Please. I deceived you." But my words are not received by the ghost in my head. She just keeps saying: "It must feel good to have so much talent. You must teach me how to write like you. When did you know you were going to become a writer? Very early is my guess."

This is my curse, my shame. Johnny Clegg wrote that song, not me. I have never even met him in person. I'm sorry I lied to you, Miss Walla Walla, Washington. recommended


Comments (26) RSS

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Godzilla1916 1
Time to forgive yourself Mr. Mudede, the cat is out of the bag and it's safe to eat apples again.
Posted by Godzilla1916 on April 23, 2014 at 10:53 AM · Report this
I think the things Charles actually writes today, with his twisted syntax, imperative phrasings of a sadistic gym teacher, and non-sequitars, are a much bigger sin against humanity than pretending to have written something that a human being can actually understand.

If only all the things he DOES write were this clear, to the point, and free of watered down third hand philosophy...
Posted by CATSPAW666 on April 23, 2014 at 12:37 PM · Report this
That's your deep, dark secret? Surely there is something deeper and darker that nags at your conscience every month if that is your story.
Posted by controlZED on April 23, 2014 at 12:39 PM · Report this
I've got my own collection of moments that lunge up, unbidden, to ice my spine yet again after all these years.

But nothing quite so mortifying as that. You have my sympathies.
Posted by Alden on April 23, 2014 at 12:45 PM · Report this
lark 5
That's pretty funny. A tall tale all right. Hey, at least you tried.
Posted by lark on April 23, 2014 at 12:47 PM · Report this
motofly 6
i once claimed to have written and recorded the guitar tracks to Communications Breakdown which was playing on the rekkid player at the time. I was a partly and said it while talking to a girl nearly 30 years ago. I meant it ironically; a wise ass over the top remark of deluded grandeur as a joke/obvious lie. Turns out that while she looked American, sounded American, even acted American, she was, in fact, raised by her parent missionaries in French speaking Africa and had never even heard of Led Zeppelin. Or the Brady Bunch. Or Mr. Bubbles or Gignator, or "Ancient Chinese Secret" or any other cultural reference. By the time I realized she actually believed me it was too late. I was too far in with my charade. Way too deep to back out gracefully. So I doubled down and claimed to have written the screen play for Liquid Sky. And was working on my novel.

For some reason I'll just be sitting there minding my own business when all the sudden this whole thing just pops right into my head making me realize I'm just a bunch smoke be blown up someone's ass.
Posted by motofly on April 23, 2014 at 12:52 PM · Report this
Great story Charles!
Posted by gnossos on April 23, 2014 at 12:53 PM · Report this
Thanks for the story Charles. I just checked out some of he and his band's tunes on YouTube. Great stuff! Another new world to explore. Thanks.
Posted by cracked on April 23, 2014 at 1:01 PM · Report this
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hermann_hermann 10
Great story! Hopefully it will comprise a chapter of Mr. Mudede's forthcoming memoir "Bhaibhai to All That."
Posted by hermann_hermann on April 23, 2014 at 1:52 PM · Report this
Dougsf 11
If it makes you feel any better, she maybe just liked you and was merely humoring your claim. Maybe.

I mean, is a simple liar worse than someone that actually makes new acquaintances listen to their own band? I'm on the fence.
Posted by Dougsf on April 23, 2014 at 1:53 PM · Report this
kid icarus 12
I love this story.
Posted by kid icarus on April 23, 2014 at 2:21 PM · Report this
Sean Jewell 13
Bravo! Haha. Good story.
Posted by Sean Jewell http:// on April 23, 2014 at 2:56 PM · Report this
They grow wheat, asparagus, and onions in Walla Walla. So you knew (and perhaps still don't, in the poetic retelling) just as little about her home as she knew about yours.
Posted by JAT on April 23, 2014 at 3:15 PM · Report this
tabletop_joe 15

Do you like apples? How about them apples?
Posted by tabletop_joe on April 23, 2014 at 4:05 PM · Report this
merry 16

Did it work?
Posted by merry on April 23, 2014 at 4:10 PM · Report this
don't feel bad charles. i have a friend who back in the days of apartheid, when i was listening to johnny clegg and savuka heard the names nelson mandela and steven biko whispered in a song and said "it's so cool how he lets his back up singers say their names in his song!" now SHE has something to be ashamed of for a lifetime, you were just trying to get laid. and seattle 89 was a tough room for getting laid. forgive yourself. :)
Posted by flequus on April 23, 2014 at 4:48 PM · Report this
You may not have written Clegg's lyrics, Charles, but you have written a great many wonderful SLOG posts. This is one.
Posted by Eric from Boulder on April 23, 2014 at 5:40 PM · Report this
Fantastic music recommendation. I hope you consider yourself redeemed.
Posted by ntk on April 23, 2014 at 8:40 PM · Report this
"I have no idea why I said that lie. "

Oh, come now Mr. Mudede -- really? I think we all know what the goal of this impressive little fib was. Did it work?
Posted by ctmcmull on April 25, 2014 at 8:54 AM · Report this
Charles Mudede 21
@20, no, it did not. i'm actually happy to say that it failed.
Posted by Charles Mudede on April 25, 2014 at 11:00 AM · Report this
So ... did you fuck her?
Posted by haroldlamont on April 25, 2014 at 11:08 AM · Report this
Reading comprehension. He just said above that it didn't.
Posted by LMNOP on April 25, 2014 at 11:04 PM · Report this
Ahoy Charles!
I have an idea! Why don't you write lyrics for a song! I will write the music. Seriously. That would be fun.
Jherek Bischoff
Posted by Jherek Bischoff on April 28, 2014 at 4:22 PM · Report this
@2. To each his or her own. Mr Mudede's writing style is for me a pleasure to read and keeps me coming back to The Stranger.
Posted by RedEye on April 29, 2014 at 12:19 PM · Report this
Showed this to my wife and we agree: this is a great piece of writing.
Posted by ww on May 3, 2014 at 10:58 AM · Report this

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