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.