CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — WITH the mercury pushing 100 degrees last Friday night, some 1,200 fans packed Sanders Theater to hear South African rocker Johnny Clegg and his band, Savuka, touring to promote their new album, "Heat, Dust & Dreams."
Clegg's following has developed more slowly in the United States than in South Africa and Europe, but he was no stranger to this crowd: They were on their feet applauding when the apartheid foe and one-time anthropology lecturer appeared.
The song "Great Heart," from Clegg and Savuka's 1987 debut album, "Third World Child," opened the two-hour, sold-out show that the white singer-songwriter pronounced would be a mixture of oldies and new material from the group's fourth album.
Known for his blending of African rhythms and Western rock, Clegg leans toward the latter on his current album, still writing in Zulu and English, but addressing the struggle of the individual more than the broader political issues of his previous albums. (An interview with Clegg was published in the July 9 Monitor.)
Clad in black and white, Clegg sang, played the guitar and the accordion-like concertina, and danced enthusiastically despite the heat. His singing is often compared to that of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, but his stage presence is all his own.
He moved fluidly from one song to the next, pausing to provide background on certain songs. Mid-set, Clegg played "The Crossing," from the current album. The melodic song was written as a dedication to Savuka's late percussionist, Dudu Zulu, who was killed in South Africa last year while trying to mediate a dispute, Clegg explained.
He brought up the tempo with "Tough Enough" - also from "Heat, Dust & Dreams" - whose memorable Zulu chant, "Lomhlaba unzima, lomhlaba [This world is a harsh place, this world]," was balanced by the hopeful English chorus, "Gonna make it through, I can feel it."
During "In My African Dream," the audience saw a sample of the Zulu dancing that Clegg has been perfecting since his childhood. Clegg's solo dancing, while energetic, seemed less enthralling without Dudu Zulu, whose lengthy, on-stage dances with Clegg were the highlight of past tours.
Audience reaction was immediate to "Scatterlings of Africa," from the album "Third World Child," because of its familiarity from the soundtrack of the hit movie "Rain Man." "Scatterlings" was originally performed by Clegg's previous band Juluka - South Africa's first band with both black and white members. When that group broke up in 1985, Clegg and others formed Savuka (Zulu for "We have arisen"). It was the title track from the popular third album, "Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World," that ultimately broug ht the entire audience to its feet. They danced to the words Clegg wrote for his infant son, and then remained standing for the final number of the set, "One (Hu)'Man, One Vote." Banned in South Africa when it was released with the third album in 1990, the song notes the importance of the multiracial elections scheduled for that country next spring: "On a visible but distant shore/A new image of man/The shape of his own future/Now in his own hands."
Clegg and the six members of Savuka delivered solid performances during the 13-song set and double encore. Dancer and back-up singer Mandisa Dlanga often stole the show with her facial expressions, and bassist Solly Letwaba's even playing was eclipsed only by his constant smile.
The group is touring the US and Canada through August.