Empowered by Song
Johnny Clegg's lyrics grow more personal, less political
BOSTON — JOHNNY CLEGG is expanding his writing palette. The British-born South African musician-songwriter and his band Savuka have recently released a fourth album, "Heat, Dust and Dreams."
Ever interested in crossing musical boundaries, Clegg describes the recording as a "Zulu-English-Celtic-Rock mixture." It's no wonder his wife calls him "e-Clegg-tic."
Musically, the record is more guitar-oriented than the group's previous albums, which relied on keyboard. But the most noticeable change is in lyric content. Mr. Clegg, who has traditionally used songs as an opportunity for political comment - specifically against Apartheid - has decided to broaden and personalize his subject matter. He still incorporates Zulu into his lyrics, but the fact that three songs on the current album have nothing to do with South Africa is significant, Clegg acknowledged during
a phone interview from New York.
"My politics have moved away from the huge historical, social, and political currents to more personal politics in which the bigger questions are also framed," Clegg says. " `Heat, Dust and Dreams' is about change, essentially."
His songwriting is less about political issues, such as detention without trial or Nelson Mandela and the right of blacks to vote, than it is about "the political to the personal or the political in the personal," he says.
"I believe in empowerment, in people, in individuals," Clegg continues. "I think that's the most powerful kind of political engagement, but it has nothing to do with politics per se. It's got to do with giving people a sense of confidence in who and what they are. And that often comes from letting them know that their confusion is not abnormal - that most people go through their lives with a very deep-down questioning of who they are, where they're going, what the purpose of all their life is and will be
or has been."
Many people are afraid to face that, Clegg reckons, and that's where songwriting comes in. "When you write songs at this level and you say, `This kind of confusion is cool, it's not a problem, we all go through it,' it gives people a release."
Clegg has long been known as a musician who successfully knits traditional African music and Western pop. (The group has a huge following in France.) Long before Paul Simon came out with "Graceland," Clegg was nurturing a musical style some would call "world beat," a label Clegg shuns.
Clegg says he takes everything one album at a time. He refuses to be restricted to any linear direction, but rather finds himself naturally "scuttling around."
"I think maybe it's possible to go sort of sideways.... I don't think you need to have to evolve in a linear direction. I come from Africa, you see, so we believe in the eternal return; everything works in cycles...."
Clegg's band comes from different races and varying backgrounds - jazz-fusion, rock, township music, funk, traditional music. The name Savuka is Zulu for "We have arisen."
Commenting on South Africa's politics, Clegg says he is generally optimistic about the future. "If you compare [South Africa] to Russia, Afghanistan, or the former Yugoslavia, you'll note that South Africa has a deal, where none of these countries have a deal," he says, citing elections next year. "Some form of new government, a new kind of legitimacy will come out of it.... I'm hoping to see this thing through all the way."
As for his personal agenda, he plans to continue making music. "As long as I am still genuinely reflecting and genuinely expressing myself in this way - getting in touch with who I am, who other people are, and how I relate to them and what my mission in this life is - I think I'll keep on writing and recording."