Published Jul 16, 2019Johnny Clegg — a Grammy-nominated South African songwriter and anthropologist best recognized for his work with bands Juluka and Savuka — has died. Clegg's manager, Roddy Quin, confirmed the artist passed at his family home in Johannesburg today after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Clegg was 66.
"He showed us what it was to assimilate to and embrace other cultures without losing your identity," Quin wrote. "An anthropologist that used his music to speak to every person. With his unique style of music he traversed cultural barriers like few others. In many of us he awakened awareness."
Born in Lancashire, England, in 1953, Clegg moved to Johannesburg with his mother when he was six years old. As a teenager living in the city's northern suburbs, he was exposed to the music and dance culture of Zulu migrant workers and was soon taught the Zulu language, Maskandi guitar technique and traditional isishameni dance by street musician Charlie Mzila.
"I stumbled on Zulu street guitar music being performed by Zulu migrant workers, traditional tribesmen from the rural areas," Clegg told NPR in 2017. "They had taken a Western instrument that had been developed over six, seven hundred years, and reconceptualized the tuning. They changed the strings around, they developed new styles of picking, they only use the first five frets of the guitar — they developed a totally unique genre of guitar music, indigenous to South Africa. I found it quite emancipating."
Clegg's partnership with Mzila and other black musicians often led to him being arrested in violation of the South African government's apartheid-era Group Areas Act, which segregated people of different races outside of curfew hours. The censorship of the time also restricted where Clegg and his collaborators could perform, with authorities also taking issues with his lyrical work.
Clegg formed Juluka as a duo in 1969 with Sipho Mchunu. Clegg reflected in a 1996 interview that it was "impossible" to perform in public under apartheid-era rule. Despite continued harassment and censorship from the government and national broadcasters, the duo found an international audience for their blend of Zulu, pop and South African mbaqanga music, with lyrics sung in both English and Zulu language.
"We couldn't play in public," Clegg recalled to NPR, "so we played in private venues, schools, churches, university private halls. We played a lot of embassies. We played a lot of consulates."
Following the release of their debut 1976 single "Woza Friday," Juluka became a six-member group ahead of releasing debut album Universal Men in 1979. The group's 1982 song "Scatterlings of Africa," one of the best-known entries in Clegg's catalogue, found chart success in the U.K. and went on to appear in Barry Levinson's 1988 film Rain Man. Juluka would release six more full-length efforts between 1981 and 1984, before disbanding in 1985 after Mchunu's departure.
Clegg continued to blend African and European music with new band Savuka, which he formed alongside Juluka bandmate Dudu Zulu. In addition to Zulu music, the band also drew on Celtic, rock and electronic music. The group's 1987 album Third World Child sold over one million copies internationally.
The outfit disbanded in 1993 following the assassination of Dudu Zulu, and they released final album Heat, Dust and Dreams that same year. The album received a Grammy Award nomination for Best World Music Album in 1994.
Clegg and Mchunu reunited as Juluka in the mid-'90s to tour and release final album Crocodile Love in 1997. He released four solo albums under his own name from 2002 through 2017, the most recent being 2017's King of Time.
Clegg was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French government in 1991, South Africa's Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) in 2012, and was named an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2015.
Clegg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015. He performed his final tour of North America, billed as "The Final Journey," in 2017.