Johnny Clegg is celebrating 30 years as a musician this year! Which means he started out in 1980, and it is plain to me that this was clearly the best year ever, and all good things came from this year. Like me. Also, R.E.M. formed as a band in 1980, and they are the best band ever. As to 1980 giving birth to a rather dubious decade, in my defense if you are being factually accurate, the 80’s only started in 1981. So there.

To celebrate 30 years of this South African icon, and I think, hero, here is a post that I wrote some years ago, heavily re-edited.


I have noticed this thing about pale Saffas of a certain age, no matter which country they are in throughout the world.

If they are at a braai, a wedding, whatever, they always play Mandoza’s Nkalakatha. Come on, you know what I am talking about, that song from way back in 2000. Now I am sure people of other-hued persuasions are saying Whaat? That song is soo last Century. They would be right (think about it).

Also, have you noticed that when we play it, we automatically break out into a puzzling motion that can only be described as: Squish la cucaracha. As you know, la cucaracha never dies at first stomp (especially not those Durban muthas), and so must be squished a-gain and a-gain. One foot only. I am not sure this could be termed a dance as such, but whiteys can’t dance anyway, so don‘t laugh.

I know about all this because I have done it myself.

Speaking of the strange habits of the lesser spotted Saffa, there is a trend amongst pale Saffas that the further you get from SA shores, the more you suddenly start to appreciate the genius that is Johnny Clegg.

I noticed this when I first came to the UK. At that time I don’t think I had ever listened to Johnny Clegg in my life. His music was just there, in the zeitgeist. At first I thought it was pretty weird and uncool, all these expats rocking out to some old eighties music with guys doing the can-can. Then I started to enjoy it. Now I totally LOVE Johnny Clegg. Those husky Zulu voices give me goosebumps. And yes there is a dance that goes with this music too, think impis, think HUGE stomp on la cucaracha.

Don’t even get me started on when they bring out the Mango Groove CDs, and dance, dance, dance, dance, some more.

I know that my affinity to the legend that is Johnny Clegg marks me out as the truly stereotypical white South African expat who pines for Ouma rusks and the “when we” days, but would it help my street cred at all if I said I also have Zola on my ipod? Or is that also a telltale sign of the Whitey in Blighty?

Oh shit, does this video not make you want to bawl? It does me. Maybe that is another tell tale sign of the cowpat I mean expat.

I have weird memories related to this song because in Grade 9 we had to do an interpretive dance in our Drama class to this song. I had no idea what it meant back then, and nor did I care. All I remember is that we got taught some Indian dance moves for the chorus (quoi? I assume it was to make a truly rainbow nation dance) and that we had to make up the rest, and we had to use colourful scarves in a kind of rhythmic gymnastics way.

Bizarre I know, but I can’t help loving this song, both for the weird visuals of school girls leaping around and making Indian head movements, and also because of the fact that it was written in 1986, at a time when no one knew if Nelson Mandela would ever walk free, and if an entire generation of people would ever “see him.” Well, simbonile. We have seen him now. Beautiful song.


15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. tiah
    Nov 07, 2010 @ 17:11:47

    There was an op/ed piece on the M&G awhile back about the ‘white liberal.’ It set off this whole debate about listening to Jonny Clegg (?). I had no idea what the fuss was about. Now that I’ve clicked the Youtube link I realise I have heard them before. *Don’t mind me, living in my own little cave*


  2. Paula
    Nov 07, 2010 @ 18:06:16

    You know Johnnny Clegg speaks better Zulu (accent et al than I)… peg it to growing up post apartheid. LOL
    Nkalakata is a song no one I know admits to knowing… and yet weirdly the “paler persuasion” all have it amongst their phone ring tones. I don’t ask questions.
    This post is the first time I’ve listened to Johnny Clegg, despite the DVD that my parents bought a few months ago and played on repeat. It’s just Nelson Mandela is my hero. And the weird thing is I only honestly started to appreciate what he did last year and now as I am growing. The even weirder bit is that when I watched this video I realised that I had once sung that song. Well the begining. It’s so weird like a lot of songs I used to just sing with out knowing what they meant are starting to twig on now. What a triumph- like the sadness of the song is like… taken away by the grey haired beauty that is Mandela walking on stage.
    ‎”it is music and dancing that puts me at peace with the world… and at peace with myself.” – Nelson Mandela. awesome man. awesome words.


  3. Po
    Nov 07, 2010 @ 19:26:53

    Tiah: really? I would like to rad that article. It will probably make me cringe with every sentence, because it probably describes me! People love to hate the white liberal. Actually, wait a minute, was this written by Verashni? I may have read it.
    Paula: Johnny’s Zulu is pretty impressive, well, to me, who knows almost none, but more impressive are his high kicks :) thanks for you language help! I was thinking actually of advertisting, asking for someone to teach me Zulu on the Gumtree. Cos there are quite a few Saffa students at Oxford where I work, and some of them Are Mandela-Rhodes scholars. So maybe they would want to make some extra money and teach me? We shall see.
    I think it was very tough for Johnny and his various bands back in the 80s cos they were banned on the radio and banned from performing in most local places. I wonder if they had police following them. Another problem with Johnny is that people always remember him, the white guy, and never the black musicians accompanying him. But what the hell, I loved them all, the best parts of the music are the parts where anyone sings in Zulu. They were brave and he was passionate and what more can you ask?


  4. Paula
    Nov 07, 2010 @ 20:21:20

    I think they wouldn’t mind helping you. Or at the very least someone with better Zulu than I over MSN/Skype (maybe put that in your gumtree ad) I think it’s really cool you wanna learn. It makes me wanna buck up and get taught to. Just to learn the really complicated words.
    But how grand it must have felt to be a part of the musical movement in that time. I think him being white added to his empathy (especially cuz he went so far as to learn it.) but I see your point, but then what they needed was for there to be attention on one… like one persons fame would bring fame to all- know what I mean? There is this documentary about music during Apartheid called “Amandla”, because the police were in most cases ignorant to what was being said in the music. Like there are SO many songs that were just… wow. It just makes you proud to be south african and with such a rich history within music.
    thats probably why music is getting so bad these days- nobodys fighting for anything.
    Sorry I am in essay mode… so long answers


  5. Fu Yang
    Nov 07, 2010 @ 22:02:39

    “it was written in 1986”. I can’t help feeling this year was even better than 1980 for spawning amazing things. Squish la cucaracha. I don’t think there has ever been more accurate image of whiteys attempting cool ‘african’ dancing


  6. Po
    Nov 07, 2010 @ 22:11:56

    Fu Yang: I can’t imagine what you are referring to? Also, I have an image soooo strongly in my mind of the squich la cucaracha. I think it was my 21st braai at a friend’s house and i think there were one or two black people there doing their awesome dancing, but as soon as Mandoza came on all the whities started this stamping the one foot thing it was soooo funny. I also recall a certain wedding we were at they played that song, and the dance came out there too, remember? Mwahahahahaha.
    Paula: I’m inspired now to go and google and see if Johnny clegg was ever under surveliance, cos so many people were during apartheid, it was ridiculous. Singing in Zulu was a good weapon to go unnoticed, but a white man dancing and singing with black people was not! So many people got searched and banned back then. I know Johhny did a lot of performances overseas cos he couldn’t perform at home. I kind of wish I was alive back then. I mean I was but I was tiny. Actually scratch that, I prefer my own era of new beginnings. We don’t have anything to fight any more and I guess we should be grateful for that! Having a cause does make for graet music and art though I think.


  7. Po
    Nov 07, 2010 @ 22:30:05

    Yup it seems like he and his band were arrested more than a few times.


  8. Po
    Nov 07, 2010 @ 22:37:35

    Ok his biography says Juluka recorded their first ablum in late 1979. I am just gonna take that as being reaaaaaaal late in 1979, and ignore the date.


  9. GlobetrotterSA
    Nov 08, 2010 @ 00:01:58

    I’m quite a big fan of J Clegg. I’ve seen a lot of live concerts over the years and Johnny Clegg was probably my first big gig (at the Good Hope Centre in Cape Town, back in the 80’s).

    He speaks Zulu fluently and if I remember correctly he holds a Ph.D in anthropology. Even if some are not into his music, his life story is memorable and uplifting. The phenominal hardships he endured during his youth, being a white kid wanting to perform with black musicians, crossing every possible boundary, which of course was a big no-no under the Apartheid government. He was arrested several times just for showing up at the “wrong end of town”.

    The first time I visited Europe was in 1989 on a backpacking trip where I did the whole “find myself” (teehee) solo tour. I’ll never forget, I walked into a music store in Switzerland and Johnny Clegg’s music was playing with his posters all over the wall. I was quite surprised because I knew he was known abroad but didn’t realise he was that popular.

    I went up to the guy behind the counter and asked if they were running some sort of Savuka promotion and he just gave me the you-must-be-from-outer-space stare and pointed towards a chart on the wall for album sales in France and Switzerland… J Clegg was at the top with Michael Jackson below him.

    “there is a trend amongst pale Saffas that the further you get from SA shores, the more you suddenly start to appreciate the genius that is Johnny Clegg.”

    A very sad statement indeed.

    Generally speaking, I think it’s quite sad that some expats somehow only associate themselves with all things South African while abroad, purely because of some coolness factor combined with a forced “sense of pride” but when they were in South Africa, none of those things mattered. That sort of hyprocisy astounds me.


  10. tiah
    Nov 08, 2010 @ 07:38:59

    Yes, I believe it was Verashni. From my understanding, her piece was more tongue-in-cheek. The comments, however, turned into a very polarising debate over Clegg. I’m afraid seeing a clip hasn’t added that much clarity to it all. Starting to come up with Monty Python jokes: pointy cushions and all that.


  11. Po
    Nov 08, 2010 @ 09:19:24

    GlobetrotterSA: I wouldn’t take my sentence about Saffas appreciating Johnny Clegg the further they leave SA shores too seriously, I wrote this in a very tongue in cheek way. I find that his popularity is big amongst white Saffas, at home and abroad. I don’t think that all expats only appreciate South Africa when they leave home, but in my case I think I did. When I lived at home I was in a bubble and couldn’t see past my own nose. Leaving that bubble opened my eyes up to so many things about my own home country, good and bad, and led me to appreciate it so much more. It doesn’t say much for the way I lived when I was there, but at least the appreciation came at some point. Better later than never? But I think travelling is really good for getting out of the bubble and seeing the way the rest of the world sees you. I’m glad I did. Otherwise I would still be bubble girl!


  12. GlobetrotterSA
    Nov 08, 2010 @ 13:07:58

    Travel definitely broadens the mind. I agree wholeheartedly. :)


  13. Tamara
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 15:04:11

    So weird… Verashni is a real life friend of mine ;-)

    I’ve always loved Juluka and J Clegg. Yay for vibey music that makes me wish I could dance better! But no Nkalakata for me, thanks.n It’s like the South African Macarena.


  14. Damaria Senne
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 20:14:08

    You bring back memories. I grew up listening to ( and loving) Johnny Clegg. wait a minute.. I just dated myself, didn’t I? But it’s good music and I still like it.


  15. Po
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 21:16:13

    Aha, I think I detect two moe stomping on la cucaracha people over here :)


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