Living in the United States we are constantly reminded of our borders and differences with our neighbors. The lines drawn on a map, which are non-existent as we cross them with our feet, delineate what’s ours and what’s theirs. Music was always meant to transcend these boundaries. Today, that’s much easier thanks to the global web. Years ago, that wasn’t so much the case. More specifically, to many in the States the only real “world music” we received was when Paul Simon swam against the cultural boycott in 1985 & 1986 to work with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and create Graceland. Unbeknownst to many of us over here, there was already a white musician in South Africa who had been working for decades to craft his music and honor the Zulu street sounds.
South African singer, songwriter, dancer, and anthropologist Johnny Clegg released “Woza Friday” as part of Juluka in 1976. He would go on to release several studio albums, EPs, and singles with the group before contributing to the beauty of Savuka in 1986 and ultimately his solo career in 2002. My first encounter with Clegg’s music was when he released the title-single to what would be his last album, King of Time in 2017. From that moment I became captivated by his vivid songwriting and illuminating pairing of instruments and vocals, transcending language and borders. The world lost Le Zoulou Blanc (“The White Zulu”) on July 16, 2019. The faint light in the devastating news would come shortly after when it was revealed Clegg wrote an autobiography on his early years shortly before his passing.
Scatterling of Africa, titled after the song of the same name from Juluka’s 1982 release Scatterling (the single re-released by Savuka in 1987 on Third World Child), was understandably anticipated to be a telling of musical growth, anti-apartheid efforts, and overcoming odds for a white youth in a divided South Africa. The captivating seven-part story that actually came to life, however, could not have been anticipated.
Scatterling of Africa for all intents and purposes appears to be the story of a child born in the UK, raised by an unconventional mother in apartheid South Africa; however, it is anything but. The story written by Clegg in the last years of his life is not a reflection of political strife, against-all-odd, coming-of-age, but a story of curiosity and appreciation. The story is more a nod to those who guided his journey along the way than a roadmap of his successes. Clegg circumvents the obvious with grace and intellect, driving a story of friendships formed from mutual interest and a genuine tale of humanity. Scatterling identifies borders for context, but knows no boundaries for culture and tradition. The humbled narrative crafted within is not one of an internationally successful musician and humanitarian, but one of a curious passenger on this rock we all call home. Reflecting on the smells, sounds, and sights of his youth, Clegg transports us to places many of us don’t know, let alone can pronounce with any justice. Yet, within the pages of this telling is an acceptance to all. From sneaking in to places he shouldn’t be via fire escapes, to hiding in a crowd of bodies to participate in dances not created by his people, to sitting outside huts having the landscape immortalized into his memory, Scatterling of Africa effortlessly transports us all to the world of Clegg as if it were our own. Those looking for a tale of an up-and-coming musician won’t find the meat of that story for almost two hundred pages. Yet, that’s the point. To understand Johnny Clegg’s music and legacy is not to understand the notes and kicks, but the passionate road of curiosity that led him to that point. This sentiment is captured brilliantly in Scatterling of Africa.
Johnny Clegg said “for me the magic of music is that it can amplify hope” and Scatterling of Africa achieves precisely this idea. The telling of Clegg’s story evaporates man-made borders, it amplifies hope for curiosity, for music fans, and for musicians alike. Through political and social weaponized divisiveness, not too far from where we respectively sit today, a young man from South Africa grabbed hold of his passion, one that harmed no one, and crafted an art and movement for the world to experience. Scatterling of Africa is, unequivocally, a must read, even if you’re just now discovering Johnny Clegg.