The Johnny Clegg Band returns to perform on the Green
By Katie Sinclair, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, June 29, 2012
Taking advantage of the newly cleared skies, the College kicked off summer term with a free concert by the Johnny Clegg Band Thursday afternoon on the Green. Clegg, a South African activist and musician, is one of this year’s honorary degree recipient. The concert, sponsored by the Provost’s Office, was intended to introduce the “Year of Arts,” a celebration centered around the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Hopkins Center.
The sunny weather and blue skies proved to be the perfect backdrop for the concert, which featured a mix of African, pop and rock and roll musical styles. The concert marked Clegg’s second visit to Dartmouth this month.
“If music is the food of love, yours is a veritable banquet,” College President Jim Yong Kim said at Commencement on June 10 when he presented Clegg with an honorary degree. “You infuse it with the rhythms of Africa and the melodies of the West to create a unique blend that at once sustains and empowers.”
Clegg’s performance lived up to expectations, with students, Hanover residents and through-hikers taking advantage of the free concert. Blankets and folding chairs covered a substantial portion of the Green, and the air was dotted with Frisbees and soccer balls as people waited for the concert to start. The concert had a relaxed, mellow atmosphere, with many people coming and going throughout the show.
Clegg dove right into his set, playing songs that spanned several decades of his career. His band performed on a variety of instruments, including keyboard, saxophone, mandolin, guitar and bass. Clegg said he was inspired by migrant musicians of South Africa, who would take Western instruments and modify them to fit their own playing styles.
“This is an Italian concertina that was completely taken apart and put back together again with Zulu tuning.” Clegg said.
This melange of African and Western style was also apparent in Clegg’s lyrics, which were a mix of Zulu and English.
The subject matter of the songs ranged from women’s rights to climate change to miners in Johannesburg to the difficulties faced when living in a country with a continually evolving identity.
While introducing one song celebrating the unpredictability of his homeland, Clegg explained, “Every morning when you wake up you have to renegotiate yourself to reality. You don’t know if the pothole’s going to be fixed or if the boats are going to run.”
One of Clegg’s most touching songs was “Nyembezi (Tears),” which described the hardships women face in traditional societies. Also impressive was “Digging for Some Words,” inspired by traditional hunter-gatherer societies that still exist in some parts of South Africa.
Besides being an accomplished musician, Clegg also devotes himself to environmental and humanitarian causes. Clegg arrived on campus Thursday in the early afternoon to meet with students in the environmental studies department, many of whom will journey to Clegg’s home country as part of the environmental studies foreign study program. Clegg is also one of the founders of African Sky, a company that recycles e-waste and helps reduce unemployment in South Africa, which has an official unemployment rate of 25 percent. The company hires local labor to help dismantle and recycle printed circuit boards and other computer components.
“It’s labor intensive. We didn’t want to use high-end technical equipment because that takes away jobs.” Clegg said.
Although apartheid ended years ago, Clegg admits that South Africa still has many challenges ahead.
“It’s a country of terrible extremes — extreme poverty, extreme wealth,” Clegg said.
Many of his songs were in honor of ordinary South Africans, who must adapt to new situations every day, he said.
“South Africa has more political refugees than any other country in the world,” Clegg said. “They’re dealing with transformations in their own lives while at the same time dealing with Zimbabweans, people from the Congo, from Somalia, Uganda.”
While social upheaval, corruption and conflict do not seem like uplifting topics, Clegg’s band played with joyful, passionate feeling. Many of the concert-goers were on their feet and dancing to the music. Although the sound system was not quite strong enough for the dispersed crowd, Clegg’s sang enthusiastically, and he harmonized well with the other vocalists. At the concert’s end, the band was summoned back with spirited applause to perform an eagerly-awaited encore.
Clegg’s vision for the future of South Africa is a generally positive one, and despite the many challenges that the nation faces, Clegg’s music is full of pride for his country and heritage.
“Anywhere else, it’s like being in porridge,” Clegg said. “Every day’s the same, everything is guaranteed. I go stir crazy sometimes.” Clegg said.