“Is Johnny Clegg still active?” That was the question I asked myself when I first heard he was coming to give a concert in Washington. A quick look at johnnyclegg.com answered that question. Johnny and son Jesse, who is his opening act, are touring North America for three months of non-stop shows from New York to California.
My next question was, “What can I ask this icon that the world over doesn’t know already?” When I told a West African friend of mine that Clegg was coming to concert, he immediately launched into “Asimbonanga” and sang it the whole way through in Zulu. I asked how he knew Zulu and he said “I don’t! I just memorized the song phonetically.” I laughed in surprise and he added, “…all of us Malians know this song!” When I posted on Facebook that I was going to interview Johnny, a Canadian friend of mine responded “The White Zulu!” After my interview, I posted this picture of us without any words…
…and a Congolese music promoter posted “Is that Johnny?!”
Choosing my interview questions for Johnny Clegg seemed as hard as choosing a gift for the man that has everything. We arrived at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium during sound check to find a younger looking Johnny on stage, singing and playing acoustic guitar. Turns out this was Johnny’s son, Jesse. His voice was beautiful and not that different than many American singer/songwriters today. When Jesse left the stage for the dressing rooms, we followed him with our cameras and gear to set up for the interview. While waiting for Johnny to appear, Jesse talked excitedly about his first American tour and about rock and alternative music in South Africa. He wanted to see Washington’s monuments and the White House but was frustrated because they had to leave immediately on the bus to make their next gig in Philly. After Johnny arrived, we proceeded to a room with a piano. I asked him if he plays and he smiled, shaking his head. “I don’t play a bit,” he said.
As you’ll see in the interview below, I finally figured out what to ask Johnny. It came to me after meeting Jesse, hanging out with Johnny’s long-time bandmates and his tour manager, Patrick. Sometimes it’s better not to plan. I asked Johnny questions that I wanted to know — about Nelson Mandela for example, the origins behind his international stage name “The White Zulu”, what it’s like to tour with his son, and his impressions of South African music today. I hope you’ll find our conversation as interesting and entertaining as I did. In between our chat, you’ll see several clips of the live performance Johnny and Jesse gave that beautiful night.