In a well-intentioned gesture of political unity, singer/guitarist Johnny Clegg (an English academic raised in Zimbabwe and South Africa) joined forces with Sipho Mchunu, a black South African street musician, to form Juluka, a failed experiment in combining rock with Zulu chants and the mbaqanga sound of the South African township. The results, heard on both of the interracial group’s Warner Bros. records, are a mush of sweet, laid-back California style harmonies over a loping backbeat, with mild anti-apartheid sentiments. (The Best of Juluka, which compiles the group’s American albums with a sampling from its four African-only releases, dating back to 1979, paints an incrementally more compelling image of the group.)
Clegg’s subsequent band Savuka (which retains two members — not Mchunu — from Juluka) is even more Western-oriented. The slick production of Third World Child relieves it of the simple, unassuming emotionality of township music, and the selfconscious, breast-beating lyrics of the title track and “Berlin Wall” suggest that Clegg’s gunning for the Nobel peace prize while attempting to forge a calculated commercial sound. Too bad Paul Simon beat him to the bank.
By Shadow Man, Clegg is starting to sound a bit like Sting, a catchy pop hybrid of synthesizers and African percussion. Attempting to join the Anglo-American mainstream without abandoning his homeland (for which his love seems genuine enough), Clegg drops Zulu phrases and instrumentation like a social climber mentioning famous names at a party. Unfortunately, he can’t have it both ways, and this fusion sounds more like an American effort to sound African than vice versa.
Like many other artists, Clegg was electrified by the tumultuous political events of the late ’80s. Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World has songs of both anger and optimism, presented with a more comfortable blend of musical idioms than ever before. (Although the Sting comparison still applies.) There’s nothing traditional about Savuka’s sound, but the stylistic weave serves both ingredients nicely for a change, and the album finds a satisfying midpoint between disparate cultures.