Intersections of  history, personal change, creativity, memory–and, more generally,  journeying: An evening with Johnny Clegg

A concert I went to last night reminds me that making spaces for connecting, probing, reflecting, creating cannot be a matter of finding the right theory and then implementing it (see topic of a current collaborative exploration).

The concert was the first US stop in the tour by Johnny Clegg from South Africa. It was billed as his final tour because, although in remission, he has pancreatic cancer. The music he chose spanned 40 years of playing, dancing, collaborating across ethnic divides, drawing on different musical traditions, responding to setbacks, which included the assassination of his partner in performance during the violence of the early 90s in South Africa, and more.
Johnny Clegg gave long introductions to many songs, which placed him, very humbly, as a figure of breaking down apartheid or separateness – not only in South Africa but, but worldwide.
As a high school student Johnny chose one of his graduating subjects to be Zulu. He was the first white person to take this subject. He went on to become a social anthropologist, but took a break from the University when he had a chance to tour with a collaborator Sipho—an illiterate migrant worker and self-taught musician. At this stage, Johnny had already become a master dancer in the Zulu warrior tradition.
In the encore section of the performance last night Johnny played a song, Asimbonangua, that is a tribute to Nelson Mandela, written before Mandela was released from Robben Island. Last night they played with a video projected on the screen behind them from 1999. Mandela joins them on the stage, not only to dance but to reflect on how music and dancing makes him at peace with the world—and with himself. Mandela then exhorts the audience to get up and move more themselves.
As a teenager learning Zulu Johnny could have no idea how events would unfold, what his role would be in them, whether he would have work that would not reinforce the exploitative labor system, whether the dark years of repression, the ups and downs state violence would ever lead to an opening up.
His approach to life made spaces for connecting, probing, reflecting, creating, but that was a contingent building upon the many different pieces he put into play and buffeting by forces well beyond his control and understanding.
Johnny Clegg’s son, Jesse, is also a touring musician – of a very different style – but they played a song they wrote together in which they express their love for each other.
I can’t re-create the experience of the evening except to say I can’t recall another experience with so many dimensions – history of struggle and world shaking political changes, personal exploration across boundaries,creativity, memory–and, more generally,journeying.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (

One Response to Intersections of  history, personal change, creativity, memory–and, more generally,  journeying: An evening with Johnny Clegg

  1. Davis Sweet says:

    Peter, I didn’t know you were a Johnny Clegg fan. He is one of my favorites. I used to work with some South Africans and would go along with them to see him.

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