Johnny Clegg brings South Africa to North Texas

Posted 1:10am on Wednesday, Mar. 19, 2014

A few songs into his set at Fort Worth’s Bass Hall Tuesday night, South African singer-songwriter Johnny Clegg demonstrated a few high kicking steps of stomping Zulu dance, something that used to turn his shows into sweaty exultations of joy.

Well, both Clegg, 60, and his audience are a lot older these days so there was a lot less dancing and sweating on display, from both the performer and the less-than-half capacity audience that remained rooted in their seats all night. This would have been unthinkable in the ‘80s when, as the frontman for South Africa’s breakthrough racially integrated band, Juluka, Clegg’s infectiously dancable Afro-pop mirrored the combustible, apartheid-era politics of his homeland.

While anyone who saw him back then surely misses that rousing energy, when he was known as “the white Zulu,” age and time have given something in its place: reflection. Clegg spent much of the near 90-minute set chatting about how he used to hang around the all-male hostels where black workers had to stay while in South African cities. It was here that he learned how to play the guitar and concertina in particularly black African way, and it was where he learned to dance. He spoke of being surprised at a show in Germany one night when Nelson Mandela was brought onstage.

This lent the performance a sense of history and perspective from a man who has seen a lot of the former and so has plenty of the latter as well. In between, he and his five-piece band wove in some of his best-known songs -- I Call Your Name, Kilimanjaro, Cruel Crazy Beautiful World, Scatterlings of Africa, and the Mandela anthem, Asimbonanga -- and they were well-delivered but they weren’t what gave the set lift-off. It was Clegg, digging into the roots that gave birth to these songs, that did that.

Another veteran South African act, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, opened with an hour-set of pure a cappella magic. Best known for contributing vocals to Paul Simon’s Graceland, the 10-piece vocal group performs beautiful, soaring songs punctuated with moments of playful, visual humor and dance.

Unfortunately, group founder and leader Joseph Shabalala, 72, has been sidelined because of surgery and is not touring with the group. However, four of his sons and one of his grandsons is now part of the line-up and, compared to the more staid edition of the group many may have seen when it first came to the U.S., this current Ladysmith is far more energetic. It will be intriguing to see where LBM goes from here when the elder Shabalala decides it’s time to retire permanently.

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