Johnny Clegg’s top 10 songs: the best works from South Africa’s ‘White Zulu’

The South African music icon known for blending Zulu rhythms into his works died from pancreatic cancer last week aged 66

Susan Ramsay |

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South African singer Johnny Clegg (right) and dancer Dudu Zulu of South African band Savuka perform on stage during the 12th edition of "Le Printemps de Bourges" rock and pop festival in the French city of Bourges in 1988.

South African music icon Johnny Clegg died last Tuesday from pancreatic cancer at the age of 66. World renowned for his music that blended poetry, Zulu rhythm, deep rich African harmonies and policial activism Clegg's passing leaves a painful empty space in his fans' hearts.

Clegg and his bestie, Sipho Mchunu bonded as teenagers growing up in a land where blacks and whites did not mix. The pair formed a band known as Jaluka, which means "sweat" in Zulu. When Mchunu decided to take a break from touring and recording to spend time with his family, Clegg paired up with Dudu Zulu (real name Dudu Mntowaziwayo Ndlovu) to form Savuka. In 1992, Dudu Zulu was murdered during violence between competing taxi companies, after which, Clegg went solo. 

In total, Clegg sold more than five million albums in a time before Spotify, one of his songs was nominated for a grammy and he leaves behind a 30-year litany of the struggle for equality in one of the most divided nations in the world. Today you can find his music remastered for popular adverts and EDM.

Here are 10 of his songs that will live on in the hearts of his fans forever:

1. Impi

An impi is a batllion of Zulu warriors. The Zulu people, who live on the north eastern coast of South Africa once had a vast empire that stretched all the way to Kenya. Highly disiciplined and with execellent fighting skills, the Zulu were locked in battle with the British in the 1800s.

The Zulu had only assegais - shortened spears - and knobkerries - maces - to as weapons, and cowhide shields to protect them. This meant they were only really effective in close range combat, which the English had guns and cannon.

On January 22, 1879, on an isolated hill known as Isandlwana [ee sun shl wa na], in what is today the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, the Zulu and British met for their first major battle. There were around 1,350 British troops. The Zulu had 22,000 fighting for their king, Cetshwayo.

The chorus of the song is in Zulu:

Imipi! Wo, nans' impi iyeza 

(War, oh  war is coming)

Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?

(Who can touch the lions?)

I feel this song is a direct call to the listener's warrior spirit. I challenge you to blast it on your headphones when you're feeling down for instant upliftment and an injection of courage.

2 Bye Bye December African Rain

Nothing lasts forever, and that's something we learn as we grow older. Our friends grow apart or move to different places, contact becomes weaker and eventually shrivels. In December the rains come to Africa, bringing vital water and washing the spirits of all who live there. It's a time for renewal and change:

Bye bye December African rain 

The long gone summer has passed 

And I hear the owls calling my name 

The firelight has danced its last 

Across your face my friend 

And though I love you 

I somehow know this is going to be the end 

Now the sun has disappeared 

And all that remains 

An old tin mug and a photograph 

So wipe away those tears and remember the good times

3 Great Heart

There is a South African legend about a brave dog whose life was imortalised in the book Jock of the Bushveld by his owner, Sir James Percy FitzPatrick. In those days all the goods needed for daily life had to be transported from the ports on the east coast of Africa across the plains and mountains to the cities inland.

Before rail and truck, this was done by "transport riders" who wrangled teams of oxen pulling wagons kilometre on kilometre, facing lions, crocodiles waiting for them at river crossings, leopards, disease and hot wet heat.

Jock, a Staffordshire cross, was Sir Percy's dog. FitzPatrick used tales of Jock's adventures as bedtime stories for his children. When he was well established and no longer a transport rider he wrote his book. Jock, who had become deaf when he was kicked in the head by a huge antelope, couldn't settle down in the town and was sent to live with a friend in Mozambique where he eventually died.

The beautiful lyrics capture Jock's life:

There's a highway of stars across the heavens 

The whispering song of the wind in the grass 

There's the rolling thunder across the Savanna 

A hope and dream at the edge of the sky

And your life is a story like the wind 

Your life is a story like the wind

This is one of South Africa's favourite songs, and in 2010 Clegg collaborated with other musicians to make a version to raise money for Starfish Greathearts Foundation which supports arond 34,000 orphans and vulnerable children in South Africa. Any time you need courage, feeling like you have failed or that life is just not working, this song is a sure pick me up.

4 Asimbonanga

Fighting segregation was not child's play. Freedom was not given freely. TheSouth African government didn't hand over what black people were asking for, to be able to vote for their leaders and share in the nation as equal citizens. It had to be fought for. People died. Young men had to serve in the armed forces to protect the nation from attacks across its borders.

Many people protested, fought, disobeyed and even took to acts of terror. Many of them served time in prison. One of those was Nelson Mandela, who remained in jail for 27 years and became the face of the liberation struggle. Years before things changed, Clegg and his team wrote a song that was an anthem to these freedom fighters. Asimbonanaga means "we haven't seen him" meaning that Mandela was invisible. The song mentions other heros who died for thier belief that all men are created equal.

Years later, Clegg had the opportunity to sing this song for Mandela, who became South Africa's first black presidents, and was completely overwhelmed when the freedom icon joined him on stage.

5 African Sky Blue

This somg starts as a simple, pure tune picked out on a guitar that has been tuned for African music. It's a prayer, asking blessings from the sky, the rain, the river. Then it takes a sadder turn, asking the rain to "was away all my tears". In South Africa, black men would work down mines - mostly gold mines, for very little pay and in very dangerous conditions. In this song the miner hangs all his hope on seeing the sky again.

In gold mining, miners drill holes in the rock face which are then stuffed with explosives (cordite) which are detonated, causing the rockface to crumble, sending ore falling into train carriages to be taken out for processing. That explosion is a dangerous time for the miners.

These men had little choice about doing this kind of work. The political situation in the country was engineered so that black people could only do certain jobs, mostly mining or farm work. Mining paid better but was infintely more dangerous. 

The warrior's now a worker

And his war is underground

With cordite in the darkness

He milks the bleeding veins of gold

When the smoking rock face murmurs

He always thinks of you

African Sky Blue

Will you see him through?

6 Digging for Some Words

At first I liked this song because it addressed the border war that was going on at the time. Now, though, I relate it more to the climate crisis. So, maybe it is a combination of the two. How war and greed leave people hungry and the land decimated. Whichever way you look at it, the words are beautiful and chilling at the same time. The song starts of by telling us that wanderers and nomads have gone to see their chieftans because they fear the rains, upon which all life depends, have come to an end.

Flames lick the corners of each hungry horseman's smile

They have locusts in their scabbard and deserts in their eyes

Passing through the air they leave a sea of fetid rumours

As  they ride up on the skyline 

On their secret trail of lies

All over Africa, as colonial powers withdrew, nations fell into war. The old colonial borders divided tribes and threw them together with their foes under governments that didn't treat them equally. Most nations fought a war of independence from their colonial powers and then fell into long civil wars which often resulted in famines, disease and of course death.

7 Scatterlings

This song was written by Clegg and Mchunu after the oldest human bones were discovered in Africa. It talks about how all humans come from the same place, we are all on the same road, hoping to reach the same destination, which is Phelamanga (end of the lies), a made up ideal land. It brings the global refugee crisis into sharp perspective. We all came from the same place. We are all going to the same place.

And we are the scatterlings of Africa 

Both you and I 

We are on the road to Phelamanga 

Beneath a copper sky 

And we are the scatterlings of Africa 

On a journey to the stars 

Far below, we leave forever 

Dreams of what we were

8 Your Time Will Come

If you've ever thought something is too hard, success is too far away. If you've ever felt nothing is going your way, everyone is telling you you're wasting your time and your ideas will never work, this one is for you.

The fight against South Africa's unjust government system took decades and at times seemed futile but was ultimately successful.

Your Time Will Come is mostly in Zulu, but you can find a rough translation here. The verses speak to those who doubt that change will ever happen, telling them not to lie, not to say there is no hope.Saying that hope is not lost. As if to prove it, the song talks about things that no one thought would ever happen.It gives us inspiration by saying that the arc of history can be made to bend in our favour:

I saw the Berlin Wall fall

I saw Mandela walk free

I saw a dream whose time has come

Change my history - so keep on dreaming

Deam on dreamer, dreamer

In the best of times and in the worst of times 

Gotta keep looking at the skyline 

Not at a hole in the road 

Your time will come, sister, your time will come 

Nobody's gonna rush history, we have to ease it along

- just ease it along

9 Simple Things

This song is a metaphor for life, especially as your grow up. All around you see beauty, and then there is the sudden realisations that things are not what they seem, not what people told you. As you grow and mature, you realise that you and your friends will change, become other people.

Only the simple things in your life will survive, the things maybe you don't focus on right now. Those are the things you will identify with and hold on to as you grow.

Rain forest talking to the dragon-mountain-moon 

Stars infest the heavens in the southern skies 

Otter swim against the river, whisper in the water 

The stars are dead and what you see are shining lies 

Body-smoke tie the night in a misty web of blue 

Simple things are all we have left to trust 

An apple, a horse, some milk and a little bread 

Will help time stop slipping through our fingers

10 Osiyeza (The Crossing)

This beautiful tribute to Dudu Zulu after his murder, is an anthem of power over death. It took on new meaning when Clegg, knowing his time was shortened by the cancer that was stalking him, took to the stage for one last world tour. The audience could not help join in, to say goodbye and there wasn't a dry eye among them. 

It's not a sad song, though. It's one of understanding and triump, a movement towards rest and peace that all of us seek:

Through all the days that eat away

At every breath that I take

Through all the nights I've lain alone

In someone else's dream, awake

All the words in truth we have spoken 

That the wind has blown away

It's only you that remains with me 

Clear as the light of day

O Siyeza, o siyeza , sizofika webaba noma 

(we are coming, we are coming, we will arrive soon) 

O siyeza, o siyeza, siyagudle lomhlaba 

(we are coming, we are coming, we are moving across this earth)

Siyawela lapheshaya lulezontaba ezimnyama

(we are crossing over those dark mountains)

Lapha sobheka phansi konke ukhulupheka

(where we will lay down our troubles)