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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Challenging Apartheid: The Music of Juluka




Recently I was talking to a woman who was born in South Africa. She was telling me how she was not only segregated from white society, but, as a colored, was completely cut off from traditional black African society. She frequently gets asked what African languages she knows and people are surprised to learn she knows none. She had no tribal ties. Her identity was pretty much defined as "not-white" and "not-black." That is the kind of nonsense that typified Apartheid South Africa.

Imagine living in Apartheid South Africa, where any blurring of racial lines could be met with outright violence. Then imagine hearing a song, titled "Two Humans on the Run," directly addressing interracial love in Apartheid South Africa. THAT is the kind of impact the band Juluka had.

I first heard Juluka's music when I was in college. I loved them from the first note.

Juluka was created by two people who, according to Apartheid law and philosophy, should never have had much contact. White Johnny Clegg and Zulu Sipho Mchunu formed Juluka around 1969, far earlier than I had realized. They had to perform kind of under cover or risk arrest because that kind of mixing of whites and blacks was frowned upon...plus they tended to sing lyrics that directly challenged the Apartheid regime.

Their debut song was "Woza Friday." The very album cover was a scandal because a white was on equal footing with a black and BOTH were dressed in Zulu dress.



Their first album, "Universal Men", had the AUDACITY to talk about migrant Zulu workers and actually view them as HUMAN. It included the song simply called "Africa," again viewing black Africans as sympathetic and human, something that directly threatened Apartheid's dehumanizing ideology. I notice that the album cover even has the Zulu standing and the white squatting...a reversal of the stereotyped image.



Now that I have introduced their music, let me introduce the people. Here is a video about Juluka founder Sipho Mchunu from a documentary during the Apartheid era. Johnny Clegg is in it.



Then came "African Litany," whose first song celebrates a ZULU victory over a colonial British army (the kind of battle you don't tend to read about in the history books!): (I love how you can hear the old album static at the beginning of this...it is exactly how I first heard it!)



"African Litany" is less slick as some of their other stuff (and by "slick" I am not trying to denigrate, as you will see), but it also included "African Sky Blue" which celebrated both the beauty and (as yet unfulfilled) promise of Africa:



(how many songs mention cordite in relation to someone's love?)

Their next album was "Ubuhle Bemvelo" which re-released "Woza Friday" and had a song about Soweto. I don't find many videos from this I can highlight and it is one of the few Juluka albums I didn't have back in my college days, so I am least familiar with it. Here is one song I know from it that I like, though it is all in Zulu.



One of my favorites from this album is Umfazi Omdala...whatever it means the chorus gets deep into my psyche and I remember loving dancing with this one in college.



Now we come to the albums that I knew and loved best, the ones that for me define Juluka and which are part of my personal history. I have danced hard to the music from "Scatterlings" and "Work for All" and always LOVED the songs from both albums from the first time I heard them.

"Scatterlings of Africa" celebrates the fact that ALL OF US trace our roots to Africa. It was the first Juluka album I ever heard and it has a special place in my heart. Remember, this was during the peak of the anti-Apartheid protests, so it had special political meaning, but that wasn't really why I loved it. Like Peter Gabriel's song "Biko," the music of Juluka was powerful musically above and beyond it's important anti-Apartheid message. I prefer videos that show some action, but I love this one because it shows the album cover I remember so well, with whites and blacks representing Africa together. This is the album cover I will always think of when I think of Juluka.



The most powerful song lyrically (musically it is more conventional) on the album is "Two Humans on the Run" which discusses interracial love in Apartheid South Africa. Not only was this illegal, but the law also directly influenced Johnny Clegg who eventually married a Zulu woman. I can't find a video of it, but I can only imagine the impact it would have at that time and place. Not only recognizing a forbidden love, but recognizing that you would be on the run simply for loving someone with a different skin color. And the title "Two HUMANS on the Run" was another slap in the face to the dehumanizing ideology of Apartheid.

Their next album was "Work for All." Although for me (album cover and all) "Scatterlings" is the quintessential Juluka album, probably the one with my favorite songs, and the most powerful songs, is "Work for All."

Among my favorites is December African Rain. It is a traditional Zulu song translated to English and to me seems a love song to Africa itself. The video may look silly in some ways to us today, but remember that this was at a time when the idea of white and black respect was practically anathema, so it was politically a risky and powerful image. For AFRICA to be the dominant theme in WHITE South Africa was a challenge to the Apartheid government. Remember that the dancing was taught to the white guy by the black guy, a reversal of how culture was supposed to flow at the time.



Another traditional Zulu song (this time in the native Zulu) is "Mantombana": (I remember dancing like crazy to this one when I was in college)



A song that always brings tears to my eyes is Walima' Mabele. It is one of the most emotionally powerful of Juluka's songs in my opinion. "Who has undone the rain," says it all for a continent where rain is so critical.



After that Juluka began to lose it. They still had some albums and good songs, but mostly they repeated older songs with a few new ones and lost their momentum. Ultimately they broke up. Johnny Clegg went on to further success with a new band Savouka, while the rest of Juluka went on to, from an American point of view, obscurity.

UPDATE: Forgotten this Johnny Clegg live performance with Nelson Mandela.



For me Juluka helped inspire me as I protested against Apartheid, gave me a good sense of what African SOUNDED like in music, and was part of some fabulous dancing at parties I threw in college. I hope you like them as much as I do.

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