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Published: Friday, 7/2/2004

Zulu culture inspires singer-guitarist Clegg

Johnny Clegg will lead his band in concert at 8 tomorrow at the Ark. Johnny Clegg will lead his band in concert at 8 tomorrow at the Ark.
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Johnny Clegg, the singer-guitarist who was born in England and raised in Africa, will bring his politically charged music to Ann Arbor tomorrow night when he performs with his band at the Ark.

Having moved around frequently during his childhood, Clegg became enamored with the Zulu culture of South Africa, defying the racial barriers of apartheid during his childhood to listen to Zulu music and take guitar lessons from tribal musicians, sometimes even when the music was the only language common to teacher and student.

"When I came to a fence, which apartheid was, my approach was to say, 'Where are the holes in the fence so that I can get through'●" Clegg, 50, said in his press biography. "I got arrested and I got into trouble, but everywhere I wanted to go, I went. I never, ever asked: 'Why is there a fence in the first place?'●"

Clegg was so devoted to the Zulus that tribal leaders made him an honorary Zulu.

His music career began after meeting Zulu street musician and gardener Sipho Mchunu in 1969, with whom he formed the duo called Johnny and Sipho, later renamed Juluka (which is Zulu for "sweat").

The two musicians blended Western influences with native mbaqanga music, with lyrics that were so politically volatile that the duo had to be careful about what it put on its recordings, saving the most strident lyrics for its live concerts. South African radio stations were barred from playing much of Juluka's music.

After Mchunu stopped touring in 1985 to return to gardening, Clegg formed an all-electric group he named Suvuka, which means "We have arisen" in Zulu. The group's sound was a blend of Celtic, folk, rock, and African tribal music.

Suvuka shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Sting, and other top international artists on the 1988 Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope tour, and Suvuka toured with Tracy Chapman in 1990.

Johnny Clegg will lead his band in concert at 8 tomorrow at the Ark, 316 South Main St., Ann Arbor. Tickets are $22.50; doors open at 7:30 p.m. Information: 734-761-1800.

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