Review: Johnny Clegg Unplugged at The Baxter

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Johnny Clegg, surely one of South Africa’s most versatile and prolific performers, has returned to the Baxter Theatre after 10 years for a series of special performances which will end on the 22 of September.

And he returns with a bang; giving the electrifying performance that is distinctive of this icon. Having seen some of his previous shows including his performance at the Kirstenbosch Summer concert series earlier this year, I was curious to find out how this unplugged show would live up to the ‘Intimate Evening’ promised in the title .

Sure enough, this proved to be a rare opportunity to come up-close and personal with the this consumate  storyteller, passionate dancer and a superbly gifted singer and performer.

With the venue set up to allow more interaction between the musicians and the songs, the show opened with the melodic ‘December African Rain’ followed by ‘African Sky Blue’. These two songs were all it took to get the audience revved up and yearning for more.  Clegg then tackled the often misunderstood relationship between nature and culture in ‘Digging for Some Words’ in which he warns of how an imbalance in nature – resulting from human actions  – often leads to conflict and wars.

He then told of how, as a young musician, he met a Zulu guitar player who was staying in the hostels.  Clegg was fascinated by the guitar playing style of the migrant worker and pleaded with him to teach him the technique. He also took us on a trip down memory lane through the stories of his life as a student, his progression to anthropology lecturer at Wits University and how he eventually made the decision to quit lecturing and venture into a music career on a full time basis.

From there we learnt how Clegg was taught the different aspects of Zulu dancing and how the men and boys would compete through song and dance. He demonstrated  all the traditional Zulu dance styles with a vigour and energy that belied his six decades, much to the enthusiastic delight of a riveted audience, who occasionally were moved to join in a song, humming to the melody, or clapping and tapping to the rhythm.

Some of the popular songs he performed included ‘Circle of Light’, ‘Woza Friday’ and ‘Impi’, but of all the many highlights and memorable moments in this show, perhaps the one that stood out most for me was the hit, ‘Your Time Will Come’.  Not only does this song have particularly emotional lyrical content and well-crafted melodies but, as Clegg revealed to us, ‘Your Time Will Come’ was inspired by two major coinciding events which together prompted these moving lyrics:

I saw the Berlin Wall fall
I saw Mandela walk free
I saw a dream whose time has come

This series of Johnny Clegg Unplugged is a celebration of an illustrious and decorated career spanning over four decades and producing 32 albums. It must have been difficult to select songs to include, yet Johnny and his extraordinary band managed to get the perfect blend of his popular songs, his most profound songs, and those songs which resonate with the audience and allow us an insight into the man himself.

This intimate unplugged show is memorable and poignant yet fun and fascinating. I left feeling I’d experienced this prolific artist in more ways than just as a fantastic musician and performer. I have a new and higher level of appreciation for this music legend, for this humanitarian who cares deeply about people and the environment, for this deeply spiritual and an eloquent speaker and fascinating storyteller. This was simply one of the best live performances I have ever seen.

Luvuyo Mncanca

Johnny Clegg Unplugged runs at the Baxter Theatre 18 to 22 September 2013.

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