JOHANNESBURG – South African musician Johnny Clegg defied the country’s apartheid-era racial barriers, celebrated its new democracy under Nelson Mandela and took his Zulu-infused music around the world. Now after treatment for pancreatic cancer, he is launching a last international tour that he calls “The Final Journey.”
Clegg said Thursday he feels “fit and strong” as he begins the tour showcasing his blend of Western and African musical styles.
The British-born singer, whose multi-racial bands during white minority rule in South Africa drew a staunch foreign following, has already played some South African shows and plans stops in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia in the coming months. He performed in London last month and has a Sept. 20 show in Dubai.
“These shows are hard for me,” he told journalists at a Johannesburg hotel. “I’m dealing with another, parallel world that I live in with my diagnosis.”
Clegg, 64, also spoke about the Zulu music and dancing that he learned as a teenager, when he hung out with a Zulu cleaner and street musician called Charlie Mzila.
Clegg recalled playing music in his early days on rooftops and later in packed venues, “the idea of crossover” that inspired diverse music with the bands Juluka and Savuka and the apartheid-era censorship that restricted where he could perform and sometimes led to his arrest.
Toward the end of his hour-long remarks, he spoke starkly about the disease that he was diagnosed with in 2015 and is now in remission. Grueling treatment has included two six-month sessions of chemotherapy and an operation to remove the cancer.
“I don’t have a duodenum and half my stomach. I don’t have a bile duct, I don’t have a gall bladder and half my pancreas. It’s all been reconfigured,” said Clegg, who has divided his final tour into legs to allow for rest periods between shows.
“I don’t know how long I’ve got. We all know that it’s all going to end badly at one point,” he said. Though he added: “I feel fit and strong and I’m dancing and I’m singing.”
One of Clegg’s best-known songs is “Asimbonanga,” which means “We’ve never seen him” in Zulu. It refers to South Africans during apartheid, when images of then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela were banned.
The musician wrote the song during a state of emergency in 1986. Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison and became South Africa’s first black president in all-race elections four years later.
In the interview, Clegg recalled how he performed “Asimbonanga” during a tour of Germany in 1997 and experienced a “huge shock” when Mandela, beaming and dancing, unexpectedly came out on stage behind him.
“It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world. And at peace with myself,” Mandela said to the audience. He called on Clegg to resume the song and urged all in the audience to get up and dance. At the end of the song Mandela and Clegg, holding hands, walked off stage.
“That was the pinnacle moment for me,” Clegg recalled. “It was just a complete and amazing gift from the universe.”
In his last shows, the man often called “the White Zulu” said he recognizes there are fans who are “genuinely sad and want to make that final connection and celebrate that.”
He said: “I feel quite motivated to do that.”