South African musician Johnny Clegg, fervent opponent of apartheid, dies at age 66

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Whoever was nicknamed "the white Zulu" succumbed to a cancer diagnosed in 2015.

South African musician Johnny Clegg died at the age of 66 on Tuesday, July 16, his manager told several South African TV channels. Nicknamed "the white Zulu", this committed artist had a worldwide success in the 1980s and 1990s by adapting the mbaqanga, a traditional Zulu musical style.

He was also a strong voice in the fight against apartheid, the segregationist system in effect until 1994 in South Africa. His flagship title, Asimbonanga ("We have not seen it" in Zulu), released in 1987, was dedicated to Nelson Mandela, the head of the African National Congress (ANC) then imprisoned in Robben Island (South Africa).

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, released after 27 years imprisonment in February 1990, even joined the musician on stage in Frankfurt (Germany) in 1999. Mandela, who had invited himself on stage without warning, had launched at the end of the song "It's music and dance that puts me at peace with the world. "

"Johnny died peacefully today, surrounded by his family in Johannesburg", said his manager at the public channel SABC, explaining that the musician had succumbed "after a battle of four and a half years against cancer".

"He played a major role in South Africa by introducing people to different cultures and bringing them closer together.added the manager in a statement. He showed us what it means to embrace other cultures without losing one's identity. "

His song Scatterlings of Africa, released in 1982 with his group Juluka, had propelled him in the charts in the United Kingdom and France. It was re-recorded in 1987 with its new band Savuka and used in the soundtrack of the film Rain Man.

Born in 1953 in the United Kingdom of a British father and a Zimbabwean mother, a cabaret jazz singer, Johnny Clegg arrives at the age of seven in a South Africa where the white minority reigns supreme black majority.

Initiated to local cultures by his father-in-law journalist, Johnny Clegg asserts that his rejection of apartheid is not political.I was not motivated politically but culturally. I like music and dancing", he explained simply.

Eyes open in a one-eyed country, he slips to 15 years in the homes of black workers, in defiance of the prohibitions. There, he discovers the Zulu dances and melodies and secretly invites himself to dance with the traditional troops.

In 1979, Johnny Clegg and his group "multicolored" Juluka released their first album, Universal Men. A new mix of western pop with Zulu rhythms, accordion and guitar that, against all odds, immediately finds its audience. In 1987, he became a world star with the song "Scatterlings of Africa", from the album "Thirld World Child" recorded with the band Savuka, which catapulted him to the top of charts in Great Britain and in France.

When apartheid definitely falls in 1994, "it's like we were all born a second time"he will confide.

Johnny Clegg and his characteristic dance with the foot up, in concert at the Grand Rex in Paris, November 19, 2006.
Johnny Clegg and his characteristic dance with the foot up, in concert at the Grand Rex in Paris, on November 19, 2006. (F.DUGIT / PHOTO PQR LE PARISIEN / MAXPPP)

During the worst hours of the racist regime, the songs of Johnny Clegg, tireless fighter of apartheid, were banned in South Africa. To get around censorship, he was forced to perform – with his group Juluka, formed with Zulu musician Sipho Mchunu – in universities, churches, migrant homes and homes.

"We had to do a thousand and one tricks to get around the myriad laws that prevented interracial rapprochement", he told AFP in 2017.

Nevertheless, the intractable apartheid police banned some of his concerts and the singer was repeatedly arrested, accused of violating the laws on racial segregation. The white racist government also could not tolerate one of its people drawing inspiration from Zulu history and culture. Abroad, however, especially in France, Johnny Clegg quickly found an audience.

"People were very intrigued by our music", explained the singer and dancer, adept of very physical concerts whose choreography feet raised up and hammering the ground was his trademark.

After a remission of pancreatic cancer diagnosed in 2015, he had embarked two years later on a farewell world tour that he had managed to honor all dates, the latest in 2018.

"I had a rewarding career in many ways (…) by getting people together through songs, especially at a time when it seemed completely impossible", welcomed the musician who sold more than 5 million albums.

Senegalese musician Youssou NDour paid tribute to him on Twitter

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