South African musician Johnny Clegg, known for his anti-apartheid activism and his work with his groups Juluka and Savuka, has toured nearly every year since he gave up his gig as professor of social anthropology to pursue music full-time in 1982. He's wrapping up his storied career and playing his final North American concert in Boulder as part of the Last Journey tour.
“We’re a touring band,” Clegg says. We always toured. Always a live audience and we always built up.... I’ve played between 300,000 to 500,000 people a year in Europe, Canada and America — festivals. The people come specially to see me, and that’s because I kept playing and kept playing and kept playing.”
In past years, the 64-year-old musician says he has played upwards of fifty shows a year in North America, but on this tour, dubbed the Final Journey, he’s doing just fifteen, citing health issues. In 2015, Clegg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He continued to tour through surgery and chemotherapy.
“I’m feeling fine,” Clegg says. “I’m in remission, and I’m strong. I’m doing all the stuff that we normally do. I have energy issues from time to time and some fatigue, but the show is the show, and I feel that after and before the show. But when I do the show, something clicks in my head, and I do my show. It’s a full 100 percent.”
Clegg says the Final Journey sets are autobiographical, and he’s chosen songs that represent the four-plus decades he’s been playing professionally; as part of the concerts, he tells stories and screens videos.
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Early in his career, Clegg, with Sipho Mchunu, led the multiracial band Juluka, which fiercely opposed apartheid in South Africa. Following Juluka’s breakup in 1985, Clegg went on to front Savuka for nearly a decade before performing under his own name.
On October 27, 2017, Clegg released King of Time, his latest studio album comprising original material. He says it was a chance for him to mix new music genres while adding an African flavor. The seven-song album includes guest spots from Clegg’s son Jesse, who’s also opening for him on tour, and Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo, who sings on “The Color of My Skin,” a song about togetherness.
Clegg has been writing about togetherness and wholeness for years, and was even joined by South African anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela for a show in Germany in 1999, where they sang “Asimbonanga.”
After the song, Mandela said, “Music and dancing, that makes me at peace with the world and at peace with myself.”
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Clegg agrees with Mandela. “Music is a universal language,” the musician says. “When you hear music, it goes past all of your filters, all of your own cultural filters. Music cannot be filtered. When you hear it, it goes directly, and if you like it, even if you don’t understand the language, you like the melody or you like rhythm. You can’t fight it. It’s direct access to you. That’s why it’s a universal language. And that’s why if you have a piece of music that you can listen to that makes you remember something or gives you a good feeling, there’s very little in the world that can do that today.”
In addition to bringing people together, Clegg says there’s interaction of energy between the crowd and the band that can only be done in a live situation.
“You can’t get that from watching a video,” he says. “You can’t get that from watching an iPhone recording of a show. When you’re in the moment with the artist, that is the magic time.”
Johnny Clegg: The Final Journey, with Jesse Clegg, 8 p.m., Thursday, November 2, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder, $40 to $55.