JOHNNY CLEGG, born in Rochdale, England in 1953 was raised in his mother’s native land of Zimbabwe before immigrating to South Africa at the age of nine.
At the age of 14, Johnny began to learn to play the guitar. Through his interest he met CHARLIE MZILA, a Zulu flat cleaner who played street music near Clegg’s home. For two years Johnny learned the fundamentals of Zulu music and traditional Zulu INHLANGWINI dancing with Charlie. He was 13 years old when he saw the dancers for the first time.
Equipped with his guitar, Johnny accompanied Mzila to all the migrant labour haunts – from hostels to rooftop shebeens. However, Johnny’s involvement with black musicians often led to him being arrested for trespassing on government property and for contravening the Group Areas Act, (an apartheid law forcing different races to keep to their own residential and recreational areas). In this difficult and complex political landscape, Johnny managed to navigate a path, which enabled him to enter the hidden world of the Zulu migrant labourers. These men lived in a number of huge barrack-like hostels around Johannesburg, serving Johannesburg’s insatiable appetite for cheap black labour. During this period he developed a reputation as a competent Zulu guitarist in the MASIKANDE (from the Afrikaans “Musikant”) tradition.
This reputation reached the ears of SIPHO MCHUNU, a migrant Zulu worker who had come up to Johannesburg in 1969 looking for work. Intrigued he challenged Johnny to a guitar competition, sparking off a friendship and musical partnership destined to alter the face of South African music. Sipho was born in Kranskop, Natal, in 1951. Although he had no musical training as a young boy, he had made himself a variety of musical instruments; his favourite being a three stringed guitar fashioned out of a paraffin tin. Soon he became extremely adept and well versed in Zulu street guitar music. He later also formed a traditional Zulu dance team and found a vast outlet for his creative energies. Sipho investigated this young white boy who danced and also played Zulu street music and looked him up at his apartment one day. A strong friendship developed out of this meeting as for the first time Johnny was playing with a street musician his own age. Johnny was sixteen and Sipho eighteen.
Together they worked, often subjected to racial abuse, threats of violence and police harassment. As places where they could perform were limited by the apartheid laws, they had to stick to the street and private venues such as church and university halls. When Johnny finished his schooling he went to University, graduating with a BA (Hons) in Social Anthropology and pursued an academic career for four years lecturing at the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Natal.
In 1976 Johnny and Sipho secure