At 64, his pancreatic cancer in remission, South African musician Johnny Clegg kicked high and stomped five consecutive times — the signature move of Zulu war dancing — during a packed Johannesburg concert that he says is one of his last.
Clegg performed what he called an “autobiographical show” on Saturday night as part of his Final Journey tour. He delivered hits inspired by Zulu and South African township rhythms, as well as pop, folk and country and western, songs that he developed in defiance of racial barriers imposed by South Africa’s apartheid system decades ago.
Clad in a black T-shirt, Clegg didn’t dance bare-chested as he used to do and his concert was interspersed with performances from guest musicians, allowing him time for breaks. The man sometimes called the “White Zulu” said his manager, apparently concerned for the performer’s health, didn’t want the show to last too long.
However, Clegg said: “This is my last chance to share with Johannesburg what shaped me and brought me into your lives and brought you to my life, and this was the fact that all of these entries into traditional culture gave me a way of understanding myself, helping me to shape a kind of African identity for myself, and freed me up to examine another way of looking at the world.”
The performer was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, and the grueling treatment that followed included two six-month sessions of chemotherapy and an operation that he said had “reconfigured my tubing.”
Since then, Clegg has released a new album called King of Time and recently returned to South Africa after performing in Canada and the United States. He described Saturday’s show as his “last public performance in Johannesburg,” and his website lists a Nov. 25 concert in Cape Town and more dates in the South African city of Port Elizabeth in late January. He has previously said he planned shows in Europe and Australia.
Clegg explored his idea of “crossover” music with the multi-racial bands Juluka and Savuka at a time of bitter conflict in South Africa over the white minority rule that ended in 1994. During the Johannesburg concert, he was joined on stage for a couple of songs by Juluka co-founder Sipho Mchunu, and paid tribute with the song “The Crossing” to longtime dancing companion Dudu Ndlovu, who was fatally shot in 1992.
A few people tried out Zulu-style high kicks in a parking lot before the show at the Ticketpro Dome venue. Many of the thousands of fans were on their feet for the last songs of a performer they had known through hard years of racial conflict, and during South Africa’s transition to democracy. “We love you, Johnny,” a woman shouted several times.
Although mindful of mortality, Clegg seemed reluctant to accept that it might be the last time.
“Hopefully, I’ll be able to see you guys again on stage,” he said. “But we’ll see how it goes.”