South Africa in the mid-'70s was a deeply oppressive society. Apartheid repression was at its height and rigid racial segregation was the law. So when Sipho Mchunu, an illiterate black gardener from rural Zululand, and Johnny Clegg, a white Johannesburg academic, started playing together, it was a radical musical statement.
But Sipho and Johnny were a lot more than the apartheid regime's worst cultural nightmare. From the earliest days, their music was infused with a remarkably perceptive engagement with their time and place that has made it as timeless and universal as anything by Marley or Dylan.
Sipho Gumede, who was at the time laying down bass grooves for Jo'burg jazz band Spirits Rejoice, remembers: "I saw Johnny and Sipho playing as a duo at the Market Cafe and I was excited by what I saw. It was the first time I'd seen a white guy playing African music and the music was very strong. We got talking and they invited us to join the recording project."
Johnny and Sipho went into the studio with South African musicians of the calibre of Gumede, Mervyn Africa, Colin Pratley from the legendary rock band Freedom's Children and Robbie Jansen, who remains a key figure in vibrant Cape Town jazz scene.
Producer Hilton Rosenthal had a simple plan: "Avoid commercial pressures and to give the musicians a mandate to experiment and be spontaneous ... We'd just put them in a room and see what came out." The gamble paid off spectacularly and the classic album Universal Men was the result.
Gumede enthuses: "Universal Men still sounds fresh. It's one of those albums that will be there for life. It was an innocent album. We went into the studio with the aim of making great music. No one was thinking about how many units we would sell. We just thought about the music."
Everyone in South Africa's conservative music industry declared Universal Men "too black for whites and too white for blacks". No radio station under the jurisdiction of the apartheid state would play the album.
Rosenthal approached Capital Radio in the Transkei bantustan. It played the single "Africa" to an enthusiastic but tiny listenership. At Radio Swazi, DJ Mesh Maphetla burst in to tears when he heard "Africa".
The album hit the streets in October 1979. The sleeve carried a picture of the two men, dressed in paisley waistcoats, beads and car-tyre sandals. The name of the band, Juluka, appeared as an engraving on a gold bar. Juluka means sweat in Zulu and the message couldn't have been clearer: Johannesburg's wealth and glamour is built not just on gold but also on the sweat of the men, the migrant labourers, who mined that gold.
Clegg explains that Universal Men "was about bridging two worlds. Going and coming. While the worker is on route, on a bus or a train, he is given the time to look over the distances, geographic and otherwise, in his life. Migrant labourers, in Africa, Europe, everywhere, are like universal joints. They are this incredible human resource who are just sucked up by the capitalist system and used anywhere. The system makes no concessions and so the workers have to create a whole new universe of meaning."
The album is a largely acoustic mixture of Anglophone and rural Zulu folk music. Clegg's lyrics have an extraordinary rhythm, depth and emotive power.
"There was so much hardness in the migrant life and yet I experienced incredibly human moments with my buddies", said Clegg. "They lived such a rich and full life with a highly developed sense of humour and understanding of human nature. For me there was something magical and mystical in this bleak life and I felt that I needed another language to capture it and to humanise the suffering."
The album was recorded just months before Zimbabwe won its independence and Clegg remembers, "There was a huge fight in the studio. I wanted to use the line [in the opening track 'Sky People'] 'The drums of Zimbabwe speak/ They roll across the great divide' but everyone was convinced that would lead to the album being banned so we eventually changed it to 'The drums of Zambezi speak'."
The title track is the pivot on which the whole album turns. It pays respect to the workers: "From their hands leap the buildings\ From their shoulders bridges fall\ And they stand astride the mountains and they pull out all the gold\ The songs of their fathers raise strange cities to the sky."
"Deliwe" was overlooked for years, but it was taken to a large new audience when it featured on the carefully put together Putumayo compilation, A Johnny Clegg and Juluka Collection. It has recently been worked into the Juluka set list and many now rate it as their favourite Juluka song. It's the only song on Universal Men which doesn't deal directly with the migrant labourer experience, but it is part of the broader theme of movement and separation in that it's about a person, Deliwe, deciding whether or not to leave South Africa.
"Africa" remains a live favourite. Its sing-along chorus translated means, "In Africa the innocent are always crying". Clegg describes it as a cryptic song which refers to the strong rural belief that good is limited while evil is pervasive and so the good suffer while the bad prosper.
"Uthando Luphelile (Love has Gone)" has a much harder edge than anything else on the album and it anticipates the Juluka-inspired African rock movement of the late '80s. The lyrics have a tight, edgy, urban feel. Clegg explains, "I was trying to look at the problem of prostitution at the migrant hostels".
The profoundly moving "Old Eyes" is about homecoming. Clegg explains that, for the migrant labourer "home coming is everything — you're carrying presents and it's the moment when you reveal yourself to your community as a successful person. You become a source of abundance; it's an elevated and life giving moment ... All the degradation and alienation which you've endured is redeemed and transformed into a hugely meaningful event when you arrive home." But in this song, the longed for redemption is out of reach — shattered between the anvil and hammer of apartheid.
Universal Men ends with "Inkunzi Ayihlabi Ngokumisa", a reworking of an ancient war song sung by Mchunu and adapted to the evocative sounds of the Clegg's mouthbow.
Universal Men sold only 4000 copies when it was first released. But two years later radio stations on both sides of apartheid's colour line gave in to a groundswell of popular demand and allowed "Impi", off the Juluka's second album, African Litany, to become a massive hit. Universal Men was suddenly the great first album and it soon went gold, and has never stopped selling.
Universal Men was the start of a brilliant career for Juluka. Each of the band's six increasingly militant studio albums, with their stories of hope and struggle, is a coherent and powerful statement. There's not a single song that doesn't remain a captivating listening experience.
Albums by Juluka's successor band, Savuka, were not as artistically potent. The lyrics were always well crafted, intelligent and important, but the records tended to sound like collections of songs rather than focussed artistic projects.
The Savuka period did produce one magnificent song though. "Asimbonanga" was a soaring tribute to the then imprisoned Nelson Mandela. It was on the first Savuka release, a four-track EP, and is clearly up there with Abdullah Ibrahim's "Mannenberg" as one of the greatest South African songs ever.
The poppier Savuka material did win major international success which, in turn, won the band major respect in white South Africa. Such are the sad ironies of colonial culture.
Juluka reformed in the late '90s and released the forgettable Ya Vuka Inkunzi in 1997. They are set to release another album shortly and are still, through their live performances, a vital force in South African culture. Clegg and Mchunu are still passionate people and may make great music again.
The world has changed a lot in the last 21 years, but lives are still shattered by the machinations of inhuman forces. A new vision of hope and humanity from Juluka would be rain in the desert.
BY RICHARD PITHOUSE
[Richard Pithouse teaches Philosophy at the Workers' College and the University of Durban-Westville, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He writes on politics, media and music for South African radio stations, newspapers and magazines, as well as underground Durban publications like Durban Poison and Bunnychow.]