Johnny Clegg, One Life (Marabi, 2006)

The South African singer Johnny Clegg has had a long and storied career, promoting interracialism and multiculturalism at the height of apartheid as the white half of the legendary duo Juluka and as the leader of Johnny Clegg & Savuka. He has continued to perform regularly, for a stretch as part of a reunited Juluka but primarily as a solo artist, since the last Savuka album Heat Dust and Dreams came out in 1993. He has entered the recording studio less frequently lately, though, and his new album One Life is only his third studio album since Heat Dust and Dreams. Happily, the new CD is on the same level as much of his best work.

With apartheid now in South Africa's past, Clegg's lyrics have reached for broader themes. The album opens with "Daughter of Eden," a tribute to the eternal feminine in its many forms, and follows with "Jongosi," a Zulu song about young athletes/warriors taking a stand together. One Life also addresses many issues facing Africa as a whole. "The Revolution Will Eat Its Children," already on my short list of all-time favorite song titles, deals with the cycle of revolutions and takeovers too often resulting in new leaders who wind up needing to be overthrown themselves. The subtile "Anthem For Uncle Bob" suggests that the song is aimed in particular at Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe. In a similar vein, "Boy Soldier" looks at the common habit throughout Africa of impressing teenage boys into service in armies or revolutionary groups. As usual, Clegg alternates between singing in English and Zulu, often on the same song, but he expands his linguistic horizons on One Life by including songs in Afrikaans ("Thamela - Die Son Drink Water") and French ("Faut Pas Baisser Les Bras").

Musically, other than the Latin feel of "Daughter Of Eden," there aren't any big surprises here. Clegg has always combined Western rock and folk with Zulu traditions and township jive, and he also keeps up with current musical trends. While heavy-duty electronics got in the way a bit on his previous album New World Survivor, One World sounds very fresh and not forced. Almost all the music on One Life is upbeat, and the disc as a whole just simmers with energy. My favorite element of Clegg's sound over the years has been the multi-voiced Zulu choruses. The distinctly African modal harmonies have this power to them that very few vocal traditions on the planet can match. Happily, One Life is full of these choruses, to a significantly greater degree than on most of his post-Juluka work. The chorus of "Jongosi" in particular hits with a force reminiscent of Clegg's best work.

One Life finds Johnny Clegg back in his prime, bounding with vibrant energy while remaining thoughtful and thought-provoking with his lyrics. Clegg has been one of the most important figures in the world of music for close to thirty years, and with his new album he remains as vital as ever.

Overall grade: A

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