Johnny Clegg, Human (Appleseed Records, 2010)

Johnny Clegg has been one of my favorite performers for a long time.  (The fact that he is ultimately the reason I met my wife doesn't hurt his case, either.)  Whether he has performed as the white half of the legendary South African duo Juluka, as the leader of Johnny Clegg & Savuka, or more recently as a solo artist, Clegg has always written songs about the struggles of his homeland and home continent, mixing English and Zulu in his unique style.  His new CD Human finds him trying a couple of new things, but ultimately succeeding best with what has always worked for him over the past thirty years.

Clegg has tried his hand at some more mainstream rock and pop in his solo recordings, and Human continues this trend.  Songs like the opener "Love in the Time of Gaza" and "Hidden Away Down" are quality rockers, even if they lack the distinctively African touches that characterize most of Clegg's work. "All I Got Is You" veers towards electronic dance pop, while "Give Me the Wonder" has a decidedly Latin flavor, and the ominous opening chords of "Here Comes That Feeling" recall 90s alternative rock. 

That being said, Clegg has always been at his best when he's crossed cultures and styles together.  His back catalog is filled with many great songs combining English verses and Zulu choruses sung with powerful South African harmonies, and the new song "Congo" fits in with the best of these. My favorite song on the new album is the closing song "Magumede," an adaptation of a traditional Bhaca song. The lyrics are simple and humorous -- a boy asks his mother who has taken his pants, the mother responds by asking him where he slept last night -- but the group singing and humming are as irresistibly infectious as anything Clegg has done in a very long time.

Never one to shy away from politics, Clegg addresses a number of contemporary issues on Human. The inspiration for "Love in the Time of Gaza" came from a young couple talking in the background that Clegg noticed as a CNN camera panned across scenes of rubble and devastation after an Israeli attack. "The sky is black with gunships, but I'm dreaming of a girl." Some feelings and hopes transcend any location and even the most bleak of circumstances. CNN also provided the inspiration for the song "Hidden Away Down"; a friend of Ted Kennedy quoted Hemmingway at his funeral, saying that the world breaks everybody but that some people emerge stronger for having been broken. "Congo" addresses the unfortunate situation in the central African nation, whose natural wealth has increased the oppression of its inhabitants instead of liberating them from it. The control of the diamond industry has passed from one warlord to the next, and the people in general are only valued for the diamonds they can extract.

Johnny Clegg has made a remarkable career out of addressing the African condition in a way that is earnest and though-provoking on one hand, but lively and energetic on the other. The willingness to sing and dance along has always been a prerequisite for appreciating Clegg's music. As his first full album of new material to get officially released in the United States since the last Savuka album Heat, Dust & Dreams in 1993, Human has the potential to introduce Johnny Clegg's music to a new generation of fans; if you listen to Human and like what you hear, definitely delve into this great performer's history. And of course, people who've stuck with Clegg for a long time have every reason to go get this album as well.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

A solo acoustic performance of "Love in the Time of Gaza"

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