The morning after Nelson Mandela died, NPR’s Renee Montagne interviewed a white South African named Johnny Clegg, whose music I’ve listened to and loved since I saw him perform in Johannesburg in 1988.
It was a bit daring in those days, if not dangerous. The band was racially mixed, the audience was mixed, and it was after curfew. But the laws against such gatherings had by then ceased to be enforced in the city, although rural areas were a different story. There was tension in the room, but of the kind that comes from self-consciousness. Clegg’s music is not incendiary, but it isn’t apolitical either. The weight of history hung heavy in the smoky haze, and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of Apartheid were still two years away.
Clegg’s song, “Asimbonanga,” Zulu for “We Have not Seen Him” stopped me in my tracks and still does. Years later, at a concert in France, where Clegg is popular and known as le Zulu Blanc, he performs Asimbonanga and is joined on stage by Mandela. Wow-oh-wow, which is Zulu for wow-oh-wow. Find 5 minutes for this when you can. It will send you.
I make it through about two syllables before the tears come.
The song’s “him” referred to Mandela, as well as the many hims and hers taken away in those dark days of Apartheid, when even having a photograph of Mandela was against the law. Part-ballad, part-anthem, the song’s melody and the harmony of those African voices are deeply stirring.
“It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world,” Mandela says afterward, a phrase much quoted these past few days in the celebration of his life. Oh, and the dancing… If you have another minute… Here is Clegg and a band member doing a Zulu warrior dance, at London’s Royal Albert Hall. If you ever wondered what Michael Jordan and Bruce Springstein would look like as one person, here it is.
Back to 1988. I wrote a series of essays about life in Apartheid-era South Africa for Style Weekly, the Richmond, Va., newspaper I worked for in the years prior to my three-month sojourn in South Africa after my first marriage ended. (TMI.) What strikes me is how the seemingly random hearing of a song–”Asimbonanga”–We Have Not Seen Him–can trigger such a torrent of personal history, yes, but also remind that all our histories are connected, that we are all connected. Clegg’s lyrics mourn that “We are all islands ’til comes the day/We cross the burning water.” Nelson Mandela connected those islands. We have seen him. May he live in our hearts.