The last time I saw Johnny Clegg he was arguing with his mother on the telephone, hawking and coughing because he was suffering from a double dose of 24-hour flu, and crinkling up his face to brave the harsh African sun which was burning a hole in the sky above the swimming pool of his northern-suburbs home in Johannesburg.
He spoke then of his yearning to one day make a film, envisioning it as “something dealing with aspects of the South African experience that haven’t been touched yet.” Although he hasn’t yet embarked on that endeavor, FernGully: The Last Rainforest could herald his first step towards such a venture.
In FernGully, Johnny lends his vocal talents to the latest animated movie to capture the attention of the world. With the use of over a million drawings, it sweeps its audience into a beautiful place called Fern Fully, in the heart of a magical rainforest populated by such colorful creates as the gorgeous Crysta, Batty the bat (Robin Williams), a singing lizards and the boisterous Beetle Boys (voices by the infamous comedy duo of Cheech & Chong).
Clegg joins a conglomeration of megastars who have contributed to this movie, many of whom waived their usually astronomical salaries in order to do their bit as a token of their commitment to the environment. Apart from Robin Williams, teen heart-throb Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis (who co-starred with Slater in Pump Up the Volume), there’s the cult hero from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tim Curry, Tone-Lac and Grace Zabriskie, who acted as Laura Palmer’s mother in Twin Peaks.
Much of the sound track has been written by Thomas Dolby, including Life Is A Magic Thing, the song sung by Johnny Clegg. Other musicians include the diminutive Sheena Easton, Elton John and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who perform Bamnqobile, written by Joseph Shabalala.
Although this mystical musical is a modern day myth with magical creatures, reality intrudes when the existence of the rainforest (based on one in Australia) is thrust into jeopardy by a species none of the fairy-tale characters actually believed existed: humans! In a novel manner, the movie rears its environmentally green head to portray the danger mankind poses to nature.
The proceeds from FernGully will benefit projects designed to aid the globe’s environment, such as The Rainforest Foundation, Greenpeace and others.
Johnny Clegg’s inclusion in this movie is evidence of a man committed to saving this planet from self-destruction both socially and environmentally.
“Twentieth Century morality has been crushed by two world wars, the Holocaust, Vietnam and all the rest. We need a new image – a global human being belonging to a single planetary civilization,” advocates Johnny.
“We should each have the same human rights; the same idea about the planet and the environment; the same idea about how to deal with each other on a social, political and cultural level. But that can only come about if we all share the same vision of what mankind is and what mankind means.”
When Johnny talks, he comes close to you, looks directly into your eyes and never falters. Sometimes he gazes into a space that he knows well, the space where he stores his informed thoughts, and philosophies, and he’ll choose just the right one to express himself to you.
But he’s not always reflective and “deep.” He’s also hyperactive. Getting him to stand still for a photo shoot is virtually impossible. He pouts, he whistles, he emits a stream of Zulu words and he frowns and frowns and frowns.
“Love me, love my frown,” quips the legendary South African who first shot to fame with Juluka and has since been imprinting his tracks all over the world.
Not only has Johnny been participating in Hollywood movies which move the world, he’s also been recording his own music-with-a-message in Los Angeles. he and Savuka spent the latter part of last year recording Heat, Dust & Dreams at Ocean Way Studio in LA. On this album, Johnny, who has Africa carousing through his veins and into his music, continues to share his visions and African sounds with the world.
The album features the single These Days, which was produced by no less than Don Was of the popular band Was Not Was. Arguably the most sought-after music producer in the world, Was has produced for such legends as Bob Dylan and Elton John. There’s no slowing down for Clegg. Just when one thinks he’s accomplished all he set out to do, he surprises with a new masterpiece.
It’s been three years since Clegg’s last album Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World. That’s three years since the multitude of Clegg fans last heard from their visionary maestro, so the release of Heat, Dust & Dreams on April 12 didn’t come a moment too soon.
At present, Celgg is jetting around the world doing interviews and promotional visits to publicize the new album in London and Europe.
Being a worldwide success is nothing new to Johnny Clegg. Years ago he became one of the first to crack through the forbidding wall of international hostility and cultural boycotts. But despite his indisputable talent and immense achievements, he remains one of the souls of the earth.
Johnny CLegg is too concerned with basic human issues, such as those explored in FernGully, to waste his deep spiritual sensibilities on anything as frivolous as idle self-esteem. And so Johnny Clegg will continue to soar like an eagle while we scatterlings of Africa stand by and applaud.
PERSONALITY April 23 1991