(Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Like most Canadians, I awoke on October 18 to the news that Gord Downie (the front man for Canadian music icons The Tragically Hip) had passed away from brain cancer. Shortly after announcing his diagnosis, Downie and the Hip embarked on a 2016 farewell tour of Canada that featured sold-out concerts and an outpouring of emotion. The final concert, in my hometown of Kingston, was an especially monumental event and was broadcast live on national television.
Many thousands of words have already been written about Downie in the days since his passing. Rather than add to that total, I have decided to write about something else that also happened on October 18: I attended Johnny Clegg’s concert at Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Sadly, there is a tragic parallel between Clegg and Downie.
I first wrote about Johnny Clegg in this post from late 2014. He is one of South Africa’s greatest musicians and played an important role in the fight against Apartheid. His songs were generally sung in both English and Zulu, he fully embraced Zulu culture, and he had racially integrated bands at a time when racial segregation was the law.
I wrote about Clegg again in the spring of 2016, when he unexpectedly performed a concert in Kingston. At the time, nobody knew that he had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
After his most recent course of chemotherapy earlier this year, Clegg announced that he was in remission and wanted to embark on one final tour called “The Final Journey”. This brief and highly selective tour would take him to some of the places that had strongly supported him through his career. In Canada, one of his biggest markets, concerts were scheduled in Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City.
Attending Clegg’s concert gave me an idea of what it must have been like to see The Tragically Hip on their final tour. Knowing that this was his final tour added exceptional poignancy to the entire evening. That feeling intensified when Clegg dedicated a song to Downie. It became almost intolerable when Clegg sang songs such as Osiyeza (The Crossing).
Clegg wrote Osiyeza after the premature 1992 death of bandmate Mntowaziwaio Ndlovu. it was extremely moving to hear Clegg sing it on this tour, as the lyrics comment on how a person can affect others even after that person is no longer alive. During this song, as with several others, the woman seated beside me was wiping away tears.
Another poignant moment was when Clegg performed Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World. Clegg wrote this song in the late 1980s for his then-newborn son Jesse. Jesse, who is also a musician and has had six Top Ten hits of his own in South Africa, was the opening act at this concert and joined his father onstage for a couple of songs. It must now be hard for Jesse to hear lyrics such as “One day when you wake up, I will have to say goodbye”.
It certainly wasn’t all sad, though. You could hear a pin drop when Clegg talked about the anthropological inspiration for Scatterlings of Africa: as always, his stories were fascinating and didn’t insult the intelligence of his audience. How many other musicians refer to mitochondria during their concerts? And songs like Dela, always a live favourite, exploded with joy and excitement.
Clegg put a lot of energy into the concert. It may have been energy that he didn’t really have. I considered waiting around, as I had met him at the previous three concerts I had attended. However, I then overheard that his post-show energy level made it unlikely that he would appear for a meet and greet. At that point, I decided to leave the concert hall. I reasoned that Johnny Clegg had already given enough.
O siyeza, o siyeza, sizofika webaba noma O siyeza, o siyeza, siyagudla lomhlaba Siyawela laphesheya lulezontaba ezimnyama Lapha sobheka phansi konke ukuhlupheka
(From “Osiyeza (The Crossing)“, by Johnny Clegg)