1953 Jonathon Clegg was born 07 June in Rochedale, outside Manchester, UK.

1960 Murial Braudo Clegg marries Dan Pienaar and the family move to South Africa

1966 Sipho Mchunu travels to Johannesburg and works as a gardener

1967 Johnny Clegg meets Charlie Mzila

1969 Johnny meets Sipho Mchunu


1967 – Meeting Charlie Mzila and learning, for the first time, how to play the Africanised Maskande guitar.

In Standard seven I met Charlie Mzila. I met him in 1967 and Sipho Mchunu in 1969. Charlie Mzila taught me guitar and Bhaca dancing. I meet him as I was running an errand to the shop. He was standing outside the shop playing the guitar. At the time I was learning classical Spanish guitar, and I watched him playing and thought, "That guitar is tuned completely differently." It was very weird because he was using finger picks, and playing it differently to what I could ever have imagined. I was quite shy and sidled up to him. Charlie was 24 years old when I met him. I was very short for my age and didn’t look like I was thirteen or fourteen. I looked about twelve. I looked at the guitar and thought it was incredible. He started singing and playing and it was the first time in South Africa that I got a similar sense of freedom as in Zambia. Suddenly there were possibilities for a new and open world. The urban environment closes down the possibilities that are presented in a rural environment. And here the music was speaking about that. It was saying ‘I come from a rural area, I’m a tribalist, I’ve taken a journey.’ I asked him if he could show me how to play, and he couldn’t speak English so we had to communicate with gesture. He laughed and showed me where he worked. It was in Bezuidenhout Street, the corner of Bezuidenhout and Francis Street in Yeoville. The next day after school I went up to his flat building where he worked. I went with my very expensive, classical guitar whilst he was playing a cheap Bellini steel string guitar made in Pinetown. The sound that it made was incredible, so I said to my mom, "I want you to buy me a Bellini guitar." She was horrified, but she was a musician so she also understood. That was the one incredible thing about my mother, she had dreamed of being Ella Fitzgerald, so she understood the desire to have one’s music cross cultures and genres. So we started by playing on the roof of his building. He would teach me things then I would go home and practice on my Bellini on my roof. I had this thing that I had to be on the roof to learn the guitar. So I would climb on the servant’s quarter roof and play. I used to play this thing over and over again until my mom would go mad. She once described the repetitiveness of it as ‘the sound of a dripping tape’. I had been learning the Spanish guitar but the Bellini guitar had been reconceptualised, even Africanised in order to create the maskande sound. The thumb was playing a bass line, which actually worked as a melody. In classical guitar, the root note is a chord. Meanwhile in maskande, the forefinger would be playing a counteracting melody line. Then you had to sing a melody and still shout out a praise name every now and again as well. So I started to get a whole bunch of these riffs under my belt and I got some of the patterns down and soon I became quite proficient at playing and singing. In fact if you closed your eyes, you might have thought it was a Zulu singing. But I didn’t know what I was singing. I was learning in rote fashion. Then I slowly started to learn the language. I was able to focus strongly. I used to go with Charlie for practice sessions with the team at the Hospital Hill hostel. It took place on Tuesday and Thursday nights and I would learn to dance with the team. Initially in the first six months I made a complete idiot of myself, but just to be part of that, part of these men – serious individuals in their own right and world, was amazing. For me it was an honour being able to dance with these warriors. That’s what they were. They weren’t shop assistants or cleaners they were warriors. I didn’t see them at work; I only saw them as dancers."

1969 – Meeting Sipho Mchunu for the first time

"I had a good Zulu vocabulary, but I couldn’t put the words together. It all clicked when Sipho came into my life, because Sipho couldn’t speak English. He was a total traditionalist and he had a great sense of humour. In the end I learnt Zulu through humour and music. He had heard about me from Charlie’s cousin, who from some weird fate worked next door to him. Sipho said, "I heard there was this white boy singing and playing guitar?" One day he looked me up, he arrived at my flat in Muller St. in Bellevue. I came home from school on my bike and there was this guy waiting outside the flat. He said that he wanted to compete with me - he’d heard about me and because it’s a competitive field, he wanted to see if I was ‘for real’. So in 1969, Sipho challenged me to a guitar duel. And he was far better than I was. So there he was, standing outside my flat with his guitar. It was incredible; I’ll never forget that guitar. It had mirrors, plastic soldiers stuck onto it with glue, money stuck on, beadwork, reflectors – standard stuff, and inverted bottle caps. The guitar was incredible. He came into my life and now he’s my oldest friend.

Sipho was a gardener. He left home when he was nine, when his father died. Then he went to Durban and finally got to Johannesburg. For him, the world was a frontier. Look at his life, he’s a pioneer. There are no models or set roles that he played. He created his life. Sipho landed up becoming an incredible visionary in his own right. He’s built two schools for his community. He’s got 35 children, one of them a coloured son in France, he’s toured the world – and he started out not being able to read or write. He never saw a white person until he was about seven or eight. It was the last generation of black people who were far removed from white contact. He came out of that and landed up on Good Morning America and appearing on television in Germany. It’s a huge distance to travel.

For me, the most important thing about Sipho was his sense of humour. He could make me laugh. I understand the syntax of his humour, he has to say one word and we’re rolling on the floor. There was no sacred cow that could not be pulled down and analysed. Nothing was sacred. He’s also a great commentator on human foibles, particularly when people act out of some kind of fear. He’s amazing in capturing things. I remember the first two or three years with him, we just laughed and did crazy things; we got into trouble, we got arrested. He had an incredible curiosity in his own right. Already I was bigger than my actual accomplishments. People were fascinated by the concept of a white boy who crossed over into tribal urban culture, who was dancing and stick fighting and playing guitar, who was seen in the shebeens and on the roof tops with migrant workers, playing maskande music. I was a well-established personality, getting arrested and harassed by caretakers. My praise name later referred to these incidents. ‘They hate you in Killarney, they hate you in the flats, you are hated by the caretakers. They hate anyone who eats pap with the people.’

It was something that had to happen, whether to me or to any other kid. It had to happen. These were the events that led up to my life’s journey. And they even had an impact in the migrant labour community. You know that when I arrived in Makabeleni, on the bus, for the first time, everybody knew me, they’d heard of me. By the time my first single with Sipho was played on the radio in 1976, I was already at university, my story was like a national urban legend, and things became conflated. I would hear that Sipho was my gardener. It was totally part of the white psyche, a white interpretation – Sipho never worked for me. He was my friend. It is an unbelievable story, I know, the way it happened, the things I crossed through culturally, all these lead to the building of a new and alternative reality. I still hear some crazy things - Sipho was never my gardener. He was his own man. He found me; he tracked me down. He came to my place to challenge me and he did it in my kitchen. What happens is that you play songs to each other, and after he’d played the first song I knew he was way better than I was. I had a tape recorder and I taped him. He’d never seen a tape recorder before and he got a fright and said, "What is this?" I said, "it’s a tape recorder" and then he asked me what that meant. I said, "It’s like the radio, when you hear people on the radio, how do you think they get there?’ And he said "You have to go there" and I said "Sometimes they tape you here, then they take the tape and play it on the radio. "Ah…" He was very suspicious, and then he said "Play another one" and then "Play it again". He kept playing back his music, because he was enamoured that the machine could catch him so alive. Those kinds of things are weird to talk about today. He was so innocent. He couldn’t read and he couldn’t write… You know that’s the first line out of the song Universal Men. ‘They could not read and they could not write / and they could not spell their names / But they took this world in both their hands / and they changed it all the same." It refers to Sipho and all the migrant workers. That is the wonder of Sipho.

So he beat me and told me to come to his place where he stayed in Lower Houghton. I gingerly arrived there a week later on the Wednesday. It was his day off. I had to go through this private house, and I snuck into his quarters. I got there and he had bought a tape recorder, he was beaming, and he said "Here’s a cassette, I’ve made some songs for you." So I sat in his room, and

I listened to the music. Then I took my guitar and I started to play counter melodies. I took his tape home and the next week I met him again. What happened was that I started to develop a relationship with the tapes he was giving me of his own music. It was a bit how I imagined Simon and Garfunkel to be. We were a duo. That’s how Johnny and Sipho started. And then we started to perform. Our first gig in public was at Des and Dawn Lindberg’s soiree."