The perverse apparatus of apartheid was locked in place in mid-1960s South Africa, with rules to enforce racial hierarchy and prevent mixing of cultures, when a restless white kid from Johannesburg, barely in his teens, fell in with some street musicians and became expert in Zulu guitar, singing, and dance.
Johnny Clegg broke the law. In playing Zulu music, he flouted legislation on cultural separation. His visits to the migrant labor hostels where his friends resided — the Group Areas Act determined who could live where — were illegal.
He was arrested for the first time at 15. “I suddenly discovered that there were these separation acts,” he says now. “Why am I being criminalized simply because I want to play guitar with a black person, meet somebody at a migrant hostel? All these things started becoming more urgent to me.”
Clegg and his friend, the Zulu musician Sipho Mchunu, built a multiracial band in the 1970s. They called it Juluka, Zulu for “sweat.” At the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, they played in South Africa — in private venues, under threat of repression — and abroad, where activists welcomed them, opening a loophole in the cultural boycott in recognition of their pioneering project.
Clegg, 64, went on to a long career with his second band, Savuka, and later projects. He became a South African icon: In a moving moment captured on video, an elderly Nelson Mandela came onstage at a concert in Europe as Clegg’s group played “Asimbonanga,” his tribute to the liberation hero, written in the days of the struggle.
These days, Clegg is looking down memory lane for a poignant reason. He suffers from pancreatic cancer and has undergone complicated surgery. His chemotherapy-based treatment has given him energy for a number of months, but he’s been warned it will dwindle early next year. After that, the prognosis is poor.
For Clegg, who is warm, gregarious, and forthright, there was only one thing to do: a farewell tour. In South Africa, the United Kingdom, and in a few weeks the United States, he is holding his last concerts ever, and making sure they are a fitting experience for himself, his band, and his fans.
“The show is autobiographical,” Clegg says. “It’s peppered with anecdotes from my youth, how the songs got written, moments that people might not know about. You’re going to get your left brain and right brain working together.”
The run of “Final Journey” concerts has been a huge success, selling out and adding performances. The Johannesburg stand grew from three to 10 nights. Clegg’s Boston show, at the Berklee Performance Center on Oct. 14, has sold out. The organizers, World Music/CRASHarts, have added a conversation event with Clegg the next morning.
For many Americans, exposure to Clegg’s music came in conjunction with anti-apartheid awareness, especially on college campuses when students demanded that universities divest from companies doing business with the regime.
“The student movement in America really got what Juluka was doing,” Clegg says. “I think most of our sales were to university students.” In Europe too, Clegg made ties with activists that evolved to lifelong friendships. “People got what we were saying,” he says, even if they didn’t understand the Zulu lyrics. “A band can come from a country where there’s social upheaval, and it’s protest music.”
Juluka’s music drew deeply on Zulu culture. “I was writing Zulu street music by the time I was 20,” Clegg says. “I am a fully trained composer in these traditions.” He mastered Zulu guitar and dance, including its energetic high-kicks, and began to inhabit the Zulu worldview. “Sky People,” the title of a 1979 Juluka song, is also the literal translation of amaZulu, the Zulu name for themselves.
In retrospect, what was he searching for?
“I was looking for an African identity,” Clegg answers, direct as ever. “I was looking for a way that I could be African. Because the language has grown in the African landscape. It has experienced colonialism, tribal wars; it has grown in a situation of rural cattle herding and subsistence farming. So your vocabulary, all the metaphors and images that you use, come out of it. And you start to experience the world through that lens.”
Today, the sobriquet “White Zulu” that affixed to him sounds awkward, culturally appropriating. But in context, it was subversive. “People in Soweto called me the White Zulu; it was kind of an inside joke,” he says. “Because a white Zulu could not exist in apartheid society.”
By weaving pop, Celtic, Indian, and other influences into a Zulu framework, Juluka and Savuka were early shapers of the global “world music” scene. But Clegg isn’t stuck in time. An album of new music is due out in October, with producers steeped in South Africa’s house and hip-hop culture — including his son Jesse — involved in it. Black Coffee, the superstar South African house DJ, contributes a remix, Clegg reveals.
This is an emotional time for Clegg, by necessity and design. “I’m also in a way saying goodbye to my band,” he says. Some of the players have been with him for well over 20 years. “It’s very important for me to give them this year.”
It will be Clegg’s last tour, whether he beats the odds or not. “I have such mixed feelings,” he says. “When I do the show I feel strong and good, but that’s the illusion of the chemo. I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ll see what the new year brings.”
Johnny Clegg: The Final Journey
At Berklee Performance Center, Oct. 14 (sold out)
A Conversation with Johnny Clegg
At Berklee Performance Center, Oct. 15 at 11 a.m.
Tickets $28, 617-876-4275, www.worldmusic.org
Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org