Saturday, September 3, 2011

Johnny Clegg and ‘Gumba Gumba Jive’

I turned instantly into the fan from hell.

I rushed up to him as he was getting ready to sit down at the sushi bar.  “I love your music!” I enthused, my voice probably slurring from sake.  

Before he lowered himself into his chair, he pulled a cassette from the front pocket of his black jeans.  The tape inside the casing had wormed its way loose and soon dangled onto the floor.  “That’s the new album,” he said in his staccato South African accent.  Rolling the tape back into the cassette, he sat in his chair with an air of exhaustion.  He must have spent most of the day recording and was now looking forward to a peaceful sushi dinner.

That didn’t stop me.  I began to pepper him with my opinions about his songs.  I love this song!  I love that song!  I’m sure a third song came up as well.  He seemed to grit his teeth and humor me.

But my most important interjection was the question: What the hell happened to “Gumba Gumba Jive”?

Okay, back up.  The beleaguered recording artist was none other than Johnny Clegg, whom I ran into at a Los Angeles sushi restaurant.  This must have been 1992, the year before his album Heat, Dust & Dreams — which I probably saw in its primordial state dangling on the restaurant floor — was released.  Although he’s a white South African, Clegg (I hope you already know) speaks the Zulu language fluently and mixes indigenous African song styles with Western-derived rock music (just like most black South African musicians do).  He famously co-founded the group Juluka with his friend Sipo Mchunu, reportedly the first integrated South African band to play in front of paying audiences, although not always in the usual commercial venues.  This was in the days of apartheid, government-enforced racial segregation, in South Africa, so the very existence of a group like Juluka was a political statement.  And this political sensibility was often the subject of their sometimes tacitly, sometimes explicitly anti-apartheid songs, which occasionally led to scuffles with the law.  

Born in Britain and raised in South Africa, Clegg grew up fascinated with the indigenous South African musicians around him.  This led him to befriend them and learn from them, both music and the local Zulu language.  In fact, he became so good at speaking Zulu that he authored a textbook on the subject.  This familiarity with and enthusiasm for the local culture allowed Clegg and Mchunu to utilize many African elements in their songs, some of which are written, in whole or in part, in Zulu.  When he and Mchunu disbanded in 1985, Clegg formed a second group, Johnny Clegg and Savuka, which continued making music in the same heterogeneous style into the post-apartheid years.  Savuka split up in 1997, and after briefly reuniting with Mchunu, Clegg has performed as a solo artist since 2000.

Clegg’s beat-driven music beggars description.  Pulse-pounding and infectiously insistent, blending with his rough-at-the-edges tenor, Clegg’s tunes explode with an energy that portends the rising of an intercultural identity too long suppressed.  Even his slower numbers like “Asimbonanga,” a threnody for the then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela, are more stirring than saddening.  But of all the effusive, irresistible, uplifting tunes that Clegg has performed with Savuka, my favorite by far is the exhilarating “Gumba Gumba Jive,” which begins with a rousing riff on drums and electric guitar before detonating with an exuberant dance beat and buoyant melody, as well as with some of the most affirmative lyrics I’ve ever heard:

You’ve got to roll with the punches and change with the times
Don’t let today forget yesterday's smiles
Undermeath all some things never die
We’ve got to listen to the rhythm, keep moving, you and I ...

So, I’m bewildered that “Gumba Gumba Jive” has vanished from the face of the Earth.  Or at least from the marketplaces of America.  

I first heard “Gumba Gumba Jive” when I bought Johnny Clegg and Savuka’s debut album Third World Child (1987) on cassette.  The fourth song on the first side, “Gumba Gumba Jive” jumped out of my speakers in a way that none of the other songs did — and the other songs were very catchy in their own way.  In fact, I would recommend all of the songs on Third World Child as outstanding, but “Gumba Gumba Jive” was even more so, a standout from an album of standouts.  Later that year, I decided to buy the album on vinyl (this was the B.C.D. era — before compact disks).  I purchased the LP in a hurry, so it wasn’t until I got home that I realized that my favorite tune on the album had been excised and replaced with a not-as-good version of the older Juluka tune “Scatterlings of Africa.”  I checked my neighborhood record stores, and the other for-sale LPs of Third World Child had also replaced “Gumba Gumba Jive” with the inferior facsimile of the song that had been performed so well by Clegg’s earlier group.  

As the years danced by, I would occasionally try to seek out the song, with no luck.  About the year 1990, Clegg was a guest on a local radio show (he was probably plugging Savuka’s just-released third album, Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World), and the program invited listeners to call in with their questions.  Of course, I called up to ask about “Gumba Gumba Jive.”  My voice wasn’t broadcast by the show, but my question was relayed to Clegg.  He said something about the album Third World Child being a collection of diverse Savuka recordings made over a period of time and put together by the record company.  He made it sound as though he did not have a very great hand in putting the album together and therefore didn’t know why “Gumba Gumba Jive” had first appeared on the record and then disappeared from it.  The answer disappointed me, but at least my question got through.

A couple more years went by.  

One night, I had just finished eating (and drinking) by myself at a local (and very delicious but not terribly crowded) sushi restaurant.  I stood up from my chair at the sushi bar, put on my jacket, picked up my reading material, and got ready to go.  Into the small restaurant walked a lone figure.  With his curly brown hair, square jaw, strong frame, and piercing eyes, he looked very familiar, but since he was all by himself — no entourage or even a civilian-shielding companion — he couldn’t have been a celebrity.  Maybe it was my third sake that made his face look famous.  As he selected a chair to sit in and took off his jacket, I said to him: “You look a lot like Johnny Clegg.”

“I am Johnny Clegg,” he answered.  You can imagine what happened next.  (If not, see above.)

Before I left him alone (to his relief, no doubt), I suggested that he put “Gumba Gumba Jive” on a greatest-hits album.  Concentrating on breaking apart his chopsticks, he said that he didn’t really have much say in a project like that.  I wished him a good night and staggered ... uh ... walked out of the restaurant, glowing with the gratitude that I just met the celebrity I had most wanted to meet.  But I was still a little dissatisfied with the unavailability of “Gumba Gumba Jive.”

In this day of iTunes and mp3 downloads, “Gumba Gumba Jive” still isn’t available for purchase on any of the above-ground commercial websites in the U.S.  (But with music-sharing sites, the song isn’t entirely inaccessible.)  I can only conclude that “Gumba Gumba Jive” must be entangled in some kind of legal complication.  

As for the song’s title, I’m a bit mystified by it.  I understand that “gumba-gumba” is South African slang for a portable music player, basically the Zulu equivalent of “ghetto blaster.”  So, the title may mean dancing to music being played on a boombox.  And Gumba Gumba Records is a division of South Africa’s Gallo Record Company.  But “Gumba Gumba” is also the title of a song recorded by the South African kwela group Alexandra Black Mambazo (whose name would later inspire that of the better-known Zulu group Ladysmith Black Mambazo), with Mahlathini on background vocals, sometime in the 1950s and issued on 78 r.p.m. by that country’s division of Columbia Records.  All I know about this song is that it has a fan-made YouTube video.  But if a legal dispute is indeed behind “Gumba Gumba Jive’s” disappearance, perhaps the older tune is the source of it.  I can’t think of any other reason why such a catchy song would become the musical equivalent of Jimmy Hoffa.  

Update, May 22, 2012: “Gumba Gumba Jive” is now available for purchase on  At least, that’s what the site says.  The song is on the album The Very Best of Johnny Clegg and Savuka, and on the mp3’s Amazon page, song samples are available for listening.  However, when you click on the button to listen to “Gumba Gumba Jive,” you hear a different song, the one listed above it (“In My African Dream”).  You won’t hear “Gumba Gumba Jive” unless you click on the button below (the button designating the song “Lost Girl”).  I can imagine this leading to more problems (click to buy “Gumba Gumba Jive” and you buy “In My African Dream,” click to buy “Lost Girl” and you buy “Lost Girl”).  To quote Roseanne Rosanadana, “It’s always something.”

Johnny Clegg & Savuka singing ‘Gumba Gumba Jive’


Noomsie said...

Agreed - though your youtube link is not to the Johnny Clegg version of the song. Desperate to get hold of it!

Rob in L.A. said...

Noomsie, I didn’t say that the link connected to the Clegg song. I say that it connects to the Alexandra Black Mambazo song “Gumba Gumba.”

Jack said... The music video is up on Youtube

Rob in L.A. said...

Thanks, Jack!

Unknown said...

Incredible post! I LOVED Gumbagumba Jive in my youth in rural upstate New York, and the ebullient song kept my spirits up for decades. How wonderful that you met him. And I knew the song, because I had the same cassette! Thank you.