Ottawa musician recalls life on the road with apartheid-era icon Johnny Clegg

Johnny Clegg was a central figure during the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s, and his music gained global popularity during those tumultuous times. Along for the ride was drummer Derek de Beer, who now calls Ottawa home.

Derek de Beer was a member of Johnny Clegg and Juluka during the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa

Ottawa musician Derek de Beer, right, is heading to South Africa in January to be reunited with his former bandmate Johnny Clegg, left. (Submitted/Devon de Beer)

Johnny Clegg was a central figure during the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s, and his music gained global popularity during those tumultuous times.

Alongside Clegg was drummer Derek de Beer, a member of Clegg's influential backing bands Juluka and Savuka — bands credited with bridging the cultural divide between white and black South Africa. 

In 2015 Clegg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Now 64 and in remission, he's chosen to leave the touring life behind and concentrate on his health.

De Beer, who moved to Ottawa once his time with the band was over, recalled how he felt when he first learned about Clegg's diagnosis.
Derek de Beer, far left, was a founding member of Juluka with Johnny Clegg, third from right. The band later became Savuka. (Derek de Beer)

"For once in my life I was tongue-tied," he said. "It's very hard to listen to, knowing that he's such a wonderful storyteller and a giver, songwriter and communicator to planet Earth. He's a pioneer. A wonderful human being with a great sense of humour."

In January de Beer will return to South Africa to help Clegg with his memoir. 

"We'll get past the tears first. It's going to be very emotional," de Beer said. 

De Beer said neither Clegg nor himself were big partygoers during their touring days, so they spent a lot of time getting to know each other on the back of the tour bus while the other band members enjoyed themselves.

"We did like 12 world tours, 300 cities a year. It was Clegg and myself, just the two of us, sitting on the back of the rock 'n' roll bus," said de Beer. "And there was virtually nothing about him I didn't know. We could talk about toothpicks, aliens, how you mow the lawn and how you build a house. And I got to know him very well."

Dangerous times 

As a racially mixed band in South Africa during apartheid, they also faced obstacles that other groups could never imagine, de Beer recalled. De Beer said they never entertained the idea of giving up, despite the dangers.
Clegg's final tour stopped in Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City, as well as across the U.S. and Africa. (Themba Hadebe/Associated Press)

"I don't remember the number of times we were arrested. Shows closed down. We got chased off the stage with a pump shotgun. But we went on to great success. And at the end of the day, the band was about inclusion. Not exclusion."

During breaks in the gruelling tour schedules, instead of returning to South Africa for short stints, de Beer would visit friends in Canada. He eventually would meet the mother of his children, who's from the Ottawa area. The marriage ended, but de Beer and his kids have called the city home ever since.

"I just had a lots of fun here," de Beer said. "I liked Canada and I thought it would be great for my kids to be born here."