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Claire Johnston: A Heart Of Gold On A Sleeve

Mango Groove's lead singer chats about conservation, and their special legacy slot at Oppikoppi.

2 Mar 2015 / Interview / written by Tecla Ciolfi

The first time that Mango Groove performed at the iconic Hammersmith Apollo in London 23 years ago, they sold out the venue. This Saturday they take on the venue again in celebration of Wilderness Foundation Global, Africa’s first global conservation NGO.

I was fortunate enough to catch Claire Johnston, an avid advocate for conservation, in between a rigorous rehearsal schedule and wasn’t too surprised to learn that her heart is just as big as her stage presence.

Texx: Matthew Mole is one of the acts who’s opening for you at the Hammersmith. Are there any contemporary South African acts that you look at onstage or listen to and go – wow, they’ve got something super special and lasting?

Claire Johnston: That’s a very good question and I’m sad to say I’m horribly out of touch. I’m probably a year out-of-date, but I know that there’s some lovely stuff happening and I get the feeling people are expressing themselves in ways where they’re able to come up with their own distinctive things. I think there’s a sense of not imitating North America or the UK. I mean I was a huge Debbie Harry, Blondie fan, I was a huge Ella Fitzgerald fan and when I joined Mango, I tried to express all of that in how I approached a song… I think that The Soil is lovely. They’re quite emotional and quite fun and it’s also very South African.

TX: I saw The Soil perform for the first time at the SAMAs last year, then they brought out their second album and it just went crazy.

CJ: I’m not surprised – they have genuine talent and you can tell that they’re quite inspired by what they’re drawing from, they’re distinctive and the tick all the boxes.

TX: The Wilderness Foundation Global is the first international conservation organisation founded out of Africa by the late Dr Ian Player, who you were quite close to. Was it him that got you involved in the Foundation?

CJ: Fortuitously he got us involved. I was on the plane going to my granny’s funeral and I met a man who called himself a farmer. Turns out this man was far from a far from a farmer. He’d bought a big piece of land in the Eastern Cape and he was slowly but surely turning it back to what it was before by reproducing wild animals and he was horrified to hear that at the age of 30 I’d never been to a game reserve [laughs] and he immediately went about changing that.

As a result John [Leyden] from Mango and I were at the release of the very first lions in Shamwari Game Reserve. Virginia Mckenna of “Born Free” fame was there and I had to sing the song ‘Born Free’ and it was a very emotional moment – and that’s when I met Dr Player. He saw the potential for someone who could be used with benefit and who would be able to add value at the same time, he was very good like that. And as a result that’s how we ended up doing the Wilderness Trails where you carry your life on your back for 4 days, you sleep under the stars, you are terrified some of the time at night when you’re responsible for taking care of the fire. But then you have moments of this massive reverence where you just look around and you think, I’m so lucky in the grander scheme of things.

I remember the first time we did it [Wilderness Trails] there was just darkness all around us apart from the millions and millions of stars and then the second time, which was about 4 years after that, we could see development encroaching and a lot of it was from mining. And there was that terrible sense of – oh no. We live our modern crazy lives and we get caught up in them but sometimes we’ve got to step back and look at the bigger picture. What are we leaving our kids? We’re leaving them potentially with a bit of a disaster. Nature is the way that it is for a reason, there’s a co-dependency so you take one thing out and everything starts to change.

TX: Well, my dad has been a tour guide for the last 30 years and he’s so in love with the country and he’s not even from here, which is strange.

CJ: Well there you go, those are usually the most passionate people.

TX: Exactly – so I know from the stories that my dad used to tell me about how he could see the environmental change each month and that it was heart-breaking. These places almost have to be protected by law.

CJ: Regulated, absolutely. These things need to go to public opinion, it can’t just be about money coming into the coffers. And that’s where ecotourism comes into play because it’s important for people in power to remember that ecotourism is very valuable.

TX: Agreed. Now, Mango Groove rose to fame in the midst of a politically tumultuous time, much like we are experiencing now politically, and South Africans identified with the fundamental viewpoints and expressions of your songs very deeply. Do you ever wonder why more current artists aren’t commenting on the overall state of the country?

CJ: I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I think to some extent, in the mid-80s when the State Of Emergency was declared, it was very clearly a huge moral issue, and I suspect now it’s just grubby politics the way that it is the world over. We are still trying to find ourselves as South Africans 20 years later, we still grapple with expressing ourselves. I think artistically we’re doing it well – art, music, fashion – I think amazing things are happening but politically we’re a young democracy.

TX: In your 30 years of touring and performing, is there any song that you look forward to singing – either because of a memory that it sparks in your or because you know that you’re going to get a specific reaction from the crowd.

CJ: Perfectly put. ‘Special Star’ – I went through a phase of loathing it. You get bored because people want to hear the same song and you’re like, oh god really, but we’ve got all these new songs? I’ve gotten to the point now where I just love it because I’m offstage for the first half of the song and the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen. Then I come back onstage and it’s like they’re surprised to see me and they get all excited, that works very well for me because it becomes a special moment. I love skipping offstage, the penny whistle starts and everyone goes nuts.

We’re rehearsing quite a lot at the moment chucking some older stuff in for our show for London and there’s a song that we did last night called ‘Taken For A Moment’ – John wrote the lyrics, they’re very subtle commentary on the loss of someone. It’s about David Webster who was assassinated and singing it again last night there’s a lot of gentle folk guitar. People love it and singing it last night for the first time in 15 years I can see why – it’s just a very gentle song with a subtle but strong message.

TX: The first time I saw Mango Groove perform was at Oppikoppi 2013 and I’d never experienced anything like your set. I remember looking around and thinking that it transcended age and race and all those nasty social structures. I remember you stopping to thank everybody and getting quite emotional onstage. At which point I probably burst into tears. How special was that moment for you?

CJ: It was a weird year for me, I’ll be candid with you. My mom died that year and I was in a very dark place and just the fact that you get that love from – I mean, know you can’t look for love from strangers, that’s ridiculous – but there was a genuine warmth and it was very South African, it was very much home, and it was just what I needed.

TX: That’s beautiful – so you said you’ve been rehearsing quite a bit, there must be quite a buzz in the Mango Groove camp about going back to London?

CJ: Oh no, everyone’s very excited and we’re talking it all very seriously. Well, we always take things seriously but the last time we were in London was in 1992, which is pretty terrifying because so much has changed in the world. So it’s going to be a very different experience, but I have no doubt that it’s going to be amazing.

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Mango Groove will be performing at The Hammersmith Apollo in London with The Soil, Matthew Mole & Kinky Robot.