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28 August 2015

5 Women Artists That Changed the Sound of South Africa (Part 5) – Claire Johnston

Claire Johnston was born in Hertfordshire, England, December 1967. Her family arrived in Johannesburg when Claire was just three years old. The sights, sounds and people of Africa helped mould this great home-grown talent into one of South Africa’s renowned female singers and a major part of the success and longevity of Mango Groove.

At the age of three, shortly after she arrived in South Africa, she took her first bow in a solo performance at a nursery school concert. Claire loved the applause, she would sing and dance for her parents friends.

At the age of ten, she debuted as an actor, dancer and singer in a Brickhill-Burke production of the smash-hit musical “Annie”. Claire played Tessie the Cry-baby and performed in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town.

At 15, Claire joined a teenage band where she met friend and future Mango Groove keyboardist, Alan Lazar. A matric student a Greenside High School, dreaming about university, Claire took singing lessons with Eve Boswell.

Mango Groove, a crossover band, called Boswell looking for her ‘best’ female student singer. In 1985, a shy 17-year-old, Claire joined a diverse group of musicians that would over the next 25 years become a symbol of the Rainbow Nation.

John Leyden and Andy Craggs started Mango Groove in 1984 but it was only once Johnston joined the group that they started getting recognition. Leyden originally thought Claire’s voice was too soft but with a mic in hand, her powerful voice combined elements of Ella Fitzgerald and Debbie Harry. Johnston and founding member John Leyden would later marry.

In 1986, the band released their first single, “Two Hearts”. The band released a series of singles over the next couple of years before releasing their self-titled album in 1989. Claire recorded another four albums with mango groove, which include Hometalk (1990), Another Country (1993), Eat a Mango (1995) and Bang the Drum (2009).

Despite a busy schedule, Johnston completed an English, Philosophy, and Politics degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1988.

Considered by many to be the original Afro-pop band, Mango Groove defiantly bridged the colour divide. The band fused traditional African music such as kwela, marabi, mbube, swing and gumboot dancing with the distinct sound of the penny whistle and Claire Johnston’s potent vocals. One of the few South African music groups at the time with black and white members, their innovative music and performances were loved by audiences of all races and age.

Johnston has travelled extensively with Mango Groove, performing to sell-out shows in London, Paris, Hong Kong, and Sydney. She has crooned on 12 South African number-one hits and sold over 700,000 albums.

In 1992, Claire performed with Mango Groove via satellite uplink for the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in London, and in 1997 they were the only African band to perform at the Hong Kong Reunification concert.

Although the band didn’t stop performing together, between 1995 and 2009, Mango Groove took a hiatus from recording. In this time, Claire pursued a variety of successful solo projects that reinforced her status as a South African entertainment icon.

In 2001, she released, “Fearless”, her stunningly evocative and introspective first solo album produced by UK uber-producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven and acclaimed songwriter/producer Marius de Vries.

She followed up “Fearless” in 2003 by recoding a benefit album “Starehe: An African Day” with Jeff Maluleke. Made in partnership with Amarula Cream, the album took 3 years to complete and was only released in 2006.

The perfect expression of Johnston’s love for conservation, the album sales raised funds and awareness for Rob Slotow’s Elephant research Project and the Wilderness Foundation.

Claire was part of the global broadcast of Shamwari’s release of lions into the Eastern Cape (the first time in 150 years), and became the first SA patron of the world wide Born Free Foundation.

While recording “Starehe: An African Day”,  Johnston, in 2004 released, “Africa Blue”, produced by her husband, John Leyden, this album saw a return to the songs, sounds and styles she grew up on and loved.

Claire’s long association with South African rugby started in 1998, when she performed “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” for the Rugby League Tri-Nations tournaments. Since then her soaring renditions of the National Anthem have become synonymous with international rugby tests.

In 2003, Claire and Jeff Maluleke recorded and performed the official 2003 SA World Cup song ‘Together as One’ for the ‘True Colours’ worldwide commemorative album.

Johnston was also involved in South Africa’s 2012 Olympics bid and the All Africa Games Celebrations in 1999.

Claire Johnston came here as a child, fell in love with South Africa, drew her inspiration from the urban beat of the people and made Africa her heart and home.


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