IF ANY AFRICAN band is to break through from cult status and reach the broad masses of American radioland, South Africa's interracial sextet Juluka may be the one. Co-leaders Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu have transformed the Zulu street music of Johannesburg's black migrant workers into an international folk-rock much as Bob Dylan and the Byrds did with Appalachian ballads.
Singing in English and emphasizing musical patterns similar to the West's melodic song form, Juluka should be accessible to average Americans in a way that Bob Marley was and King Sunny Ade isn't.
Most important, Juluka sounds great. Its second American album and fifth overall, "Stand Your Ground," begins with "Kilimanjaro," which takes the "I've been to the mountain" imagery of Martin Luther King Jr. and transplants it to Africa's most famous mountain. Over a bright shuffle beat driven by Mchunu's guitar, Clegg sings his metaphoric lyrics to an enchanting melody. The lyrics combine the nature imagery of Zulu folk songs with political allegory for a mix that's more poetic than polemic. Mchunu's distinctively African rhythms are pumped up to Western size with electric bass and electric keyboards.
Juluka does not play traditional Zulu music anymore, but Clegg and Mchunu have created a hybrid music with sure roots in Zulu and new branches stretching out to the rest of the world. With strong similarities to the Police, Juluka may well find an international audience for what Clegg calls a vision of the "non-racial future."
If you're interested in the pure Zulu street music that spawned Juluka, check out "Rhythm of Resistance," an anthology of songs by Zulu street performers recorded for a 1978 documentary film. Sung in Zulu dialect with instruments subordinated to vocals, the 10 songs have an austere dignity. One of the best is by "Jonny & Sipho," the founders of Juluka, in their traditionalist phase.
JULUKA -- "Stand Your Ground" (Warner Bros. 9 25155-1) and "Rhythm of Resistance: Music of Black South Africa" (Shanachie 43018); appearing Sunday at the 9:30 Club.