Johnny Clegg & Savuka are basically a folk-rock band, but the folk music they have adapted to rock-and-roll is the township jive of their native South Africa. Wednesday night at Gaston Hall, this biracial septet also adapted traditional Zulu folk dances into a show that was as impressive for its visuals and movement as for its singing and playing.
Singing in both English and Zulu, Clegg shifted effortlessly back and forth between his own melodic rock-and-roll (which recalled the Police's singles) and traditional South African chants. When his fine band locked into one of these rhythmic chants, Clegg and his percussionist Dudu Zulu performed dance duets, slicing the air with sudden arm chops, prowling the stage in exaggerated crouches and kicking their heels up to their ears. Before long they had the crowd up, clapping and dancing as if the sedate Georgetown University chapel had become a Soweto speak-easy.
Opening the show were the Horseflies, originally an old-timey string quartet from Ithaca, but now a folk-punk sextet. They transformed old mountain fiddle tunes with fast, herky-jerky rhythms as booming drums and twitchy guitars pushed fiddler Judy Hymans into Middle Eastern melismas. Tall, bald and outspoken, Jeff Claus came across as the Peter Garrett of Upstate New York as he chopped out frantic rhythm chords on a small tenor banjo. Rich Stearns picked out nervous five-string banjo lines and turned the old lullaby "Hush, Little Baby" into a funeral processional.