Mango Groove lead singer, performer, songwriter Claire Johnston cooks like she sings: with abandon, focus and joy. By Nia Magoulianiti-McGregor
When Claire Johnston first auditioned for Mango Groove as a ‘shy’ 17-year-old in matric, band member John Leyden thought her voice was too soft. ‘No wonder,’ Claire says, ‘I had no microphone!’
John snapped her up for the band anyway and that not-really-soft voice earned her R60 for Mango Groove’s first gig – ‘I thought I’d really made it’, she says. Yet for a while there her schoolteachers had little idea they had a ‘Special Star’ in detention when they reprimanded her for having two earrings in one ear or other misdemeanours.
But it wasn’t long before Mango Groove, an 11-piece, interracial band (at a time when racial boundaries were firmly set in place) were banging out hit after smash hit, becoming a counter-cultural poster-band for the rainbow nation about to happen, celebrating big brass and penny-whistle sounds and the idea that local could be really lekker. ‘Our first album in 1989 entitled simply Mango Groove introducing fans to marabi, kwela and pop influences went double platinum,’ says Claire. Mango Groove went on to become an icon, a zeitgeist for the changing political and social times, getting no less that 12 number one hits and being the first and only group to remain at the top of the South African national sales charts for over a year.
‘We were something of a cult band,’ Claire says. ‘We started in smoky clubs, then the campus circuit, then began touring the country. It felt amazing… unreal…We were not only playing the music we loved, we started to realize we were breaking new ground.’
Behind the scenes Claire was the only child of an adoring mother Jane. ‘It was a complicated, sometimes intense relationship – I think it always is when you’re the only child – but she supported me from the beginning, from when I first got this germ of an idea that I was born to be a performer.
They had arrived in SA from England when Claire was three years old. ‘This place grabbed hold of me immediately,’ says Claire.
‘Before my parents got divorced (her father returned to England and just ‘disappeared’) I used to perform for my dad and his friends by singing show tunes. I was around seven and even then I loved the applause.’ A few years later when she got the part of Tessie crybaby in Annie, Jane allowed her, at the age of 10, to go on tour around SA, leaving home for around three months. ‘Even then I was very independent. I was so lucky she believed in me then and continued to do that her whole life.’
In a way, Claire, as the face and lead singer of Mango Groove, has been leaving home ever since, performing in places like Hong Kong, Paris, Toronto, Sydney and London.
Combine that with her divorce to band member John – ‘we are still the best of friends’ – and her parents’ divorce – ‘my mom and I moved quite often’ – and perhaps it goes some small way to understanding why her kitchen in her Parkhurst home she shares with her partner of two years Randall is so important to her.
‘There’s something about that green Smeg fridge and Le Creuset cookware, that says “stability” and “perfect home”, says Claire.
‘I know the perfect family doesn’t exist, that it’s the sort of nonsense popularized in the 1950’s but I like the idea of being a good homemaker, of having my cooking praised… I find it reassuring that I have a home I love and that I’m in charge of it.’
‘I remember walking past the Hyde Park branch of Le Creuset and getting all excited. And when I put a plastic handle in the oven and it melted, they replaced it no questions asked. Besides my heart-shaped pot that’s perfect for sauces, I enjoy the pots that I can put in the oven or fry with.’
She takes her time cooking. ‘Everything is done too quickly these days. I cook because I want to. I have fun with it. There’s no rush.’
Which is reminiscent of how her mom did things. ‘My mother was a great cook. My overriding memories of Sundays were languid days – I wasn’t even allowed to do dishes – with food, joy and laughter, and eating a delicious meal at 4pm because no one was in a hurry. She worked in the week, but on weekends our house became a home with roast lamb or beef cooking slowly in the oven. I remember the way she used to mash potatoes, and I’d lick it out the pot.
‘She loved that song by Barbara Streisand and Barry Gibb Guilty and she’d play it over and over!
‘If I hear that song today, it takes me right back. Music goes straight to your emotional core. I think it must be only second to smell in terms of memory.’
Mango Groove music bring back memories of playing at the Nelson Mandela Inauguration Concert, The Hong Kong Handover Concert, The Montreux Jazz Festival, The Freddy Mercury Tribute Concert… but more recently, she says, is the ‘amazing memory of finally performing Oppikoppi a couple of years ago, where over 20 000 people sang every song along with us – sometimes, so loudly that at times we couldn’t hear ourselves on stage!’
Mango Groove is playing one night only at the Hammersmith Apollo in London this Saturday on March 7. ‘It’s going to be a massive celebration, playing our most iconic hits, including Special Star, Dance Some More, Moments Away and Another Country.
‘I think the only thing that will outlast me besides my music are my Le Creuset pots!’
Words that describe you in the world:
Confused, excited, terrified.
Words that describe the way you cook and sing:
With abandon, with focus, with spontaneity and joy.
What’s your secret to cooking well?
Creativity. I’ve started to enjoy trusting my instincts and not following a recipe. I believe when we learn to trust ourselves, we grow.
Your favourite Le Creuset pot?
My pink heart-shaped pot that my sister-in-law Julia gave me for my 40th. It’s fantastic for making sauces and gravies.
Your best Le Creuset colours:
The pastels: Coastal Blue or Chiffon Pink.
Your favourite meal:
I love cooking chicken soup. I use the whole chicken from the carcass to the meat. I feel I celebrate it by not wasting any part of it.
What would you save in a fire?
My dog Patches, originally found on the streets of Gugulethu. Sometimes it feels like he totally understands me…
What song do you sing in the shower most?
I don’t sing in the shower but I love Every Breath you Take by The Police. I was 15 when I first heard it. It’s haunting and sinister. I wanted someone to feel that way about me.
Your favourite Mango Groove song:
Special Star. Mainly because of the audience’s response. Sometimes they take over and I can’t hear myself!
What superpower do you wish for:
Your fantasy dinner guests would be…
Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela – just to hear two clever men talking to each other.
What would you feed them?
Something prosaic like roast chicken and bread sauce – that’s bread, bay leaves and cream – with roast potatoes. I’d make some pap and chakalaka so Winston could taste something different. I’d end off with a Pavlova dripping with strawberries and raspberries.
Your last meal would consist of…
Roast pheasant, like my mother-in-law in Wales makes it, with good red wine
Your guilty food pleasure?
Chocolate brownies with ice cream.
A cooking tip?
Don’t stress. Have fun. If I had to do a recipe book it would be called The Anxious Girl’s Cook Book.
RECIPE: CLAIRE’S CHICKEN SOUP
Put whole carcass in the pot
Add water, herbs
You should aim to have 1.2 litres.
Toss in carrots, celery, onion and boil for three hours.
Fry fresh batch of finely chopped carrots, onions and celery in olive oil or butter until soft, then add the drained stock and bring to the boil.
Grill chicken meat separately and chop.
Turn down heat and simmer for 10 mins.
Add chopped up chicken breast to the stock and vegetables and add either fresh parsley or tarragon, finely chopped and simmer for a few more minutes.
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