A Conversation With
by S.H. Watkins, Sr.
Worldly, diverse and wonderfully talented, Jonathan Butler creates music that is ripe with texture, rhythm and melody… music from his soul. His albums contain elements of R&B, jazz, Africano, and pop, but he prefers to avoid any labels that may limit the focus of his muse. We caught up with the South African-born prodigy on tour in California… JazzUSA: Hi Jonathan. I understand you’re the youngest of 17 brothers and sisters, all musicians?
JB: (laughing) Who told you that? we’re actually only twelve. Some playing… some are making music and some are not making music. There’s a few of us that are kind of pursuing it, but most of them probably decided to pick another vocation.
JazzUSA: Were your parents musicians?
JB: Yep! My Mom and my Father were, yeah.
JazzUSA: What about this term I heard mentioned ‘The Michael Jackson of South Africa’?
JB: Oh you heard that? You know, they said it, not me. But you know… I’ve been doing it for a while, making music in South Africa as well as overseas. They know me as just a home boy from home.
JazzUSA: Having been a performing musician all your life, do you ever feel pressure to excel?
JB: I mean, pressure is always there. If you want to do something, you’re going to be passionate about it, no matter the obstacles. When you do what you love, all the wicked stuff and bad stuff and obstacles all go out the window! It’s really, you know, cool… In my own instance I was blessed to be born into a family of musicians, and it changed my life completely.
JazzUSA: It changed all of our lives too. You’re on Warner Brothers now, that’s a pretty major label. Why the switch?
JB: You know, things happen in the business. I was with N2K for a while, then it became N-Coded and I did some records for them and um, it was just time to move on, you know? Warner is a place that I most definitely love. I enjoy the fact it IS Warner, there’s a lot of great people on the label and they dug the music that I played.
JazzUSA: So they’re going to support you..
JB: I hope so, you know.
JazzUSA: On a different track, since the first album came out, I’ve noticed that as time progresses, you’ve become more vocal oriented.
JB: Well, go back to my first records, I sang. The records were largely successful for me weren’t instrumental records, they were vocal records. All the songs I’ve ever written were vocal songs, they became grammy-nominated songs, and it’s just me! I think somebody woke up one day and decided to call me a jazz guitarist, and it stuck with everybody. As far as I’m concerned I’m a singer first, and then a guitar player.
JazzUSA: JazzUSA has a correspondent in South Africa, Struan Douglass, and in communicating with him I’ve gotten the impression that things are slowly changing there. What’s your impression of the political and musical climate now in South Africa?
JB: Well, you know I live in the States now, and I lived in London for sixteen years, so I’m not going to be an expert. I get news from my in-laws and family. There’s a lot of changes, but there’s also a reality and fact that there’s a lot more people poorer back home, more shanteys than I’ve ever seen, there’s lot more people unemployed, and you know we have an AIDS epidemic in South Africa, we have a Tuberculosis crisis in South Africa, so there’s a lot of things the GOvernment has to be concerned with. Especially the young people, the youth is vital to the future of South Africa, and investing in education and health is important.
You know South Africa is a world unto it’s own in a way because we always seem to think that nothing’s going on and everything else is cool, but when I’m home I do see things I’ve never seen before, and to a large degree dealing with the mind sets of people who have lived a certain way for a long time, and it’s going to take a new vision to bring South Africa to the rest of the world, to become part of a global community instead of living in our own cocoon and saying things are OK when things might now be OK. We also have a different situation economically, you know, you still have the black population at a disadvantage economically. So, while we have freedom and we enjoy our democracy, we still have a long way to go in terms of that equality.
JazzUSA: The American media seems to almost not even look that direction to see if there is any news to report.
JB: I think it could be a lot of things. It could be that the government denies that there’s an AIDS crisis. I think things like that have the U.S. or the western investors a little scary, and everybody’s waiting to see what’s going to happen with South Africa. I sound like a politician at this point, but I’m from South Africa and what I see when I go home and what I hear the media say are two different things, you know? The people think that South Africa is just Mountains and beautiful safari parks and beaches and homes rights on the hills, but in the valley there’s some stuff that needs addressing.
JazzUSA: What can people that read this do to try and help?
JB: To bring more awareness to South Africa, what I try to do through music. I do that at every opportunity I get. My platform is music, and I try to let people all across the country know where South Africa really is, what South Africa is in. And not only that, Black people know how to rejoice, they know how to be happy. We know hot to sing even though we’ve got drama in our lives. We still sing and we still make music and we still celebrate, that’s just the way we are. But the future of South Africa is kind of a concern if you think about what’s going on there in term of AIDS and Tuberculosis and things like that. Also the education, for everyone you know, and housing.. I think it takes vision, great vision from the government. The power from the top has to run down to the bottom.
Also South Africa doesn’t have the.. the musical climate is not what it should be, what it can be. It can be more than what it is today and I’ve had to struggle since I was born there. So it seems that for me to say something, nobody really wants to listen because they think I’m a home boy that’s now living in the states and has done his thing and who-are-you to tell it. As far as I’m concerned, the climate is not right for South Africa music yet because it’s still very territorial, still very formatted. It’s very black and it’s very white and it’s very Afrikaans and it’s very colored and it’s very Indian and it’s very Muslim and… you now… I think that sports plays a bigger role in South AFrica than music does. I think that if there was a game of rugby on today, the whole city would stop and go watch.
I have my own struggles with it because as a young musician I’ve seen how we were battling to make music that was original or funky. Of course now everybody wants to make make home music. People in South Africa didn’t make home music, and now they are saying ‘it’s a new South Africa , we should do this.’ But it’s not coming from that right place. They’re doing it for commercial reasons not because they were born to do that. My heart goes out to my Nation and I play to God one day to do more than talking, to in some way be of service.
JazzUSA: Are you on tour for this new release?
JB: I’m actually on the road at the moment. Getting ready to travel to Africa, then the states… been busy this summer.
JazzUSA: It may be premature, since this CD is not out yet, but are there plans for another one?
JB: Well.. I hope so… I hope Warner is gonna let me (laughing). I cannot think that far right now to be honest, but we’ll see what happens with this.
JazzUSA: Great and best of luck.