An Interview with Jonathan Butler
HEALS HIS LAND
by Mark Ruffin
Most of North America knows Jonathan Butler as a powerful adult pop vocalist and a superb and unique contemporary jazz guitarist who laces his instrumentals with a touch of his South African homeland. It may come as a surprise to many to learn that Butler was the youngest of 17 children and he was a child star from the age of seven.
“But to be Stevie Wonder in South Africa didn’t make a bit of difference to the government.” Butler said in a phone interview from his temporary home in Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, Butler was the very first black artist ever played on white South African radio, After a life of pop, he discovered jazz and moved to London. He became a star, which of course during apartheid meant unofficial exile. Now that the country is making history with a mass strong of racial harmony, Butler will spearhead the day when every one in South Africa will ask for forgiveness. When the historic South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission hands in it’s final report sometime this fall, they will call on Butler to lead the call of unity with a song.
JazzUSA: So how are you doing Jonathan.
JB: Right now, it’s hot in L.A., but I’m fine. I’m just coming off the road, and sort of spending time at home with my children, just trying to do normal things.
JazzUSA: Speaking of home and L.A., why did you move to L.A.
JB: I think it’s part of the adventure. I lived in New York for about a year. We didn’t really like New York that much. I came to L.A. to do a record with Maurice White, the Urban Knights album for Ramsey Lewis, and while I was out in California, I decided, well it’s a lot sunnier out here. I think I’ll stay just for the sunshine and I think it worked out pretty good. We’ve had a good time in L.A. We’re staying here probably until January and then we’re moving back to the U.K. where we lived for 14 years.
JazzUSA: So your kids, have they’ve gotten much of a taste of America?
JB: I think so. We’ve been here for four years. It’s been a good time for us. It brought a big change in our lives to move over here. And for me, musically, it’s what I needed. I needed a shot in the arm, and America has been good for me that way. I’ve had a chance to work for a lot of people that I dreamt and desired to work with, and it’s continuing.
JazzUSA: Well, why move back to England?
JB: I think, spiritually, it’s a better place for me, my family and for my kids education. Also my wife and I have a tremendous number of good friends that we both miss and long to be with. Today, you can live anywhere. Especially with communicating with people, it’s a breeze. Basically, my family comes first. I will always know how to sing and play guitar. But (living in America) is a season thing. It’s been a very important season for me to have moved here. I realize how I have grown and matured. I’m better at my craft as an artist, as a songwriter and a performer. It was good, but I think I’m sort of ready to get to the next place and that is to settle my family down so I can get into some other things. I don’t know what they’re going to be.
JazzUSA: How old are your kids now?
JB: They’ll be 14 and 10 this year.
JazzUSA: So they are getting a piece of America they will remember.
JB: Absolutely. They were born in London. They’ve lived in New York and L.A. They’ve been to South Africa. They’ve been to every island you can think of. They are truly rich with life experiences and social situations. And that’s an important thing. And I think education is first on me and my wife’s mind, getting them back to a place where they don’t have to grow up so fast is very important to us.
JazzUSA: And they have to grow up fast in America, and with your childhood in South Africa, there are a lot of similarities to a kid growing up in America, aren’t there?
JB: Well, growing up too fast is what happened to me, being a young entertainer as early as seven years old. It’s a crazy life for a child being in show business at that age, because they definitely lose their innocence very young and they become incredibly worldly. I wouldn’t change anything in my life, I’ve had an incredible life so far, but for my children, I think there are some things I’ve grown wise to. And it would be good for me, and for me, to keep them away from certain things, so that they can just be kids.
JazzUSA: We’ve have talked to each other a number of times over the last ten years, specifically the first conversation we had years ago where you were pretty frank with me about your childhood. We’ve never talked about that again, but since then you have really been pretty frank in print about some of things that happened to you in your childhood.
JB: I don’t know. It’s part of growing, it’s part of maturing, part letting people in. There’s a whole lot more to what I do and why I do what I do. I don’t know, I think it’s getting to another place in my life where I’m probably more reflective now. For me it’s good. It’s very liberating. I do feel a greater sense of freedom in my heart and I hope that through the music it would come through, that people will really get a chance to talk to me, to know me, to find out what I’m really about. Stuff like that.
JazzUSA: Well liberation is certainly what’s happening in your homeland. How did you get involved with this music for the Truth & Reconciliation Commission?
JB: I was invited by the Truth Commission to actually write one song and perform another. That song is called “Forgiveness,” which is really what the Truth Commission is really about. These are really intense investigations that are happening in South Africa. People are talking about all the things, all the atrocities that happened- the torturing, the killings, the brutalities of the police, the government and ex-presidents. These people are all invited onto a podium to demonstrate and explain why they did what they did, and they’re given immunity based on the facts. It’s a really wonderful and noble cause because it’s setting our country off in a wonderful direction. I was invited by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the South African Broadcasting Corporation. I was deeply involved in that while I was in South Africa. I worked with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and a six or seven hundred piece choir from all parts of South Africa. I had about a week to produce those two songs. It was an amazing moment in my life, just to have been invited by Archbishop Tutu.
JazzUSA: Had you ever met the Archbishop before?
JB:No that was our first meeting. And it was a really emotional meeting for me. I realized that this was a man of God and a man of peace-a man with a tremendous amount of grace. He really moved me. I really believe he’s like Moses. He such an incredible person and it really meant a lot to me to meet him. He showed me all about what was going on with the Truth Commission. South Africa is a country that has so much color and diversity and with all of that going for it, I think the country is moving into the right direction. When everybody wants change, change will appear and I think that’s what so unique about South Africa, in my opinion, is that everybody wants change.
JazzUSA: And it sounds like it’s happening?
JB: Oh yes. We’re still in transition, a lot of people are not as positive about the transition because they’re afraid. With all new things, there’s a lot going on, so we all have to wait and see. Give or take ten or twenty years, South Africa will emerge as a truly unique country.
JazzUSA: Is this c/d coming out in the U.S.?
JB: I think we are going to make that available. We’ve done a video in South Africa and the whole thing. So I sincerely hope so. It’s definitely something I want Americans to hear. I am indeed involved in the community, I’d really like everybody to catch a glimpse of that.
JazzUSA: It’s not one of those “We Are The World,” situations where there’s a bunch of South African stars?
JB: No, it’s just me. It’s a single where I do my song “Heal Our Land,” and the other tune written by these two new guys from Cape Town. It’s not so much “We Are The World,” it talks more about forgiveness. Basically, it’s going to be released when the Truth Commission hands over to the government the records of everything that was recorded about the last 40 years. When that is handed over to the government as part of South Africa history, the single and video will be released in South Africa and it will be a day of forgiveness. And I will go back to South Africa to be there for the release.
JazzUSA: So there’s no way anyone is going to hear this until the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is done?
JB: Until they’re done. We’re kind of getting ready for that, and I think it’ll probably be in October.
JazzUSA: Now you wrote “Heal Our Land” years ago, but that is what the song is about.
JB: Yes, I think some songs stand the test of time. That’s very cool when that happens. I’m incredibly proud of this project and the involvement of my country. You know I’ve been away a long time and I really want to get back to my community.
JazzUSA: So right now, you’re touring with Guitars & Saxes with Marc Antoine, Richard Elliot and Kirk Whalum, right?
JazzUSA: Now there are some who may think you’re lowering your standards by touring with that group.
JB: If you see the gig, I think you’ll understand why I did it. Part of the reason I came to America was to work with people that have somewhat inspired me. Kirk’s an incredible inspiration to me. He’s probably one of the best saxophone players in America, as far as I’m concerned. Marc Antoine is a good friend of mine, from the time we met about a year ago, we’ve become really really good friends. And Richard is a strong person, a very dynamic player. We have an awesome band to work with. What it’s done for me, like I said, it’s all about getting sharpen and working in a situation as an artist means you get to collaborate with people and get better at what you’re doing. And also you get to play to audiences that sometimes one probably would not have played to. And it’s always about breaking new ground, building new relationships with people. I’d like those folks to see the gig and they’d understand why. I have fun with it. We’ve been away for about a month and a half touring. I’ve come back from my own tour to doing this Guitar & Saxes. It’s all in the line of new experiences with different people.
JazzUSA: And when this tour is done, you’re going right back to doing your own tour?
JazzUSA: Are you working on a new album right now?
JB: Yes I am. I’m writing right now. I’m not recording as of yet, but I’m doing a lot of writing.
JazzUSA: Let’s go back to South Africa. You finally went back home a couple of years ago for the Two Nations Concert with Prince Charles and Nelson Mandela, right?
JB: Yeah, that was the Spice Girls thing. That was actually the second time I went home. Actually around that time, I was getting ready to do my own tour of South Africa. The first time was too incredible. This had to happen around ’93 or ’94. I get around so much, I don’t know what years I’m working in. The Two Nations Concert was truly an amazing event, to have 50,000 people there and the Spice Girls, Billy Ocean and a lot of local artists and a lot of British artists. I guess they took the best of Britain and the best of South Africa. The King’s Trust is always held in London,. It was never held in South Africa. It was really important for the spirit of the country. I had a good time. I got to see the Spice Girls and have a laugh.
JazzUSA: So the country is really opening up, huh? I mean there’s talk of having an Olympics there,
JB: Oh yeah, I was there for that too. I was there for the Olympic bid. That was quite an incredible day. It was incredible, right near City Hall, you’ve got 60,000 people just waiting for the countdown for the Olympic bid. It was just amazing.
JazzUSA: Just for the bid?
JB: There was nobody being killed, nobody being chased by the police and chased with guns. It was just people enjoying the day, just proud that they were nominated. It’s getting there.
JazzUSA: I remember talking to Hugh Masekela and he was saying how the musical infrastructure needs to be built too, that they shouldn’t forget that in South Africa.
JB: I tell you, when everything was in turmoil, music kept on playing, it kept the people smiling. Let the government forget that and I’d be very upset. I’d be very upset if they don’t pay attention to the arts.
JazzUSA: Now when you were coming up, black American music had quite an influence in South Africa?
JB: And still does.
JazzUSA: Yeah, I listen to South African radio on the internet (Qradio.com) and it’s mostly r&b.
JB: It is stronger than ever. When I was there, I saw billboards of Tupac Shakur. I was like what the hell does Tupac Shakur have to do with Africa. It just shows you the power of that music. It translates and black people connect. They connect to somebody who is just like you and it’s an incredible power to have the music here be that influential in South Africa. I don’t think it will stop.
JazzUSA: It’s funny that there are so many similarities between our countries, what with the violence, even with children, the apartheid and the history of the U.S. It’s incredible to me, that as large at that continent is, that it’s South Africa where the American presence is the strongest.
JB: I think that’s ideas that people buy into. I think South Africa has to set it’s own standards. For me, as someone who grew up in the 60’s in the height of apartheid, when it was at it’s worse, you know don’t want to mess around with life. I think what all these things have taught me is to appreciate life and not think inclusively. We’re not going to get anywhere thinking inclusively. We have an incredibly rich culture and history that can not be forgotten, that shouldn’t be forgotten, but at the same time, the world is changing. And our children, how are they going to look at us. We got stuck in tradition and thinking exclusively, whereas our kids go to school with everybody. They socialize with everybody. And I think American and British culture that is filtered into South Africa, people sort of live that idea. They want to be a certain way. They want to live in a certain way. They think of themselves in a certain way. Everyone perceives a whole other thing. I think as a whole, as the older folks, we’ve got to make sure that our kids don’t have hang up with life in the future. As an artist, I’m always thinking inclusively, I’m not thinking, oh, I’m a black artist, I’m from South Africa, I should just write South African music. I’m an artist, I paint anything I want to paint. To me, that is where music has contributed so much to society. Like Hugh Masekela said, I’d be very upset if the government didn’t pay too much attention to the arts. There’s no way that American music will stop having this influence, not only on South Africa, but around the world.
JazzUSA: Well one thing that great about your palette, if you will, is that you always maintain your country influence in your instrumental music.
JB: I’m trying to find that place, that ingredient, that makes me stand out as a South African, not as an American guitar player. I don’t come from the same experience, so I have to bring forth who I really am. That’s taken a whole lot of years to actually get people used to that, because you listen to the smooth jazz stations and I hear a lot of American funky jazz guitar players. To me, Benson is probably the most outstanding for me because I can hear him like that. I know who Benson is, I know who Earl Klugh is, but there’s a lot of other people who sound the same to me. I think it’s important to keep your identity, cultivate you identity, bring that out. If you’re from New Orleans, play with that New Orleans style, mess around with it, come up with something where people say ‘wow, I’ve never heard this before. It’s all about breaking new ground and trying to let people in on my background. Instrumentally, I can do that.
For more information visit the Jonathan Butler web site.