By Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Published February 6, 2008
As a child variety show performer traveling across South Africa, Jonathan Butler might have been too young to witness first hand the horrors of Apartheid; all he needed was to put food on the table. So, the black Butler found himself living in a world of contradictions in which he performed in lavish ‘Whites Only’ concert halls (where he wasn’t even allowed to use the bathroom) and in deprived Black township.
“Tonight is a celebration of harmony,” Butler declared as he took his fans on a journey through a number of his old and latest hits like Brand New Day, Pata Pata, Take Good Care Of Me, This Is Love, Mandela Bay (the crowd’s favourite), 7th Avenue, and Sing Me Your Love Song.
Strumming his guitar with gusto and energy, Butler declared: “I feel like I am home here in Uganda because the soils are as red as those in South Africa.”
It was clear to listeners who still wanted him to perform despite having been on stage for more than two hours that Apartheid must have had a big impact on Butler’s life because racial segregation and poverty continue to be subjects of his music.
“I still talk about poverty and sing about poverty because it still exists. The only thing we can do with our minds is to get more educated and gain more knowledge about things that are going on so that we can free ourselves from the things that are wrong,” Butler said later in an interview.
The curtain to the concert, held at the Kampala Serena Hotel on September 29, 2007, was raised by The Aids Support Organisation (TASO) children with poems on HIV/Aids followed by Ugandan saxophonist Isaiah Katumwa and guitarist Maurice Kirya.
Butler, the youngest of 17 siblings, began singing publicly in many of the South African townships brutalised by the Apartheid policies of the late 1960s. He first joined The Golden City Dixies, his brother Danny’s group, when he was seven years old and travelled with them for three years. When the Dixies took a year off from performing, he established a new group with his other brother, Paul. He later joined another band, Freedom, and was soon approached by Bullet Records to launch a solo career.
At 13, Butler’s talent caught the ears and eyes of British record producer, Clive Caulder, who eventually signed him up in 1977. This should not be surprising for Butler who started singing and playing the acoustic guitar as a child and whose first single–the first by a black artist to break down racial barriers and be played by white radio stations in the racially-segregated South Africa–earned a Sarie Award, South Africa’s equivalent of the Grammy.
Because Jive was headquartered in England, Jonathan Butler decided to move there in the early 1980s to focus on his recording career for the next 17 years. He married Barenese Beaton on February 19, 1983. He now resides in Los Angeles.
By 1978 Butler (born on October 10, 1961 and raised in Cape Town) was playing with Pacific Express and for a short while he also had his own jazz-rock band called The Butler. Two albums were recorded with Pacific Express, and some Pacific Express songs were later released on the 7th Avenue, his 1988 album.
But it was not till 1987 that Butler’s international breakthrough came with his Grammy nominated pop hit, Lies, off his Going Home album. This is his version of the Staple Singers’ song, If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me), which he performed with Ruby Turner.
This song introduced Butler–whose music is often classified as R&B, jazz fusion or smooth jazz, Christian and tropical–to the international audiences as an established singer-songwriter and guitarist.
Mandela Bay, the second track on the Jonathan album, is a lively instrumental tribute to the legacy of South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela. The song exudes optimism: the joy of liberation, and the celebration of life. Akin to a musical sunny day, Mandela Bay will raise spirits and stamp a smile on faces, guaranteed to last at least four minutes and eleven seconds, though no one will be blamed for putting it on repeat.
Although music gave Butler the means to escape from the clutches of apartheid, time has given him perspective on his past, and brought him back to Cape Town. Butler has returned to South Africa numerous times, leading humanitarian and charity efforts for the less fortunate. Butler serves on the Board of Directors for the Acres of Love, a South African non-profit organisation that cares for abandoned, HIV positive infants and children. He performs at numerous benefit concerts for Acres of Love, including the Third Annual Sunset Serenade.
So how does Butler blend his roots in African music with western pop sensibilities?
“My African roots are my nerves. Though eventually I came to learn of western music like Jazz, R&B and Latin, Brazilian music was my biggest influence when I was growing up,” he says. “And I wanted to blend all these flavours and bring about a sound that is uniquely my own.”
Butler’s albums include Introducing Jonathan Butler (Jive Records, 1985); Jonathan Butler (1987); Inspirations (1987);7th Avenue (Mountain Records, 1988); More Than Friends (1988); More Than Friends (1990); Heal Our Land (1990); Best of Jonathan Butler (1993); Gospel Days (Mountain Records, 1993); Head To Head (1994); Do You Love Me? (1997); Story Of Life (1999); The Source (2000); Surrender (Warner Brothers, 2003); Ultimate Butler (2002); Worship Project (2004); Jonathan (2005); Gospel Goes Classical (with Juanita Bynum, 2006); Going Home (2007); and Brand New Day (2007).