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South African guitarist and vocalist Jonathan Butler battled poverty, apartheid and addiction on his way to international jazz stardom. He recently spoke with JAZZIZ about his journey in music and his latest album, Ubuntu, recently released on Mack Avenue.
Hello Jonathan, welcome to the JAZZIZ Podcast.
Thank you for having me, I’m really excited to be on.
We’re recording this from two different parts of the world. I’m in the West of Ireland.
Wow, they play my music in Ireland?
Oh, man, they play your music everywhere!
That’s amazing. That’s great. That’s good to hear.
We are truly honored to speak with you about your journey in music right up to your latest album, Ubuntu, which was released earlier last year. But I kind of like to start these podcasts by collecting memories of the artists I speak with. I’d love to know, is there a moment from your childhood that, when you think back to it, you realize that’s when you awoke to the beauty and power of music, and that maybe also helped you understand that you would like to pursue a life in music?
My first love for music was the winter nights in Cape Town. I grew up very poor. I grew up in a shanty house. And in the winter, we’d make a fire. We used to call it a galley, which is just a drum that my father would put sand into. Then he’d take an axe and chop holes in it for air. Then, he would put the wood and paper in it. We’d light it up and once the coals got nice and red and warm, we would congregate. So, when I was a kid, my brothers and sisters used to congregate around the fire and that’s where they would sing. And my oldest brother would play the guitar. And it was the most beautiful thing for me as a kid. Because it was my family. The music was in my family. But it really took hold of me when I was very young. When I was 4 or 5 years old. But those are my memories of what I called the “galley time.”
So it was a way of being together.
Yeah, and also to be critiqued by each other. When somebody was out of harmony, there would always be somebody saying something. It was just incredible. We were very poor but we were very happy. I mean, music was what we had and that was something that brought us closer together. And my brothers and sisters traveled. So their stories were also why I wanted to perform. Because they had such incredible stories of the journeys, of wherever they played and the cities they went to. Next thing you know, I’m 5 years old and I’m on the stage performing in the local civic hall for the community. And when I heard people screaming from the stage, that was just so exciting for me as a kid.
And I always wanted to be a singer because it was in my blood. It was in my family. And it’s so funny that I’m talking to you about singing because everybody thinks that I’m a guitar player. But I’m actually a singer and a guitar player. So it’s the two combined. And that came together over the course of my growing up and maturing and really finding my love for the guitar. And the singing was just something beautiful. But it was those memories of the early galley time and the coals. My father would take the coal, take a shovel, put the coals in another little drum, bring it in the house to keep the house warm in the winter. And so that’s where it all started.
You mentioned that you wanted to be a singer. Was that also because you wanted to tell your stories and communicate messages from an early age?
It was really to help my parents and my family. I mean, we were poor. Looking back over my life, I was probably the salmon that swam upstream because I was put on stage very early and I was making a living, singing in clubs and in theaters and in these Broadway-type of tours. At that time, in the late ’60s, I was earning, like, 25 South African rand a week. And that money would go straight to my mother. I mean, back then, the rand had value. And so, every week, my brother would take me to the post office and we would send the money to my mother. That way, there was always food on the table.
So my love of music was one thing, but my desire to see my parents supported was more important to me. Music was a blessing that allowed me to travel and go to different cities. I played in city halls for, like, six months in Durban. Or I’d go to Johannesburg for another six months and perform there. You know, I went from city to city. So I had a very rich life traveling, which is also troublesome. When you are a kid in show business, you do grow faster than the normal kid going to school every year.
And let’s not forget that this was a very intense time, historically speaking, for South Arica, under the oppression of apartheid. How does that shape your perspective on injustice and then eventually inspire your music?
Growing up, I was this little boy who, first of all, grew up speaking Dutch Afrikaans. When I was a little boy, I never spoke any English. I would sing in English, but I never even understood it until I grew up. And I never had a tutor with me. So, basically, I had to learn English through music, through singing.
I remember the first city that I arrived in that was completely in English was Durban. And I was completely taken aback by all that. There was a club called the Casino Nightclub there. It was like a jazz club and amazing musicians played there. I remember vividly Roy Petersen, who played organ like Jimmy Smith. There was a Brazilian act that was just unreal, playing a Sergio Mendes kind of thing. But this club was for whites only. Being little, I did not know anything about those social dynamics. I just saw us on stage, white people in the audience, Black waiters. And as I was growing up, I began to go from city to city and seeing all these signs. “Whites only” signs. “Coloreds only” signs. “Blacks only” signs. It just became really obvious to me that there was definitely a discrepancy with the way the country was set up.
And as I listened to the older guys, musicians, after the concerts and gigs, I would listen to them have these deep conversations about the political and social segregation of the country. And so that’s where I learned about my country. Through these musicians who talked about Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Thabo Mbeki … . And I was like, “who are they talking about?” Fast forward to every year, me visiting Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned, and I take 40 people with me from America and show them my country and give them the opportunity to learn about South Africa.
So it was very troublesome to me in my teenage years, when I started making records and I started getting gold records and won a Grammy in South Africa at the age of 13. That’s when I realized that this country, you know … I’m still living in poverty in the shanty house with all the gold records and all the accolades and stuff like that. That hadn’t changed.
Did you gradually begin to realize that with your music, you could contribute?
Oh yes, I did. I realized that that was my vehicle. That’s where I found my voice. And even though I wasn’t going to sell records in the millions, I felt like this was my platform and I found my voice. And I loved my country. To this day, I love my country so much. I speak out about it, you know. I do feel like I’m a person of conscience and when I see stuff that is really not of God and not of good, I have to say something and I have to say it through music. But I never want to hold back and I never want to compromise that part of who I am.
Because growing up in South Africa, it was pretty much a crazy, crazy time for me. Under the Immorality Act in South Africa, I couldn’t date a white woman without being thrown in jail. I mean, what kind of country are we living in? And, then, of course, I had my problems with religion, too. How can you sell me religion when people are being killed in the name of religion? So I had my own cross to bear. But I had a kind of meeting with God when I was 19. I was strung out on drugs, all kinds of drugs, and I had my encounter. And that sort of changed my perspective, it changed how my heart was feeling at the time. And I just wanted to make beautiful music for people to feel good and to be happy when they left my concert. That they’d feel some kind of presence, some kind of upliftment, so to speak.
So, at 19, you came to a realization that you had your personal demons on top of the social oppression and injustices that you’d encountered. And overcoming them helped you evolve.
Yes, it really did. I didn’t get to the States by myself. The opportunities came through Jive Records. I was signed to their independent label, I think, in 1973 or 1974. I was signed to their independent label in Johannesburg and they gave me an opportunity to come to England and become a songwriter or work on some music. And so I took the opportunity and did my first record, which was Introducing Jonathan Butler  in New York City. And it was well received throughout the community and jazz listeners. And then, I did my double album, which was [Jonathan Butler, 1987]. Little did I know, I was going to be nominated for two Grammys. My records went gold at the time and they went way past platinum since. But I didn’t get there alone. I mean, there were people that gave me that opportunity and I wanted to do right by them and really make them proud. And coming to America was a big adjustment for me. Huge adjustment.
But I was saying, about my spirituality, I like to use this phrase: Somebody loved me enough to say, “Hey man, you know, you can’t do this by yourself. You can’t just kick this habit alone.” And so I accepted Christ as my Savior and I pursued Christ throughout my life. Even to this day. And I wanted to because my faith is what kept me going. My faith is really what has kept me going through some of the painful memories of show business, from when I was a teenager, molested as a young boy and physically abused as a young boy. And so my faith has been a very deep thing for me. I get to share it with people on stage, as well. They get to hear the gospel side of me a little bit. But that’s really who I am.
You’ve also spoken about injustice in your music and you continue to do that on your latest album, Ubuntu. What was the impetus and inspiration behind this record? The message that you hoped to communicate?
Marcus Miller joined me on a safari trip with his wife. They flew out to South Africa and I asked Marcus to produce the record for me. I’ve been a huge Marcus Miller fan since daybreak, since the beginning of time. I mean, this guy was just somebody I admired. And when we met in the ’80s in New York City, I actually did a record called Heal Our Land  about South Africa. While we were in the bush in South Africa, I asked Marcus about this record and said, “Would you produce this album for me, man? ’Cause I’m really stuck.” I was in a creative space that was kind of weird for me. I told him, “I’m heading back to South Africa in search of myself. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I come home every year. Would you make some time and produce my record?” And he agreed.
We recorded another record and then COVID hit and everything stopped for three years. And during that three years, I started writing, like, you know, “When Love Comes In.” And when George Floyd was killed, I wrote “Our Voices Matter” and “Rainbow Nation.” And so it was like COVID came around, everything stopped and we started writing other stuff. And I started writing some different material and different songs. And then COVID ended and we had another listen to this album and I think, thank God for Marcus because he was just kind of like, “Hey, let’s complete this record from South Africa.” And so we kind of went into it and Ubuntu arrived.
The title of the record derives from a philosophy from South Africa about, you know, “I am because we are and I am because you are.” It’s also humanity towards other people. So I believed in it and I spent a lot of time with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, hearing him speak and watching him be a light, even in the craziest time in South Africa, when there was just about to be a civil war. He was the guy who showed ubuntu in its real form. And I really wanted this record to be that album because, I mean, we had come through. People were dying. Friends of ours, dying. George Floyd’s murder in America impacted me so greatly that I wanted that to be a conversation among musicians. Because we need to speak out about things. We have the power and we have, you know, a platform. So I really wanted the record to represent all of that. During COVID, I was still writing, like, three, four, five … I probably wrote 10 albums during COVID. But we came back to this album in the end.
And speaking of 10 albums, I believe this is your 10th album with Mack Avenue. So it’s kind of a landmark.
Man, it’s been a good relationship, because they’ve embraced me as a person and as an artist. They get what I’m about and they get what I do is I walk the parallel universe between gospel and the secular world. And believe me, it came together seamlessly because it’s been years, many, many years of me just praying for a release, a sense of peace about it. Because the gospel community is very different from the secular community, you know? So they don’t want you to fool around with it. So I never wanted to do gospel anyway, unless I felt the universe, God, released me to do it. It just so happens that all things at the time worked out for me that I can say now I’m doing this dual dance. Being able to be in the world and in the Church at the same time.
And then there was jazz, too, which helped you forge your own style.
It’s also the lifeline, the connection between gospel and jazz. It’s just always there. It’s always been there. But for me, I grew up amongst musicians who I learned from. I mean, I stole with my eyes watching them play, and I stole with my ears when I was hearing some beautiful tones. I was like, “I want to sound like that!” And it took me years to kind of sound like this because the sound that is supposed to be coming out of me is me. And so, to all your listeners, I want to say, find your sound, because we all have a very distinctive style and sound in our brain, in the way we groove to music, in the way we feel the music. And don’t be afraid to make that sound your own. I kind of learned from my early days with George Benson and Earl Klugh, who were truly two of my favorites. But I realized that I have to be Jonathan Butler. I can’t be George. I cannot be Earl. I think Ubuntu is my way back to my roots and my way back to writing, composing. Writing songs with people that really get the message that I’m trying to put out there.
Finding the right sound is good advice, not only for musicians but for everybody, even people who are not involved in music-making.
Yeah, I believe so, man. When I was younger, it would always be about the hardest singles that are out there, you know? The hardest new sound, trying to emulate that and imitate that. But as I grew older, I realized that I just sound different from other people, from other musicians. I just sound different, I just have a different ear and a different … maybe it’s because I never went to music school, Berklee or Juilliard. I learned from the streets in South Africa how to play, from my parents. My father was a banjo player and my oldest brother played banjo. And my father was a guitarist and a singer. And my mother was an organist and a soprano singer.
So I learned from them and I learned from being on the road. Playing next to these musicians is really what enriched my life and kind of gave me a sense of, like, let people hear the South African side of you. And because of growing up in South Africa, we heard only American music on the radio. We only heard British music. Every nightclub we played in wanted covers. I got frustrated when I was in my late teens. I started getting frustrated playing covers because I felt like the radio stations were not really paying attention to our music. We were not getting played on the radio unless we had it covered by somebody else.
And you kind of helped break down barriers in that sense too because you were the first non-white artist to be played on segregated South African radio.
Yeah, isn’t that crazy?!
Featured photos by Raj Naik.