Dressed in an unbuttoned shirt, vest and baseball cap, Jonathan Butler was in a relaxed mood at his hotel in Nairobi last Saturday.
“This is my downtime,” says the internationally acclaimed South African singer and guitarist a few hours before his headline act at the Nairobi International Jazz Festival.
“What I noticed is that people love coming out to enjoy live music, especially after the pandemic, they love coming out to festivals, cruises and going on my Safari,” says Butler during an exclusive interview with BDLife. He has just completed the Jonathan Butler Safari, a 10-day annual trip which allows his fans to accompany him visiting the most treasured tourist spots around Cape Town.
“Last week we just saw a lion kill a buffalo, it was pretty amazing when that happened right before us,” he says. The safari started 11 years ago when one of the travel agents that booked him on the smooth jazz cruises in the US challenged him to start his tours in South Africa.
“I remember him saying, “we’ll design the safari around fans who love your music.” It dawned on me that part of my legacy is to show Africa to Americans through my eyes and in the process, I have also learnt so much about my own country.”
The pandemic gave the maestro, who turned 62 on October 10, a break from his packed calendar of tours, to catch up on family, cooking, walking his dog and his golf handicap improved to 16.5.
“I played a round of golf at the Karen Country Club and I didn’t do too badly,” he says.
It was also a period of reflection on his legacy and a commitment to give back to the community that nurtured his gift of music. Butler, who has lived in California for more than a decade, returned to South Africa to record his latest album Ubuntu to “give back, inspire through education, art, culture and music.”
He gives credit to his friend, the legendary producer/bassist Marcus Miller for creating the sound of the album to reflect his musical journey. “Marcus has got big ears; he knows how to shape the music as an expression of the artiste’s soul.”
Butler’s is a remarkable story of a boy that was born amid poverty and apartheid in the shanties of Cape Town, started performing music at the age of 5, and gained international fame in the 1980s through a string of hit songs like Lies, If you are ready, More Than Friends, and Sarah Sarah.
“I was just a child from Cape Town who never studied music formally but was just lucky to learn the guitar,” he says.
“Even today, there is nothing like writing on a guitar, and figuring out the construction of the music, the beginning, the middle, to the end.”
Ubuntu pays homage to his musical hero Stevie Wonder with a cover version of the 1972 song Superwoman.
“I visited Stevie’s studio and he plays everything, drum kit, piano, guitars, he plays it all. There is nothing like capturing the human creative spirit, rather than relying on a machine to do it for you. I still think that live music is one of the greatest forms of true creativity happening in front of you.”
Today, music by African artistes is creating a huge impact in the mainstream international pop charts, a foundation for success that was built by previous generations of artists. “Would I consider myself a boundary breaker?” asks Butler rhetorically.
“I think so. Just as I would hope that Trevor Noah would break barriers for other African comedians. It is very healthy that we bridge the gap between America and Africa. The world needs new energy and that sound is coming from Africa.”
However, he wants young artists to realise that pop music is fickle and fortunes can quickly change.
“It is about creating a body of work that 20 years from now we can say, ‘hey man, that record still sounds great, that song still sounds amazing.”
A singer who caught his attention in Nairobi was Coster Ojwang’ whom he jammed with at a Nairobi music live venue and then invited for a medley that included Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry during the concert at the Bomas of Kenya.
“He is young, with a voice like butter or baby’s milk,” he says.
The message of humanity to others resonates with Butler who is supporting the Ubuntu Climate Change Initiative, which aims to raise awareness among Africans on sustainable livelihoods that protect the environment for future generations.
“We have a role to play, because in Kenya, just like South Africa, virtually every crop grows, but the environment is changing. We need to show humanity even in the face of difficult situations,” says Butler.