Butler opens up

2011-10-21 14:19

Seated in a Washington DC hotel room ahead of a performance in the US capital, Jonathan Butler, the South African expatriate super-star of song, picks up his mobile phone and opens himself up to be probed by a stranger.

It’s a Friday evening (local time) and the reason for the phone chat is Butler’s forthcoming performances in South Africa next month.

It is also just five days after he turned 50. He speaks with the voice of a man who’s finally resolved the questions of his motley existence, both as an artist and as a human being.

He’s unthreatened by this occasional requirement to speak to strangers, journalists and other priers.

It’s an old Sufi understanding: out of vulnerability issues profound potential for spirituality and power. But Butler is no Sufi sage, in fact far from it.

“I’ve been a born-again Christian for about 29 years now.” So to describe what he does as a musician, Butler steers clear of defining it in terms of leisure and merrymaking.

“It’s more than entertain-ment ... this is my ministry,” says the placid voice on the other end of the phone.

He adds: “There has to be an anointing on a man to do what I do. It was actually prophesied that God would use me in the church.”

Though Butler is increasingly seen as a gospel musician, it was his sterling work as a jazzman that earned him global attention.

The guitar wizard has collaborated with some of jazz’s luminaries including Marcus Miller, the Yellowjackets, Al Jarreau and even George Benson, against whom Butler used to be compared, with much chagrin on his part.

In fact, Butler says: “When I was touring with Whitney Houston and Eric Clapton I was in the church.”

But that’s all in the past. These days, his performances traverse the jazz and gospel genres. Hit songs like Falling in Love with Jesus or We Need You Lord – the benedictory hymn which appeared on Gospel Goes Classical, a collaborative album between him and Juanita Bynum and the Gospel Goes Classical symphony Orchestra conducted by Dr Henry Panion III – are quintessential to his playlist.

I ask whether his outwardly gospel approach to performance might interfere with him being booked at jazz events. He disagrees, saying: “I have never had a promoter tell me: ‘This is a jazz show, so don’t do that.’ God’s hand is in there.”

The same religious explanation is at work in how he differentiates himself from what he calls “R&B singers who decide to release a gospel CD ... just as I can’t separate my voice from my guitar playing, I can’t separate my spirituality from what I do, the same for jazz and gospel”.

About his much-anticipated mission in Joburg, Butler says: “I feel it’s time I told people where and how I grew up?.?.?.?strip it down to where I am, spiritually and musically ... I wanted to do an intimate project.”

So the setting for this gig will be unusually participative. Members of the audience will be invited to ask him questions in between tunes as they feel moved to do so.

It’s a rare opportunity for Joburg music lovers because this is going to be Butler’s first date in the City of Gold in five years. His last appearance was in 2006, when he headlined the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz.

Apart from his appearance at Carnival City, Butler says his visit also means some time to catch up with his South African family.

He might be the patriarch of his own happy family now – which includes his wife Barenese, a son and a daughter (Jodi, who has joined his band as a singer) – but Butler grew up in a shanty in Athlone, Cape Town, with his parents, nine brothers and seven sisters.

As the youngest of the 12, he was already on the road by 13.

His global success and attendant relocation to the US must have affected the once close-knit family bond. Butler agrees, with a sigh audible over the phone.

He says: “We are all older and everyone has gone on with their lives. I’ve also been building my own family with my wife. So it’s a little fractured now over the years.” He adds: “We do try to keep in touch, I just received a text message from one of my sisters today.”

These are some of the personal details that will go into his set. He says: “That’s the whole point of being unplugged. You become transparent and, yes, perhaps vulnerable, too.”

» Jonathan Butler will perform at Carnival City on November 2 before appearing at Cape Town’s Grand West Casino on November 4

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