‘There’s no place like home’

2010-10-02 10:26

Jonathan Butler is the polar opposite of Charlize Theron, South Africa’s other famous export. Even though he crossed the seas first – more than 20 years ago – Butler is still a regular Kaapse klong. With no airs and graces or American twang in his speech, he happily reminisces about growing up in a shack.

I grew up listening to the guitar maestro because my mother and her siblings are his greatest fans.

This is not only because of his talent, but also because they grew up together as neighbours on the Cape Flats.

My mother and some of her siblings lived with their older brother while they attended high school. By the time I was born, he was already a household name and had officially left South Africa for the UK with his wife.
I always said if given the opportunity to speak to Butler I would remind him of my mother when they lived in 7th Avenue, Belgravia, just outside Cape Town.

One of his most touching songs is 7th Avenue, a tribute to the street he grew up in. Butler lived in poverty with his parents and 11 siblings in a corrugated-iron shanty.

To this day, I remember my mother telling me how Butler and his friends would “borrow” electricity whenever they needed to practise their music by plugging into a neighbour’s mains.

Even when I visited my uncle’s house many years ago, I could picture the guitar-playing jazz singer with the dyed ash-blonde hair who lived next door.

The 49-year-old singer has been married for 28 years, has two daughters and an adopted son, and his hair is now grey – but it still has a hint of bottle-blond.

As I call his home in Los Angeles for this interview I pray that he remembers my family, just to break the ice.
After a few rings, a warm and husky voice greets me and melts my nerves instantly.

The sound of a little girl makes Butler chuckle and he explains that his three-year-old granddaughter wants a ­playdate.

I wish we were e aren’t thousands of kilometres apart and that we are sitting face to face.

Ours turns out to be more like a pleasant conversation between old friends reminiscing about his past rather than an interview. Before we get down to the nitty gritty I explain who my mother is.

“I just can’t believe it,” he says, and I can hear the sincerity in his voice.

“I remember the Williams family. Your uncle and your mom and aunts. The world is just too small.”

Because of tThat immediate connection it’s easy for him to talk leads to a chat about his past and growing up during apartheid and how it affected the kind of laws which held his career back.

“South Africa will always mean a lot to me. It’s just so deep and the memories of growing up with jazz and my first years of touring are still fresh like it was yesterday.

Things have changed dramatically since Butler left, but his heart still takes a beating every time he comes here. “Even thinking back to our home in 7th Avenue is very emotional for me and whenever I go back to South Africa the poverty still overwhelms me.“I come from an amazing and talented family but we grew up very poor. The country has come a long way but the sight of so many shanty houses still depresses me.

“We didn’t have any electricity so we would buy some from Mr Ralph (the community vendor) at the back or plug our lead in at your uncle’s house; and that time you knew you were poor if you bought from Mr Ralph.”
But in the midst of that suffering, there were light moments.

“Your uncle was very funny. When it got late and we were still practising our music he would switch off all the lights and electricity because he wanted to go sleep,” he chuckles.

“We couldn’t even watch Dallas on TV afterwards,” he laughs even more.

Other memories of 7th Avenue include his best friend Armien who lived across the road from him. Coming back is always bitter-sweet.

“Even though there are so many Aids and TB initiatives, seeing people suffer from it makes me feel bad. But the saddest part is probably how disconnected I am with my family there because of the physical distance between us.

“And after my mother passed away last year, we seem to have grown even further apart.”

Growing up poor made him the compassionate person he is today.

“Being a child under apartheid and living in poverty has shaped me into who I am. It taught me to always keep things real and that’s why I will always remember where I come from. It taught me about pride, dignity and respect,” he says.

Butler says his career started when he was only seven years old. His brothers and sisters were always singing and he always wanted to, so badly.

“By the time I was seven, I did my first show in Durban with my older brother. It was a scary experience though because I was so young and we were with strangers in a hotel. And I could hardly speak English as Afrikaans was our home language,” he says.

“Kan jy nog Afrikaans praat?” I ask Butler.

“Ja!,” he almost screams. “Ek praat nog Afrikaans, ek en my vrou. Vir al as ons so ’n bietjie wil skinner oor die kinders. Maar hulle verstaan dit ’n bietjie. As ek my vrou vertel my dogter word dik dan skree sy ‘are you saying I’m fat dad?’ van die ander kamer,” he giggles.

Butler’s two daughters are aged 21 and 26. He adopted his late brother’s son, Ezra, also 26.
Butler released his latest album, So Strong, in May.

When he is not in his studio finishing up his new solo gospel album, he is working on a radio show which will also feature South African artists.

“I will be talking to radio stations like Kaya FM about my project to get artists on board. Then there is also the TV show I’m working on which will showcase developing artists.

“But my real job is to help my 21-year-old daughter navigate through life.

“Right now she is obsessed with boys. I try and convince her to at least get a guy who has a job and perhaps his own car,” he sniggers.

Butler reveals some interesting quirks about his home life.

“I start my day by waking up late and demanding coffee and breakfast in bed. After hitting the gym I get my dose of Vietnamese soup. I love soup.”

Butler’s other passion is cooking.
“I like to pretend I’m like a TV chef on a cooking show. I love experimenting and trying new things. But my wife still cooks me pens en pootjies (tripe and trotters) every single week. It reminds me of home and it’s my absolute favourite.”

Our conversation turns to the Mangaung Cultural Festival (Macufe), which started on Friday, where he is the headline act.

Of all the stages in the world, performing in South Africa is by far the best experience for him.

“There is nothing else like it,” he sighs. “I’ve never been to a country where every one sings along to all my songs. It still amazes me every time they sing 7th Avenue.”

Butler’s concert on Saturday night will be his third in Macufe’s 13-year history. “I can’t wait for the festival in Bloemfontein. It’s one of my favourite places in the world, especially because it was one of the first places I performed at while growing up. We would stay at the showgrounds up to six months at a time.”

He has worked with a long list of stars, but his ultimate dream is to work with Stevie Wonder, his all-time hero.
“I have spoken to Stevie several times and my daughter is good friends with his son.

“He even sang Falling In Love With Jesus for me over the phone and invited me to sing with him at the White House.

“Unfortunately I had to be in South Africa for a performance at the time,” he says.

I don’t want to hang up. I want to talk to Butler forever about his life story.

He is one of the most humble people I have spoken to. I feel inspired and it hardly feels like I was speaking to one of the world’s greatest jazz musicians.

“I used to sing in the choir with him and I would get my supply of dhaltjies (chilli bites) from him and I would even pwasa (fast) with my muslim friends during Ramadan.”

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