Jonathan Butler and the Journey from Poverty to Prosperity

August 8, 2023
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Season 3 | Episode 5

Makhtar Diop engages in a captivating conversation with legendary South African guitarist, singer, and songwriter, Jonathan Butler. Following the release of his 28th album Ubuntu, Butler reflects on his five-decade journey from poverty to international stardom, discovering his unique voice, and the role of musicians in shaping societal change and promoting a universal message of hope and unity. 

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Makhtar Diop: Welcome to Creative development with IFC, I’m Makhtar Diop, the Managing Director of the International Finance Corporation. Today I'm delighted to welcome Jonathan Butler to my podcast. Jonathan is a legendary South African born guitarist, singer and songwriter. His career spans over five decades from child star to respected veteran of jazz, soul, rhythm and blues and gospel. Jonathan recently launched his 28th album, Ubuntu, through which he continues to share his message of hope, humanity and unity. Welcome to the show. 

Jonathan Butler: Good morning. Nice to meet you. 

Makhtar: Jonathan, you started very young, what was happening in your household, in your neighborhood, which put you so quickly and so early on the stage? 

Jonathan: Well, when I was a little boy, you know, music was what was happening in my home. We come from very humble beginnings. We come from great poverty, I should say. But the gift of music was evident in my home. Our childhood experience was a very happy one because we always had music. And so music was the glue that took away the sadness, that took away the daily struggles, because whenever there was music, we would gather around the fire. My father used to take a big steel drum, and put sand in it and make holes in it with an axe, so that there's air coming out of it - and then put wood inside and paraffin. And we would sit around the fire until the coals were really nice and red in the wintertime. And so music was discussion, music was the way we were able to endure the cold nights or the hungry days. And my mother was working as a hairdresser. And my father had been laid off before I was born. So all I remembered is my dad was home all the time. And they discovered that I was a singer, you know, I was like a sponge. Whenever I heard them play and sing. I would harmonize with them, you know. And so it didn't take long for my parents to put me on the stage.  

Jonathan: We were sort of auditioned by our parents in the home, if we had, you know, any kind of skill, musically. And, and I remember my first show as a little boy, I was playing in the community Civic Center. And it was a Friday night. And I sang that night, but for the first time on stage in front of people, and people threw money on the stage, and I stopped the song, and I went to pick up the money. And I grabbed the money and put it in my pocket. And they forced me to finish the song. [laughs] 

Jonathan: And, you know, I remembered the feeling I felt, I felt tremendous joy. I just felt tremendous joy, hearing the people responding the way they did, and looking around me. My mother was very proud. My brothers were excited. It was kind of a freedom. It was kind of freeing me. I felt very excited, you know, very excited that people loved me. And then from that point on, I was on stage all the time. I was in carnival, Cape carnival, I was in Cape Malay choirs competing as a youngster, my life just unfolded man and things just happened and I auditioned for plays. And I didn't know, I didn't know if this was going to be how, you know I…  To be honest, you know, growing up in such great poverty and no education, if you're not around people who have ambition, you don't know, you don't know what you don't know. But the only thing I knew is I could sing and I could play and I learned the guitar, from the time I was five years old, I learned how to play guitar. So it was also the way out for my mother and my father to survive. So putting me on stage and or putting me to work, so to speak, at an early age was a way to help my parents survive. And so I'm sitting here with you this morning. I'm extremely grateful for by the grace of God that that music has brought me this far and helped me help my family even to this day. I still help my family. Even though I live in Los Angeles. I still get those calls, ‘your brother’s in need or your sisters in need’ and I have never really valued money as much as I valued the love of music and the love of seeing people's lives change; when they come to my concerts, when I hear the testimonies of what the music is doing to people, and what it does to bring people together, it is always a reminder to me to share with people that I came out of great great poverty. And you know, my father, my parents were just very humble people. My mother was from a place called Gamka. And my father was from Liberia, Monrovia, they met in Cape Town. And so they had 17 kids. I said to myself, one day when I grow up, I'm never going to have so many kids. [laughs]

Makhtar: But you know, Jonathan, what you said is quite interesting, because it's reflected in your music. Its a voice.  The first time I heard your guitar playing, I didn't hear riffs of guitars, I heard a voice. And I think thats something that we all notice when we hear your music for the first time; its the voice where you can hear the uniqueness of the choirs, and acapella singing in South Africa, which is quite unique. So, you know, I grew up listening to Dudu Pukwana, to all these great singers. And some way when I heard your music for the first time, I say ‘there is something special here’ is on a guitar on the beat, which is not the beat that was used by these musicians. So how do you feel in terms of heritage, and that very rich tradition that South Africa has. 

Jonathan: Great question. And you're saying something really great to me, because I've always tried to convey to young musicians, you know, finding your voice on your instrument, it's like, listening to Stevie Wonder play harmonica you know, and then listening to Stevie Wonder singing and playing harmonica. You can never separate the two from each other, they’re almost one. You’re almost one with your instrument.

Jonathan: Because a lot of musicians have a lot of notes, a lot of technical ability, a lot of theory, but in terms of making your instrument speak as a voice, its a gift and a skill that comes with time because the instrument wants to sing. The instrument doesn't want to just be played, you know, if you get what I'm saying. I can play you 10,000 notes on my fretboard, you know, I can scale up and down, up and down and solo to the point where I lose the public. But if you put on a Miles Davis album, and you listen to Miles play one note, and hold the note and sustain that note - it says that you you're now one with the instrument. Even when I'm practicing at home with my guitar, the first thing I would do is play a melody that can invoke something inside of me, a connection with the instrument. So you're right. It has to be for me a voice not just the instrument. The instrument also, the guitar is very percussive. So don't forget that it can accompany you without a band, you can have a full concert with just your guitar. I've seen Marcus Miller play in the bass. Like he could be rhythmic and melodic at the same time. So I've had to learn that over the years is that finding one's voice on your instrument. You know a lot of kids today they play a lot of different things, they play a lot of different styles. But finding your voice is something that takes time. To be honest it also takes accepting yourself. I remember the first time I came to the United States I was so overwhelmed and culture-shocked, I almost wanted to sound like everybody else, you know? Well, I need to sound like this, you know, because this is America. This is what's on the radio. But then I realized no man, this is just me. I'm a South African kid. I play from the South African roots. I come from the place where you know, Barney Rachabane, Duke Makasi, you know, Dennis Mpale you know, Bheki Mseleku - these are my friends that I've listened to. And I need to play like like my home, I need to come and just just deliver that. So it's taken years of development, maturing and coming to a place where I'm you know, I'm now like Ubuntu is like my final statement or my line in the sand that says that this is who I am. 

Makhtar: It's not only that you have done it, but you have influenced other people. I have some friends, musicians who are on the same journey. They’re not as well-known as you but they play instruments they play bass, and they came to the US thinking ‘if I don't slap as fast as everybody, I'm not part of the game. If I'm not doing this tapping, I'm not part of the game, etc,”. More and more, they are changing totally their way of thinking. And I see more and more musicians say, I need to learn now even traditional African instruments. I have a friend of mine who is a bass player in New York. And he said, ‘Now, I'm just interested in learning the guembri from Morocco to learn the ngoni from Mali, because that's what makes me so different from the thousands of excellent musicians who are coming out of the schools in the US’.

Jonathan: Every time I go to Cape Town, I talk to the young musicians there. And I've said, you know, if you don't start recognizing your identity, as a musician in South Africa, you will find that other musicians will come to South Africa and play their traditional style. And people will embrace that. You know, growing up, I used to listen to R&B and jazz, and I was around people, you know, that, in especially in Joburg, when I first arrived in Joburg, I was a little boy. And all these amazing musicians, man; Spirits Rejoice, there was so many, Drive, there was so many bands and, and the guys playing a lot of jazz material. And so we would listen to McCoy Tyner and we would listen to Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and so I found myself. I think Seventh Avenue was a departure for me when I wrote Seventh Avenue, I realized that Abdullah Ibrahim had done Mannenberg, you know, Miriam Makeba with Pata Pata. Bra’ Hugh with Stimela, and you know Grazing. But it was Stimela is the one that got me.

Makhtar: This is one of my favorite songs of Hugh, Stimela because of the voice from the beginning of the “choo choo” train. 

Jonathan: As a matter of fact, I'm getting goosebumps, because I'm actually I've been entertaining the idea of redoing Stimela, because it's such a great story, and it has such a great feeling that I think, you know, I had those examples before me. And then when I wrote Seventh Avenue, I didn't know that Seventh Avenue was going to be this anthemic, instrumental. Even now I play it in my in my set live. And I tell the story. And the story of Seventh Avenue was, I was in Johannesburg with all these great musicians. And we were living in Hillbrow. And we were all together to study and getting high at the time. And I had a falling out with one of the musicians with a friend of mine, actually, probably one of my mentors who's passed away now. So I had a falling out with, with him. And the only thing I could do at the time, was to go back to Cape Town, because it was going to become a violent situation. So I went to Cape Town, I went back home and I'm in the yard with my father. And I was sitting on the chair. And I started playing this melody, you know, which became Seventh Avenue. And my father heard me playing that song. And he really approved of the melody that I was playing. And he said ‘this is very nice’. And then I found myself in Johannesburg again. And Bra Khaya from the All Rounders, Hendrik Lebona, started the first black label called Bam. And he came to my apartment and he said, Hey, I would like to sign you, here’ 700 Rand as a deposit or an advance. And I was a kid who was getting high at the time. So that money was just for drugs. Then we went to the studio, and we cut the whole album. And that was the song people identified with, that I identified as this is a boy from Cape Town. This is a South African kid. My biggest one of my biggest influences was Earl Klugh, you know, because Klugh plays nylon string acoustic guitar. So I transitioned from electric to nylon string, classical. And since 7th Avenue was played on the classical guitar, that became my signature sound. 

Makhtar: It was around the time of Collaboration when Earl KlughClue and George Benson made this album. 

Jonathan: Absolutely that was that time. And the craziest thing is I met both those guys. I played with both those guys in Colorado. You can imagine just me thinking to myself, oh my God, I never thought this would happen to me. You know, this would happen to me that I'm in the middle of Earl Klugh and George Benson, and I think Gregory Porter was there too. And George Benson was playing “Broadway”. And so he said Earl, you take a solo first and let Jonathan solo after that. So Earl Klugh started soloing and the next thing you know, Earl didn't stop. So I could hear George Benson say to Earl “Earl! Earl! It's Jonathan’s turn!”. 

Jonathan: So I actually approached the solo from an ancestral African space. I used traditional tribal scattering ability over the guitar. And that totally freaked George out. George was like “I've never heard anything like that man, what is that?” I said “well, you know, George back home, we chant, we use click sounds, and I just incorporated that into the solo because you’re George Benson, what the hell, there's no one here that can play like you, you know, so I have to do something different”. And that's the thing as an artist as a musician, opening yourself up to your ancestral roots. That's very liberating for me. I mean, this Ubuntu record is, it was a very liberating a baptism of soul, where I've sort of was baptized back into my roots. You know, I listened to Richard Bona, I listened to Lionel Loueke from Congo from Congo, Armand Sabal-Lecco Amman.

Jonathan: And I'm proud to say, I feel very proud to say that you know, it for me at 61, I'm going to be 62, the energy that I have now, coming from this record, Ubuntu that Marcus produced for me, it just liberated me because I realized that I've always had this in me. And now I can fully express it in my concerts, I can fully just be this global musician that I've always had spoken about.

Makhtar: I mean, what you're telling me about voice and all this is quite interesting. And it makes me think about, you know, the intro of Marcus Miller on his album Tales, when he was talking about when you learn to groove, because you go in a club, and he says, “If you don't groove immediately, you're instantly out of the place”. The equivalent for you seems to be having your father. When your father was saying, “Okay, this melody makes sense”. And I think that the story of having a voice, I think, is also linked to that. If it’s not anchored in a tradition. And all the people you have mentioned, those musicians Sabal-Lecco, Richard Bona - all those who are from Africa, who have now made it on the international scene of jazz, there is something you have to express in your own voice. That's what makes it international. Universal doesn't mean copied from the west. Universal means that the voice of people from the continent, or other the places in the world is part of the universal discourse. And I think that Ubuntu was quite impressive. You came, you say that you draw the line, but you didn't do it alone. You had Stevie Wonder, you have your friend, Marcus Miller, you have other people were part of that story, which makes it South African, deeply, but also universal.

Jonathan: I think the connection with Marcus and with Stevie Wonder and Keb’ Mo and Russell Ferrante of Yellow Jackets, and all the musicians that's on the album, Ntokozo, who just was so amazing. Ntokozo was in another studio in Joburg, where I was recording the album. And we just started the record recording Superwoman by Stevie Wonder. And Ntokozo was next door. She was leaving. And I ran after her to get her to come and sing, you know. She said, “What? What am I going to sing?”. I said, “just do what you do, even harmonize or just hum something”.  You know she did this thing. And we said hey, just keep doing it. Just keep doing that thing, you know, and it just shaped.

Jonathan: And I want to talk to you about shaping artists - being shaped by a producer, and an artist being shaped by time, and that artist being shaped by personal life struggles. Working with Marcus on this record now - I've made 28 records, maybe more than that - but I found that working with him, he kind of shaped me a little bit. Because now it's the first time, I'm not in the driver's seat, I'm sitting as a passenger. I'm in the car as a passenger. And Marcus Miller is driving my car, you know. His connection to South Africa… He was very enthusiastic about the idea of being in South Africa, making a record and meeting South African musicians. Stevie Wonder’s the same. Stevie is very acutely aware of the world global music scene. And so us knowing each other, was also another thing about how he wanted to talk about South Africa. He wanted to talk about changing the world with me a lot all the time. And so he talks to me, he talks about ‘we've got to change this world’. And so and then you got Russell Ferrante and Keb’ Mo. So there was like an agreement with all these great artists of how they just sort of said, yes, they want to participate and be involved in the album. But Marcus helped shape the record. I remember singing the solo, doing the solo to Ubuntu. After we made the track, in Joburg we came back to the States and Marcus said, ‘Okay, we got to cut your solo’. So I said, well let me do it in my studio, in my home, you know. So I'm in my studio, and something different happened. I started using the click sounds in the solo. I was like this is a completely different approach to a solo. I remember back in the day when when Miriam Makeba did “Igqirha lendlela nguqo ngqothwane” “you know, and I remembered “Igqirha lendlela nguqo ngqothwane”. Literally all that click sound suddenly appeared in my head, as I was playing the solo on Ubuntu. And Marcus heard the solo he was like, Hey, man, what is that? What did you just do to the solo, I said “I just kind of let the ancestors from my, from my homeland come into my room.”  

And that's what I remembered that it's also a pot of creativity, and shaping the solo to sound and feel like a piece of percussion, as opposed to just being a guitar solo.

Makhtar: I would have never guessed that you were thinking of Miriam Makeba. You know, I thought he was a nice solo. And I thought ‘it very interesting, the way he’s doing it’. But I know the song.

Jonathan: When I was a little boy, I used to remember, you know, “Igqirha lendlela nguqo ngqothwane”. And I still remember it being sung all always all around me, you know, “Seleqabele gqi thapha… “. And I was like, man. So here I am, I press record. And I'm listening to this amazing groove - Ubuntu just coming at me. And it was just shaping the solo, shaping the sound of my voice to suit the sound of the record. I realized what was happening to me also, at my age, I'm kind of like, over the years, this has been something that's always been happening to me how things shaped how an artist gets shaped, I think the late great Tony Bennett was one of those jazz legends who use his voice as an instrument to shape the sound of the song that he's singing. So that's an important key, you know, because you've got to be able to bend, like a tree when it comes to sound, when you hear is a record that has a beautiful sound you… I can only describe Miles Davis as one of those rare people to take a sound and shape it with one note. And suddenly what was orange is now a different color, in other words, you know what I mean?

Makhtar: I think the brotherhood between you and Marcus is quite amazing. And I think that this is an aspiration of all the great musicians like you. But you know, Jonathan, I don't want you to end without talking about what you're doing on the social side. Because people don't necessarily know that and I would like them to hear what you're doing on the social side. You have joined the board of a South African based charity called Lelala. So tell us a little bit about Leila.

Jonathan: First of all, Lalela is to listen, that's the meaning, it's to listen. And I'm really honored to be on the board of the Lalela because as I was sharing with you earlier, coming from a place of none and no education in my in my life. And having worked as a child since I was five.

Jonathan: It was important for me to give back and to connect with my country and to connect with kids who are in high risk areas and support their development in education through apart what we have seen and what we are doing. We talking, you know, over 10,000 kids that we are globally supporting through Leila, and helping seeing them develop through kindergarten, high school, college, on to becoming entrepreneurs, with their gifts, and seeing it really happening in real time is an incredible honor for me. So I was really blessed that they reached out to me.  It's based in the US and you know, obviously now in South Africa, we're doing a lot more events to bring more awareness about Lalela to the local sector in South Africa. I'm also doing my own - talk about passion - my passion is to bring 40 Americans every year to South Africa, and show them my country. They come to South Africa, they go to Cape Town for five, six days, and learn about South Africa. And then we fly to Hoedspruit into the bush, you can see the changes in people's demeanor. And when they walk out of Nelson Mandela's prison cell, from Table Monitor to Robben Island, you see the change. My whole passion in life is about seeing people happy. But also seeing people change. Lalela means a lot to me, because I want to leave that legacy behind that, that I'm not just here in the States, you know, getting fat and happy. But I'm always connected to my home, I've always been connected to my home. 

Makhtar: Jonathan it is something that is so powerful, what you just said. And I think that all of us who are here, and we are privileged to be in certain position in our jobs, I think that we all feel that need. 

We at IFC - what I'm trying to do is to have a conversation with people like you. You said something at the beginning, before we started this recording, that you would love to visit my country, Senegal and play. But you cannot do it because there is no infrastructure in Africa, which allows artists like you to have a tour in Africa, like you’re having a tour right now in the US. Today, if you want to do the same thing in Africa its very difficult for you. So one of the things that I would like to do, and maybe we will have a chance to discuss it later is to pick some ideas from you, what can be done to invest in a profitable way in the creative industries in Africa, or in other parts of the world. We have been investing now a little bit in some sectors, you know, we are looking in fashion, we are trying to look a little bit in visuals, music is tough, there is a lot of risk in that sector. So my idea is to really talk to a great musician, great leaders in the area, like you, to get some ideas and help us to think about what we can do to help and support the sector.

Jonathan: Listen, you know, you know, last year during COVID, I had a lot of time to think and I decided I want to buy a home in South Africa. I've never had a home in my in my city, Cape Town, ever. So I went home last year in August and bought a home. And I praise God for it. Because the desires that I have, I want to, you know, I want to be home. I want to teach, I want to nurture and mentor. I've been in the States over 20 years, I mean 34 years or 35 years. So I want to go home because you know, music has been so good to me. It's I mean, listen, it's like a pendulum swing, you know. Like COVID was a tough time for music. But it was extraordinary how musicians came together. And I think South Africa needs a musician's union, something like here in the States where artists, you know, kind of have insurance, life insurance, medical insurance, because musicians also have mental health issues. People sometimes call it drugs, drugs, it's just probably a way to soften the pains and struggles that mental illness can bring. So there's a deeper conversation that needs to be had about how musicians are treated in South Africa. What can be done to even raise their income when they're doing its gigs. You can't live on a 400 Rand gig. So my deep desire is to be home and to eventually have conversations with like with with guys like you.

Jonathan: When a man gets older, he wants to be surrounded by the people he loves. I just feel like when I'm home I'm so loved at home I'm just so loved I don't want to be nowhere else, you know what I mean?

Makhtar: You’re talking like all of us who’ve spent a lot of time here. But I know… the smell of food, the old memories… 

Jonathan: And let me give you another secret. One of my passions is - and I call it I call it creative passion - it's also another part of my creativity - is cooking. When I'm not making music, I'm cooking and I get to cook, you know, food from my own my mother used to teach me.

Makhtar: Jonathan! Because I will be crashing to your house one of these days. You will see someone coming and ringing your bell and you’ll say what is this guy! 

Jonathan it’s been absolutely immense honor and pleasure and I think that you left us with a very powerful messages about humanity about what music means and how the voice of the voiceless needs to be coming out from all parts of what we are doing through our guitar, our voices.

Jonathan: Likewise, I enjoyed the conversation absolutely! Awesome!