Acoustically Tripping through KZN Soundscapes with Guitarist Guy Buttery: an Interview and CD Review

Put European Celtic, Zulu maskandi, and Indian classical sounds together, and what do you get? A uniquely South African musical stroll through KwaZulu-Natal’s sonic cultures embodied in a passionately creative Guy Buttery, his guitar and songs.

Shane Cooper, bass; Guy Buttery, guitar; Ronan Skillen, tabla in Cape Town 9 November 2017

Buttery performed recently in Cape Town with a stunning alignment of double bassist, Shane Cooper, and percussion/tabla player, Ronan Skillen, all sponsored once again by Slow Life entertainment.   https://youtu.be/lDq3JlU-YKw     Their repertoire ranged from Buttery’s usual mix of folk, maskandi, and Indian classical to solo and duos with his illustrious band members, themselves past recipients of music awards in South Africa. One quickly identifies the unmistakable beauty of Skillen’s tabla and electric drum, stylistic in tone and feel, along with Cooper’s consistently unencumbered double bass. Buttery has now added another award to his expanding profile, as the Standard Bank ‘s Young Artist for Music 2018. His recent Cape Town concerts drew crowds, undeniably committed to this soon-to-be 34 year old’s continued journey to push his music into uncharted ethnically-influenced soundscapes.

Album cover: “Guy Buttery”

His latest (6th) CD album is self titled as just “Guy Buttery”, deliberately a no-name. “It’s a rebirthing album so I preferred not to name it, specifically,” he explained in our interview. One would not realize the music is played on a guitar as there are so many formats and manipulation of sounds from his acoustic strings.  Zulu maskandi and traditional ushupe mouth bow in “Werner Meets Egberto in Manaus” with Brazilian touches sets the cultural tone that runs throughout this eclectic album, including Vusi Mahlasela vocals. Buttery explores with humour in “Floop” which combines the key of F with loop pedals in ‘floopy’ ways. Similarly, “Sleep Deprivation” speaks for itself with some erratic harmonics.

Wispy zen ambiance with loopy psychedelia is heard in “In the Shade of the Wild Fig” as also in “A Piece for Rudolf Fritsch”, the latter having an interesting story: Buttery had met online and befriended this man from Germany as they shared over some ten years their love for different styles of music. They learned from each other and developed a special bond; yet they never met. Then one day, Buttery learned that Fritsch fell asleep on his train home and died. Hence, this whimsical song is Buttery’s tribute to a late mentor.

Nibs van der Spuy

Electric guitarist Nibs van der Spuy joins the album on two Indian classical and Led Zeppelin – influenced songs, and plays the cuatro in “Wild Fig”. “From Srinager” clearly refers to Buttery’s love of the sitar (in this song, the sarangi played by Lorenzo Mantovani), and the African mbira which he plays here. Van der Spuy’s electronica and the sarangi are also transposed into a rock vibe in “To Goulimine” which was influenced by Buttery’s good friend and fellow guitarist, Dan Palansky. “The piece is like a India-meets-Led Zeppelin groove of the 90s. This was undeniably the hardest piece to release in terms of colour, having been based in a sort of rock music,” Buttery admits.   Other imaginative textures and rhythms emerge in this album as Buttery explores the soundscapes of KwaZulu-Natal, sponging up the pastoral and natural contexts of his homeland. Enjoy this sonic nirvana of enduring beauty!

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Discussing music in more depth, this writer posed to him the question about what drives his inspiration and message.

“ This is a tricky question. My influences tend to be vast, endless, fluctuating and inconsistent. Every piece of music comes from a different place, inspired by people and places, people I meet on my travels. It all seems like a kind of murky and undetermined past. I never know where a piece I’m composing is going to take me. I’m always searching, hopefully with some transparency.”

Sounds to me like a definition of ‘creativity’, I posed which he, in turn, queried:

“I know a lot of people who are creative, like in the way they live and think through life. I’m always curious about this: what is the ‘creative mind’? What is it that distinguishes one mind from the other, that produces a piece quite different from another person’s piece? I think that in the end, we’re all drawing from the same source, to which we are all connected, and are all distilling it somehow.”

Buttery skilfully handles a lovely mix from the Celtic, an ancient European source, and from the ancient African source, having grown up in the Zulu context. He effectively, and in a learned way, sponges up his living experiences with history and culture.

“Yes, there are influences from a European KwaZulu-Natal and from Zulu culture which have moved me….. I’m currently working with a fabulous Zulu maskandi guitarist, Madala Kunene , on some compositions…. Then, there is the Indian classical music of Durban which I fuse into my songs. If one tunes in to one’s environment, then these three musical influences in South Africa are clearly represented in KZN.”

Regarding the Indian classical influences, Buttery admits to taking caution about delving into playing the sitar in its traditional fashion, or in genres associated with this instrument.

“But I’m interested in taking an instrument out of its context – I love to improvise and do solo pieces with the sitar. In the last year, I’ve been taking it more into my rehearsal space, but I haven’t taken it on the road yet. I’m currently working with an amazing Indian classical sitar player and singer, Dr. Kanaada Narahari, in Durban and entering that world even more. Harmonically, Indian classical music is quite simple, and melodically, I think they’re at the forefront , with an ornateness in its structure and contour which is quite amazing.”

Buttery is still over the moon about his award as the Standard Bank Young Artist for Music 2018. What future prospects are in the offing?

“Yes, it’s certainly an honour. I’ve been doing concerts since I was 16 years old, and I feel this award is enabling and assisting in my growth to make new music and projects. That’s hugely reaffirming for me, so I’m deeply grateful for that.”

But will this award create more pressures to produce, I posed?

“It’s crazy to be lumped into this incredible group of artist with such awards. But there is definitely a lot of stuff in the works with interesting collaborations and recording projects ahead…..to be revealed later ….no secrets now….just ironing out….”

There is a hint of promoting music education, yet to be consolidated but in the works.

“I’m scheduled to do some educational work at institutions – the older I get, the more this idea appeals to me. Not to just do workshops, but do more performance-based work with Q/As, and focus on music as a lifestyle thing rather than take an academic approach. I intend to do a lot of this next year.”

So where do you think South African music is going, I asked?

“The modern world has changed, and to give an example, this album was recorded across three continents in 4 to 5 different countries. Technology has played a big role in allowing for these exchanges. There is …..I won’t say a need….but an openness to amalgamate so many different sounds and to have collaborations with musicians that in the past wasn’t attainable. This is happening all around the world but more so, for the first time, in South Africa . What it has revealed is that there’s an unbelievable amount of incredible musicians in this country that previously didn’t have a voice. I find the jazz musicians are crossing over more with ‘world’ musicians and with the rock and folk musicians. It’s colourful. This is exceptionally healthy; we all have a lot to learn from one another, about openness and our abilities for sharing.”

Indeed, recording these various artists living in Italy (Mantovani), different parts of South Africa, in Vermont, USA (Will Ackerman on “A Piece for Rudolf Fritsch”) and in France (vocalist Piers Faccini on “The Upper Reaches”) was a masterful feat in itself, thanks to various studios and technologies.

Guy Buttery will have a very happy birthday end November , and we listeners will be happy to see this guitar wizard ‘loop’ around our various shores and hinterlands during 2018. Find his album to stream, download, or purchase at http://guybuttery.bandcamp.com.

                       On loop pedal

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