On my drive along the N2 up the North Coast to meet acoustic maestro Guy Buttery, I pop his album ‘Songs from the Cane Fields’ into my CD player. It’s a sound that instantly connects me to the unraveling KZN landscapes. Compositions that reflect none of the clamor evident in the long line of property development that ruins the Indian Ocean side view of my widow, but rather let rip when soaring through those wide open Kwa- Zulu Natal expanses. Spaces where Buttery’s finely plucked strings may conspire with the valley’s that roll across my review mirror while transforming lowly crows into inspired notes along fleeting telephone lines.
With a sound that sings of unbridled freedom, Buttery’s music has been described as flowing from ambient-impressionist sketches and quietly psychedelic sitar improvisations to mandolin-picked pastoral tone poems kissed with classical, Celtic folk, maskanda, bluegrass and avant-garde filters.
After signing up with South African World/Jazz label, Sheer Sound at the tender age of eighteen, Buttery released his debut album ‘When I Grow Up’(2002). An instrumental song book that saw him heralded as the acoustic world’s ‘Next Big Thing’ while earning him nods as the youngest nominee in the history of the South African Music Awards (SAMA). His follow up album– another SAMA nominated achievement– ‘Songs From The Cane Fields’ (2005) again set colleagues, critics and audiences banding about fancy mispronounced French words such as ‘Protégée’, while prompting legendary Acoustic Guitar fingerstylist - Rob Eberhard Young, to declare him one of the premier up and comers in the world of fingerstyle guitar.
Amongst some of the legends the muso has played along side are Vusi Mahlasela, Madala Kunene, Steve Newman, Gito Baloi ,Shawn Phillips, Missy Higgins and The Violent Femmes.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first arrive to meet the twenty four year old musician at his Salt Rock home– fearing I mind find myself in the presence of a precocious protégé whose ego matched the size of his ineffable talents. Rather I am confronted by a Christ like figure with long brown hair and unkempt goatie. An injured baby mongoose, salvaged from the clutches of cane field raptors, further compliments the impression by burying itself beneath his ample veil of conditioned hair.
Buttery speaks with a colloquial eloquence. A laid back drawl common to ou’s from the North coast, with most of his sentences either beginning with Bru or a drawn out Bruuuuuuuu when emphasis is required. Not one for confined spaces, I take up his offer of a mission into a few of his outlying cane field sanctuaries.
It’s the combination of the muso’s talents and idyllic coastal upbringing that makes one either want to resent him or long to be him. Having spent his formative years out trawling his Umhlanga surrounds, it was the Hawaan forest (Tamil for the sound of the wind through the trees) that as a kid, he claims to have constructed his first hideaway hut. A refuge where he and his mates would escape to for days on end, comb books for information on medicinal plants (as you do when you are twelve?) and no doubt jam the living daylights out of their bros’ hand me down guitars.
“I was living in full on Suburbia in Umhlanga and literally over wall was this unexplored land. It’s so bizarre that no one else was missioning out there. No wit ou’s. There’s a lot of white fear. People who live here don’t have the slightest clue what’s on their door step.”
I glance out the window as we pass through Shaka’s Kraal, one of the many cane field farming hubs that thrive beyond the encroaching shadows of KZN’s coastal high rises.
The rise and fall of Philip Glass’s repetitive scales and Ravi Shankar’s melancholic Sitar improvs playing on his tape deck sets us talking about his own musical deities.
“From the age of fifteen no one opened my eyes more then Steven Newman. I got a hand me down copy of a Tananas album called ‘Time’ and I had never heard anything like it. I really like musicians who set out to redefine the capabilities of guitar. Musicians making music beyond the limitations of their instrument.”
“Here the road gets a little manky.” he warns, veering the car onto a dirt track that leads us into the heart of Kwa-Zulu wonderland: pockets of pristine coastal forest stranded out in mazes of sugar cane. Spaces where ominous ‘Trespassers will be Executed’ signs on farm gates seem to pose little threat to the intrepid troubadour and his Taz.
I watch, only a little perturbed, as my companion abandons his post at the wheel and leaps from his driver’s seat to sit on the vehicles window ledge. With his feet now guiding the steering wheel– I pray his toes will prove as dexterous as his fabled fingers–before joining him on the roof.
“Look at this Bruuuuuu.” he says the wind lashing his lustrous head of hair. “I’ve toured all over the world and there’s nothing that comes close the feeling this part of the world gives me. Not to get too philosophical about it but you don’t want to be thinking about guitar or music when you’re playing it, you want to be thinking about life, it’s the same when you not playing. You want to be thinking about how to turn this experience into music. I like the whole concept of guitar playing is like dreaming out loud.”
After clearing the road of a tree trunk barricade– presumably placed by Gat Vol farmers hoping to deter the pesky minstrel from making a return visit–we pull over and traipse a muddied animal path into a forested gorge.
During our descent, Buttery begins to point out various caves littered with bones and raptor shit up in the rock face while telling me that he believes a Leopard that crept into a Balito a few years back and ‘chowed’ all the dogs, was from this part of the world. It’s a thought that makes me slightly uneasy but one the muso undoubtedly gets a kick out of imagining (In hindsight the idea of man-eating predators staking the Zimbali golf courses does sound oddly appealing.)
Sitting on the river- bank Buttery begins to strum a Led Zepplin cover on his instrument. Listening to it a few days later on my Dictaphone, I can hear the water flowing in the background, the rustling leaves and birds of the forest merging with his tune. My own Buttery boot-leg (not that he’d mind –himself a champion of the cause) recorded in his preferred studio and one that could quite possibly make me a very wealthy man.
“You can’t go make music in between four little walls, closed off by a glass door.’ He protests ‘I can’t make music in that environment. I just can’t get it out of me.”
Throughout Buttery’s short but prolific career his style has been frequently described with the words ‘unorthodox’, ‘unconventional’ and ‘uncompromisingly original’. With a technical audacity that sees him using his left hand to play the rhythm section of a song whilst his right hand plays the bass line or melody over the neck of the guitar. This combined with his unusual percussive methods on the body of the guitar has been known to create the impression that two or three instruments are being played simultaneously. An aural ecstasy best described by a Saturday Independent critic when he wrote “…I closed my eyes and imagined a small band of wizened African minstrels that might be playing strange, esoteric instruments. When I opened them, Guy Buttery was still there. A lone person, having a conversation with wood and steel.”
When I ask him how such an idiosyncratic style might develop, he laughs, musing that trying to decipher ones creative process is like trying to circumcise an ant.
“I suppose it boils down to the whole concept of stepping away from the instrument and trying to make music.”
After resurfacing from the gorge, we journey to hill- top to catch the sunset. Crouched in the grass, Buttery’s delicate fingers continue to pluck away at his mandolin. An instrument, that when not receiving the attention it deserves (like his high maintenance mongoose) seems to whinge impatiently from the cradle of his arms. When I ask if he has ever considered putting a voice to music, he gives me a patient smile, one that reveals that I’m not the first accousto illiterate journo to pose such a question.
The voice –I gather from his gracious and only slightly irked response– is an instrument he simply doesn’t have under his belt, and for the moment one his organic sound-scapes need not contend with. An intervention akin to mowing down a pristine coastal forest and plonking a sprawling golf estate in its place.
“For me,” he says “,this landscape informs what I do. Music, like these landscapes is the palette to create and discover new states of emotions.”
They are emotions that the muso has reverently reaped and reinvented from his North Coast surrounds. Homage’s which in the flick of a track buoy the listener from ribald Shabeen to sacrosanct Tamil temple.
“Maskanda just resonates with me.’ he says ‘It’s like the sound of a bag pipe to a Scotsman. I’m a huge fan of Madala Kunene (the indisputable Induna of Zulu guitar) and think some of the best collaborations I’ve ever done are with him. There’s something incredibly spiritual about what he does.”
We sit for some time in silence, staring out over the distant valleys, the twinkling white squatter camps clustered along the Balito horizon.
“If I could unsubscribe from that Jol” he says after a long pause “,that society, I would. I’d dig it if I could live out here as a hermit and convince audiences to come here to hear me play.”
Having witnessed the devotion demonstrated by accomplished musos’ down to his hoards of fingerstyle disciples, I suggest that this might not be such an unreasonable request. However with a yearly calendar already crammed with gigs from London to New York, it’s a fantasy Buttery knows he’ll have to meditate on for some time.
It’s spaces such as these, moments of solace and respite, that I can easily imagine the muso staring out of a lugubrious Putney pub window in London –nagged by fans after channeling another soul wrenching set –and pining for.
Driving back to Durban that evening, I feel strangely cleansed from our afternoon’s trespassing. Like I should quit smoking, seek a career away from the persistent glare of a lap top. You know, pick up a guitar (hell even my primary school recorder will do) mission down those untrammeled sugar cane off ramps a little more often.