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Growing up under apartheid shaped my music

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BY: Jessie Moniz Hardy

Jonathan Butler grew up in South Africa, hit the charts in the United Kingdom and now lives in Los Angeles. So it is no surprise that he calls his unique fusion of R&B, gospel and jazz, simply “world music”.

“I’m a world music artist,” said the 56-year-old. “I don’t just live in the world of jazz, I live in the world of music, and that is the world I choose to live in.”

He will be showing off his eclectic style at the Bermuda Festival in January.

He believes growing up during apartheid in South Africa gave him a certain sensitivity.

“It made me more aware of the world,” he said.

During his formative years he frequently saw “whites only” or “coloured only” signs.

“We were poor,” he said. “We lived in the township of Athlone. My parents didn’t have electricity. If we needed it we had to borrow it from someone who did have it.

“Back then there were two different South Africas. One was for whites who lived up in the hills and had ocean views and one for blacks, coloureds and Indians who lived in the Cape flats.”

But music made him and his 11 older siblings laugh.

“Music was my salvation,” he said. “We listened to everything we could, particularly jazz. Both my parents were musicians and we’d sometimes hold concerts to raise money.”

When he was 7, he won a spot on the Golden City Dixies, a South African touring company. He travelled extensively with the group for six years before leaving to drop his first record, Please Stay.

“That went to #2 on the pop chart in South Africa,” he said.

He was one of the first black South Africans on white radio.

“That was a dream come true for me,” he said. “People I loved listening to were on radio like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Donnie Osmond.”

For Please Stay, he won a South African Grammy for best new artist in 1974.

“It was pretty exciting,” he said. “What kept me sane was knowing I was doing it to keep a roof over our heads. My mother was my inspiration and motivation. I knew how hard she worked.”

In 1977 he was signed by American label Jive Records and moved to Britain shortly afterwards.

His international breakthrough came in 1987 when his Grammy-nominated hit single Lies reached #25 on the UK’s Billboard Hot 100 chart.

He also gained fame for his cover version of the Staple Singers’s song If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me), performed with Ruby Turner.

Today he has 25 albums under his belt, the latest being Free in 2015.

His most popular recent song might be Falling in Love with Jesus from his 2006 album Gospel Goes Classical.

“I can’t leave the stage without singing that one,” he said. “If I do I’ll have angry people in the audience.”

He is really busy right now. He is working on his next album, to be released next year, and doing a Christmas tour of 20 cities.

Mr Butler will perform with the Southampton Seventh-day Adventist Choir at the Bermuda Festival on January 27 and 28 at 8pm in the Fairmont Southampton Mid Ocean Amphitheatre.

Tickets are $75 for adults, $50 for seniors and $35 for students and are available at ptix.bm. For more information, visit bermudafestival.org or jonathanbutler.com.