A while back on the Tony Bird YahooGroups list, Dan Daly asked Clive Davidson, executive producer of Tony's "Sorry Africa" cd, for his first impressions of Tony's music. Below is his reply. -- D.D.
"Tony and I have known each other since the early 1970s. I
was sweeping up in a restaurant in Cape Town one night and Tony was the last
customer. Instead of leaving, he took out his guitar and started playing some
of the most beautiful, funky, and original songs I had ever heard. I remember
one song - it was called Arab Dhow. The chorus went:
'Arab dhow, Arab dhow, with your painted prow
and your body of wood so lean
You're not a ship of the modern kind
but you're the prettiest one I've seen'
Tony played with a finger-picking guitar style that was half folk, half African. His voice was this majestic and mannered growl. And he pounded out a driving rhythm with his boot on the wooden floor. I had never heard anything like it. This was the early 70s with people like Neil Young, Paul Simon and the Rolling Stones on the radio. The more I heard of Tony's songs, the more I realised that his were as well-crafted as theirs, but his subjects were fresh and exotic - who else ever wrote a rock song about an Arab dhow?
Tony's playing, like his singing, was steeped in Africa. It echoed all the amazing self-taught guitarists with their wild and wonderful styles that you hear on the streets of Africa, particularly South Africa, at the time. His voice had the throaty growl of rural African singers. But this African influence was completely fused with Western folk, blues, rock and country. And the whole thing was driven by this extraordinary energy that Tony puts into his music. He plays with utter conviction and commitment. He also has a perfect sense of time.
Tony's songs spoke to me because many of them were about
Africa as I also knew it. Tony celebrated things that anyone who has spent any
time on that continent will be familiar with - the wonderful landscapes, the
wildlife, and the people and their joys and conflicts. Twenty years after that
night in Cape Town, I helped Tony make Sorry Africa. It was very satisfying to
bring in wonderful musicians like Morris Goldberg and Francis Fuster to create
the soundscape for Tony's exotic songs.
I couldn't help but be drawn to Tony's music. He was - and is - an original. He had absorbed African and Western popular music and came up with something completely new. It's great to know that people are once again discovering the music of Tony Bird and that it still has the power to stop people in their tracks as it did me in that Cape Town restaurant all those years ago."
-- Clive Davidson - October 25, 2001
"He sang ballads of love and loss, lilting celebrations of life and driving tales of fear and rage.... His voice, an easy target for those who confuse conventionality with quality, became, with its clarity, phrasing and feeling, the perfect vehicle to carry these images out to the audience." -- Joe Burns, The Cape Codder
"It is possible to see Bird as a bridge between black and white cultures, for he expresses his music from the perspective of one who has experienced the splendors and terrors of Africa, and remains committed to exposing all that he's seen." -- Carol Forsberg, Boston
"By turns joyous, angry and winsome, Bird's voice, like the music itself, is untamed and unforgettable," says Robert Reid of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. "He is a wild-card creature of inordinate invention... his abrupt changes of meter, the rock and blues codas, and the implied syncopations and light percussive figures from his phrase-crazy guitar give Bird a full sound. He creates the sound of a whole band; there's so much room in his playing, so many delightfully unexpected breaks and nuances in his singing."
Tony's music fuses African styles with Western traditions of folk, blues and rock, creating a unique style that is at once polyrhythmic, percussive and melodic. His lyrics spring from particular experiences, colored by intimate observation and a poet's gift for image. His subjects are wide-ranging: Mangoes and bicycles, the African bush and New York City bars, homelands and the homeless, and people's relationships with the earth and with each other.
Growing up in southeastern Africa, Tony was inspired by the wild beauty of the bush land near his family home and by the vibrant multicultural music and stories he heard around him. He began playing guitar in boarding school in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and joined a school rock and roll band. But it wasn't until he traveled to Britain in the early 60s to study forestry that he discovered his true calling.
Tony studied and worked for a time in Scotland, but the ferment of the folk-rock revival drew him to London. He recalls, "I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. It was a big change from Africa, and I felt a bit rootless. But then I started to hear what was going on and I spent all my spare time with music."
Still restless, Tony found a berth on a geographical survey ship. During the next five years he worked and traveled through the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Indian Ocean, and down the east and west coasts of Africa, all the while writing songs and watching his distinct musical style evolve. In 1970 he found himself in Madagascar, a relatively short hop from Malawi. He came home, claiming his identity as a full-fledged artist.
He left Africa a second time, returning to England where he signed a record deal with CBS, and eventually moved to the United States. Columbia records issued two critically acclaimed albums, "Tony Bird," and "Tony Bird of Paradise." The long awaited "Sorry Africa," recorded with saxophonist Morris Goldberg and other internationally known musicians, was a spirited affirmation of his homeland.
Tony is working on a new album with Rounder Records, which features guest performances with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and members of Paul Simon's Graceland band.
-- Night Eagle Café (www.nighteaglecafe.org)
"Most of my life I've been on a search for things that can unite life, rather than divide it, possibly because of my very divisive background in growing up with colonialism and racism in Africa. My music has ended up being a synthesis of universal spirituality, politics and nature."
~ Tony Bird