Fingerstyle guitar master straddles the continents
Guy Buttery crosses cultural borders to create a unique, soulful and rich sound
Guy Buttery stands on the shoulders of local guitar legends Tony Cox, Madala Kunene and Steve Newman — and alongside them as a national treasure.
With his masterful ownership of the acoustic guitar, Buttery evokes Egberto Gismonti or Michael Hedges with the landscapes that shape him at his fingertips. His fingerstyle guitar music is born out of a convergence of cultures.
He distills traditions and heritages and creates synergies out of their contradictions and tensions to make music that is rich, original, soulful and free.
The emotional quality of Buttery’s music and his purity of heart are the strongest and winning characteristics of his craft.
As he plays with a tilt of the head, eyes closed, legs crossed and in submission to his instrument and the moment, no words can describe the emotions he conveys.
"My intention is to try and be as honest as possible. With acoustic music it’s difficult to hide behind anything else. There’s a transparency in the music," he says.
"From a very young age I decided to commit to that, and whatever it was I was trying to express was honest. It represented, hopefully, what was grounding me in terms of culture, landscape and what was happening emotionally at different times of my life. I think people connect and engage with something that is sincere, where there is no façade or anything hindering the human experience that music can offer."
Buttery is the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for music, the first nonclassical musician to win the award since Johnny Clegg in 1989.
MY INTENTION IS TO TRY BE AS HONEST AS POSSIBLE. WITH ACOUSTIC MUSIC IT’S DIFFICULT TO HIDE BEHIND ANYTHING.
His debut album, When I Grow Up, was nominated for best instrumental album and best newcomer at the 2002 South African Music Awards (SAMAs). At 18 years old at the time, he was the youngest nominee in the event’s history.
His third album, Fox Hill Lane, won the 2010 SAMA in the best instrumental category. He has received several other major national accolades, which include the Standard Bank Ovation Award for his performances at the National Arts Festival.
For him fingerstyle guitar, which is often dismissed as a niche genre, is more of an approach to the instrument.
"What I love about it is that it’s nondefinable. It’s a very difficult genre to pigeonhole because it encompasses so many things," Buttery says.
"That’s a healthy process for me because I don’t feel any sort of limitations in what it is I’m trying to articulate.
"This probably has a lot to do with me being horrendously obsessed with so many different kinds of music from around the world.
"It’s a large source of inspiration for me, not in any way to emulate anyone else, but to be curious about what other people are thinking and saying. It’s an endless pool to draw from."
He has worked with and created inspired and intuitive collaborations with artists ranging from Vusi Mahlasela, Kunene, Newman and Cox to Nibs van der Spuy, Dan Patlansky and the Guy Buttery Trio, featuring award-winning jazz bassist Shane Cooper and percussionist Ronan Skillen.
His love for collaboration is best exemplified in his self-titled album of 2016. Recorded on three different continents, it presents a refined Buttery who is as settled in his world music influence and position as he is in his South African-ness.
"I chose for my sixth album to be self-entitled because it felt like a rebirth and a transformation that I wanted to reinstate, however subliminally, or not," he says.
"For me the record speaks of a different SA — one that acknowledges tradition but is more interested in individualism and finding a new voice to tell that story."
His latest project is with Indian sitar player and classical vocalist Kanada Narahari. It’s a meeting of two distinctive creative minds who hope to reimagine connections between India and SA.
The collaboration has been six months in the making and there is a possible recording project. The two are touring Southern Africa during May before heading to the National Arts Festival.
For his festival showcase, Buttery will present a collaborative performance called The Mending. It will include Indian classical aspects and a capella vocals alongside a variety of string instruments including a sitar and double bass, with Buttery on improvised soundscapes, mbira and guitars.
Buttery and Narahari are at the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music in Durban on May 9; the Westville Theatre on May 11; the Slave Church in Cape Town on May 18; the Bushfire Festival in Swaziland on May 26 and the Zakifo Music Festival in Durban on May 27.