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Tony Bird White African Voice in New York

Tony Bird a surpirsing white voice from Africa.

By Carol Dibbel - Village Voice, New York 27 December 1976
Photos by Stephanie Cherinikowski.

What's touching about this artist isn't postcolonial alienation but the old Afro-European encounter, starker because of its fresh setting.

 Tony Bird Headlines Village Voice 27 Dec 1976
Tony Bird Headlines Village Voice 27 Dec 1976
Tony Bird Photo & Headlines
Tony Bird Photo & Headlines
While I was waiting for Johnny Paycheck to come out at the Other End this July, a blond, fragile-looking type appeared on stage with a guitar and began to fuss about the amplification. He showed good bones and good breeding, and I was preparing to daydream through a set about a misunderstood refugee from a plastic society when the type went into a sort of spasm, produced a nasal, buzzing-voice in an unknown accent, and, with contortions that put 40 years on his face, began to sing about Africa.

I had stumbled on a genuine oddity: a white, African protest singer. Tony Bird was a man with-hereditary links to England and emotional ones' to southern Africa, working in an American idiom. There was a sheer grotesqueness about his stance and voice-which broke freely into hoots, howls, barks, hums, and falsettos-and at the same time a courtliness that seemed to come not so much from another culture as from another century.

Intrigued, I tracked down his debut album and found it true to his idiosyncrasies: a mixture of folk rusticity, American rhythm and blues, and the lilting, shufflebeat rhythms of African pop. Bird has a gift for vivid lyric and wonderfully simple melody, and an exuberance, even radiance, the more remarkable because it comes edged with a sense of hard historical realities. As a son of former colonists, he belongs nowhere for good reason; he's attached to a place where he should never have been born, and he knows it. If his topical songs describe this complicated situation, his eccentric vocal presence is living evidence, and it puts a distance between his music and the simplifications of so much topical songwriting.
When I spoke with Bird at the beginning of his current promotional tour (he opens for Cathy Chamberlain at Reno Sweeney this week), I asked him how he accounted for his voice. I've had people laugh and chuck beer cans when I opened my mouth." he admitted cheerfully. "It probably

comes from trying to sound like John Lee Hooker and Hank Williams and failing at both.” But the images he evokes, particularly in the half shadows of stage light, aren't from blues or country; his grimace has the enigmatic depth of mime, or commedia dell'arte - or maybe just a mad old man, full of private jokes. If the whole effect seems wildly inappropriate - a gargoyle sings about apartheid? - that's part of the reason it seems right. It makes a comment not unlike the much more conscious one that Garland Jeffreys makes with a blackface mask. The pair of them would make a wonderful double bill, each, with his theme of mixed heritage: Jeffreys, half-black, half-white wondering where he comes from, and Bird, an Englishman from Africa, wondering where he'll end up.

He was born in southeast Africa, in the small, landlocked, and extremely beautiful country of Malawi, 19 years before its independence in 1964. His father was a planter; his mother, who brought him up, worked for the colonial service. He went to boarding schools in the considerably tenser environment of Rhodesia and then, in the old colonial tradition, went to England to complete his education. A shy, sensitive boy with a bad stutter who found the mysterious distinctions of colour at life upsetting without knowing why, he left Africa, as he says, “not a racist but blind."

In England, his education took a different turn. He dropped out of forestry school and wandered down to London, where, in the isolation that city tends to force on foreigners of any race, he forced himself to go out and sing his songs at clubs. Then he took a job on a geophysical survey ship circling Africa-an apt metaphor for his situation. Four years later he asked himself what he was doing there, writing C&W songs with names like “Going Back to Cincinnati,” left ship at Madagascar and went home for the first time in 10 years.

Tony Bird - Sorry Africa
Tony Bird - Sorry Africa
“I came back an educated man” he recalled. “I hadn't realized that things were so bad. ”One Saturday night, while hitching near Capetown, Bird walked into a classic colonial nightmare when he was left alone at nightfall in a black zone. Apartheid restrictions meant to protect whites trapped him, for even the local taxis were forbidden by law to carry him away. And racism itself meant that Bird had no way to prove his real sympathies. “I felt like a sacrifice for the years of bad, bad news" runs the refrain of Athlone Incident the song Bird wrote about that night; "for how can you tell a man you're neutral when he's always been misused?"

The song, braced by an R&B arrangement on the album, indicates the direction Bird's material was starting to take. "I didn't in a calculated way decide to sort of tell the world about Africa” he explained. "But if you want your art to be meaningful you are going to have to relate it to yourself." Athlone Incident is powerful because it does.....(to be continued)
That crit on Tony Bird came to us from the Village Voice; a much respected alternative weekly New York journal. For those of us natives fortunate enough to get a copy, we would wave it about in Deepest Darkest Africa, back in the 70's. But that little line (quote) > He's attached to a place where he should never have been born, and he knows it...stuck with me through all the cut-out news articles that we've filed in the Hidden Years Music Archives: Russell Mean's 1979 speech in South Dakota (from Mother Jones 1980); Nelson Mandela's release from Victor Verster Prison in 1990; South Africa's first democratic election in 1994; the news that 6 million of Comrade Robert Mugabe's people are about to starve to death in 2003. Does Carol Dibble know that she is attached to a place where she too should never have been born, but doesn't know it? Tell that to the Babies in Iraq, the Jews on the Westbank and the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the squatters in Chris Hani's camp and Khatalitsha. And don't we all know it!? Tony Bird, like many of us who have been Born In Africa are very proudly SAfrican; and his songs say as much.

Some of my very best and dearest friends (and my father) were and are Americans; so it's not hard to understand why they see themselves as the chosen ones. They are! As far as I'm concerned they have given the world the best music and musicians in history. But that doesn't mean that they could choose where they are born and bred. Or does it? So isolationist & pious had the US grown by the mid 70's, that a serious writer, such as Carol Dibble could say....quote > He (Tony Bird) is attached to a place where he should never have been born, and he knows it... (Malawi).

The US has it's own World Series of almost everything and nobody in the world, but them compete. They play with themselves - Baseball, Super-Bowl Grid-Iron football, Basket Ball (or is that Net Ball?) and a number of other globally unknown sports - through TV and Film, mainly.

American Corporates have climbed in and conned billions of people around the world into believing that the violence of Hollywood shows a broad-minded liberal, spirited and free soul? Americans are said to be free - on their own terms - but I'm afraid they too have been conditioned by MacDonald's, fixed wrestling and the Jerry Springer show, among other horrors.
Scary to think that those characters are in charge of the world's most powerful nation! That's the price we all have to pay for freedom & democracy?

The Cowboy Bush Wars are about to fought in the interest of global warming and peace and the National interest. We are all about to been drawn into the worst reality TV gunfight scenario the world has ever known. Those of us attached to a place where we should never have been born, are not surprised. Ironically we could be geographically safer than most, but mentally we will be equally as damaged.

Point is, that when a broad minded American journalist sets out to save the world from itself by comparing us in Africa with the world's greatest super-power - especially in the 70's & 80's - are we supposed to be grateful? One has to ask (politely?) why is it that the US has never grown out of their universal guilt-edged oil Wars, gun-drawing generals, gum-chewing baseballers and global and incestuous Levi sporting codes?

Freedom of expression & choice? They still have the death penalty in the USA.
Long haired & rebellious American middle-class 60's rock, country, folk 'n jazz heroes had conquered the entire known world, where the short back 'n sides of Baseball, Grid-Iron, Ice slice, Basket Ball (is that Netball?) & the Marines had failed. Rock sold us the Levi's, the Gum, the gun and the commix and paved the way for MacDonald's & Kwaito, but it also gave us the greatest Rockers in History. Tony Bird, as unknown as he may be, was one of them.
Thank God & America for the Internet!

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