Tony Bird White African Voice in New York
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Tony Bird a surpirsing white voice from Africa.
By Carol Dibbel - Village Voice, New York 27 December 1976
What's touching about this artist isn't postcolonial alienation but the old Afro-European encounter, starker because of its fresh setting.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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