Unforgettable white cat from Africa: RIP Tony Bird



THE African ‘Bob Dylan’: Tony Bird. Photograph by Susan Wilson.

THE SINGER/SONG-WRITER WITH the courage to apologise to Africa, who knew how to sing the songs of its landscapes, Tony Bird brought wisdom and activism to local youth before it was fashionable to do so. Considered by British music journalist Paul Mark Phillips to be the “Bob Dylan” of his generation, Bird had a well-developed international profile, but his heart remained in Africa and he inspired a generation of songwriters in South Africa to write about the African culture, people and politics, rather than imitating American and British idioms. He succumbed to cancer on 17 April 2019. He was 74.

Described by critic Robert Reid as “untamed and unforgettable,” Bird was considered a “wild-card creature of inordinate invention” by music writer Martin Keller. Born on 18 February 1945, Bird grew up at the foot of Malawi’s Zomba Mountain. His mother was secretary to the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi and the cofounder of the Mulanje Mountain Club. His father was a visual artist and a coffee planter. They met while in the colonial service during the Second World War.

He attended two boarding schools in Rhodesia, where he began playing guitar and joined a school rock band. He completed his schooling in Africa and then enrolled to study forestry in Scotland, but the lure of the folk-rock revival of the 1960s drew him in, making him realise forestry was not where he needed to be.

While searching for himself, he found a berth on a geographical survey ship. Over five years, he worked and travelled through the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Indian Ocean and the east and west coasts of Africa. It was an incubating period. By 1969, he was in Madagascar, close enough to what he considered ‘home’. It was there that he chose to ‘jump ship’ and begin to grow his music career.

His music was influenced by multiple sources, including African mbaqanga and kwela, boeremusiek and Trinidadian calypso, not to mention the texture of folk, blues, country and rock. Bird’s distinctive sound is at once polyrhythmic, percussive and melodic. It often contains nature-redolent imagery, evoking landscapes, animal and plant life, as can be seen in his songs The Cape of Flowers (1978) and Rift Valley (1990).

Bird’s nature imagery became rich in metaphor because of the repression of apartheid values. In his 1976 work Song of the Long Grass, revolution is couched in the different sounds and sights of the long grass, including blood from the lion hunt and the presence of hyenas.

Songs such as Mango Time are vessels for Bird’s childhood memories which describe the waterhole located on the other side of the hedge in his garden and the memories of the mangoes which came into season once a year. Bird’s music is known for its organic qualities and unusual sound and style. He is also remembered for the beat that he often kept with his boot hammering the floor of the stage and his distinctive finger-picking guitar style.

Phillips describes Bird’s music and presence as a shock to the system; conservative audiences were not only astonished by his appearance with his long curly hair and facial expressions but also by his alien but polite and elegant accent and grotesque stance. “He was shocking on so many levels, the hairs stood up all over my body” says Phillips, recalling the first recording session he did with a young Bird. “His delivery was aggressive, he stood like he was ready for war and when he started singing, his face contorted like he was in pain.” He often made unusual sounds such as hoots, hums, falsetto, barks and howls.

Friends with the likes of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Simon Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, who he had idolised on the radio as a child, as well as Odetta, who was supportive of his political stance, Bird was deemed by the US press and his fans in that country as ‘The Father of African Folk-Rock’. He began his music journey in 1970 playing the folk scene in what was then known as Salisbury. A year later, he was gigging in the folk clubs of Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, where he performed at the Space Theatre. He was one of the first white protest singers to raise his head above the parapet under apartheid South Africa; activism that forced him to leave.

Bird spent five years in Africa, hearing the agony and beauty of this complicated continent. The apartheid regime didn’t appreciate his candour, and he returned, feeling in danger, to London in the mid-1970s, where he signed a record deal with CBS, who brought him to London to record Tony Bird (1976) and later to the US, where he recorded Tony Bird of Paradise (1978) – the latter was deemed by a critics’ poll in People Magazine of 1986 as one of the top 10 albums of all time.

Critically, he was defined as “uncategorisable”, a back-handed compliment, which took him from being signed up to Elton John’s Rocket Record label, to coming into the awareness of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, who described him as “this white cat from Africa, singing for his South African black brothers in their struggle against apartheid.”

The 1980s was a particularly rich decade for him. It began with his move to New York, where he spread his proverbial wings as a sparklingly original songwriter. He had the opportunity to tour — and record — with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. While South Africa was under the ignominy of a State of Emergency, Bird was performing at politically significant gigs.

But the 1980s was also a decade complicated by neurological difficulties which Bird started to experience. By 1984, these problems became very marked and affected his use of his hands. The decade ended in devastating injury. Bird’s partner, Joyce Kegeles recalls: “Tony called the beach his playground, gym and church. An excellent long distance swimmer, he loved somersaulting in the waves and body surfing … He also mastered the boomerang frisbee game of throwing to where the wind is coming from, watching it sail and running to catch it where it returns. One evening when a lifeguard stand was put on its side, Tony was running at full speed to catch a frisbee … and he slammed face first into the metal leg of the stand.”

While he continued to work, over time, this accident invoked creeping neurological difficulties which affected his hands and musical dexterity. He continued performing and writing prolifically under great duress until 1998, when he was compelled to stop. In 2004, at the age of 59, he began to learn a new method for playing the guitar and to rebuild his music career in concerts in the Northeast region of the US and in Canada.

Arguably his best known song was the title song of the album, which was to be his glorious comeback: Sorry Africa was published in 1990 under Rounder Records. The album reflects not only his roots in Africa with hits such as Tssik Tssik Tsa and Zambezi-Zimbabwe but it also reflects his sympathy for those in Africa who had suffered at the hand of colonialism.

In 1991, he met Kegeles, who recalls being led to his concert by her passion for African dance, music and culture. “We recognised in each other the same world view and healthy humble lifestyle,” she adds. “We eventually became a stable and inseparable unit, revelling in his prolific songwriting genius that continued unfolding beyond imagination.”

Bird was, by all accounts, an eminently decent person with a mesmerising talent. He lost his twin brother in 2012 to cancer. His life partner, Kegeles says: “Tony will always be a true inspiration for giving so much to the world under great adversity. Those who dearly love Tony’s music, his commanding voice and his depths of compassion have known him as a teacher, a prophet, a delightful breath of fresh air, passionately enjoying life to the fullest and forever growing in magical musicality and poetry.”

  • Chelsea Barton is a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. She is part of the VIT 101 class, being taught the rudiments of arts writing by Robyn Sassen during 2020.

13 replies »

  1. Thanks for this full picture of Tony Bird. I first heard of him when he was being called the Malawian Bruce Springsteen in the ’80s, and he was unforgettable in performance. I’ve heard for years that he had many albums’ worth of music that was never released. Is there any chance all this music will be released? I would value it as much as anything in my music collection. Thanks again.

    • Hi Ron, thank you for this comments. I wish I knew when Tony’s music will be released to the world, but hopefully, your comment out there in the world will trigger a response.

  2. This a WONderful article! It captures the Tony that I knew and explains some things. Many things!
    I had the great good pleasure of seeing Tony perform three times. First at Passim’s Coffee House in Massachusetts, sometime in the 1970s. Indeed he was “untamed and unforgettable,” and his presence was a “shock to the system.” His craggy features, his wild hair, his unusual utterances…I was riveted! And in contrast to this was the loveliness of his melodies. I was especially moved by She Came From the Karoo.
    Many years later I heard him perform in Ithaca, New York. I was struck by his frailty; now I understand that he was very ill at the time. Still I cherished the opportunity to see and hear him again. At my request he sang the Karoo song. I could barely hear him, he was so weak.
    The third time I saw him was also in Ithaca. Joyce was with him, and I gave them a ride from the concert venue to their hotel. We met again the next day to talk. It was very special, getting acquainted with Tony and Joyce.

    I learned of his passing just today. I’d found some beautiful mangos at my food coop, and— delighted to realize that it was Mango Time once again— I googled his song. And one thing led to another as it does on the internet, and I learned that Tony had passed.

    He lives on in my heart and he will forever.

    Barbara Van Dyk, Ithaca, New York

  3. Thank you for this wonderful piece. I first met Tony on Fire Island while he was playing boomerang frisbee in the wind. As regulars, we saw each other a few times and my wife and I always enjoyed his company while playing in the wind and surf.
    We crossed paths again in Blue Hill Maine when we got to see him play. I gave a frisbee to a stage hand who got it to him while on stage. I’ll never forget his comment into the mic after seeing the illustration I did inside the frisbee of him playing on the shore with his frisbee. He said with a big smile, “wow, someone out there knows me better than most”. We met up after the show and had a nice evening.
    I learned today of his passing and I’m deeply saddened.
    A beautiful, talented man that I am honored to have known.

  4. I met Tony when I was learning how to play guitar in Central Park west sitting on a bench. Tony came walking by and sat down to hear me play. I ended up letting him play my guitar and he did a couple songs for me. He gave me good advice about a music career and I appreciated that he took the time out considering he was on his way to Columbia records for a meeting. He had a unique voice and picking style and was a really nice person. I never forgot him and I’m sad to see that he passed away in 2019. R.I.P. TONY

  5. Thanks for the article! Tony Bird had a special place in my father’s heart. I saw him perform in Victoria BC with my parents around 1988.

  6. I first met Tony ca. Nov. 1984 I believe when he called my house! wow. It turns out I had left my contact info with him after seeing him perform live, so I could order one of his albums. He had no idea who I was, I explained and and the lp arrived in the mail some time later. I first saw him autumn 1982 at a cafe in t.o. and he was magnificent. Happily I can report I saw him maybe another 10? times in my life over the years and once even in Boston when I was living in the early 1990s. He again somehow had my phone number and called me in 1994 when the World Cup (of soccer-football) was on and wondering if I had a tv and he could come over and watch. Sadly I did not at that time-place. He was unfailingly polite, courteous, charming in person and I loved his live shows. The last time I saw him (early 2000s?) in t.o. he seemed quite thin. She came from the Karoo was one of my favs. as it reminded me of my 1st g-f (summer 1981) who had a little red dress. 🙂 Rest in peace Brother T!

  7. What an incredible musican and person he was. I first met Tony at my son’s godfathers house and was totally hooked on his style of playing. A musical picker a poet all wrapped into one. Tony was just a warm person and it reflected in his music and character. The next time we met happened to be a birthday party, that was the last time I sam him. RIP Tony B. Fly away bird to where the sky’s meet the heavens. Walk good.

  8. Thank you so much for this detailed obituary, Robyn and Chelsea. I was fortunate to hear Tony at our local folk club in Port Elizabeth South Africa around 1970. I was blown away by his songs and delivery. I can still picture over 50 years later where I was sitting nearby him and just being absolutely mesmerised by his music and presence. I bought his great “Tony Bird” album on LP which includes songs he sang that night. Many years later in NZ I bumped into his Sorry Africa album on CD which I was listening to today, prompting me to yet again see how he was getting on. I am pleased to see he was very active through his life and I too would love to see a release of his archived music. RIP Tony, you were and are an inspiration to me.

Leave a Reply