Deckle edge

Tony Bird
by Chris Flisher © 1996 /
(first published August 1995 Option)

Tony Bird
Bathed in the soft haze of stage lighting, the thin, bony figure of Tony Bird resembles the angular stance of a gazelle. Alone with a guitar, his feet for rhythm, and the percussive crackle of his cheek against his teeth, Tony Bird is an oddity and the audience is in the palm of his hand. His presence is as imposing as his demeanour — night cool and desert hot, tightrope tense and lullaby calm, politically majestic and schoolboy shy. Hard to classify or pigeonhole, Tony Bird is an unusual man with an unusual perspective on the tragedy that is modern Africa.

Born in Malawi in southeastern Africa, Bird is the son of second generation colonial English settlers. His father was a career military officer in the British army; but it was his grandfather, a civil engineer sent to build roads, who brought the Birds to Malawi. Raised side by side with the indigenous people of Malawi, Bird spent much of his youth playing in the African bush, developing a love for the land and its people. His genuine affection for Africa and her people made it unnatural for him to don the veil of white colonialism so prevalent while the British effectively ruled the country. It wasn't until Bird attended the all-white government high school in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) that he had his first bitter taste of apartheid. Labeled a "kaffir-lover" (slang for black lover) by his classmates, he spent much of his time alienated and confused. His reflections of that time often surface in his songs and thoughts.

"When people talk about apartheid, you don't often hear them saying, 'Ya, well I don't want to be separated from black people, that's a loss of my freedom too.' It works both ways, apartheid is a loss of freedom for both people in a way," offers Bird, continuing, "If you oppress [black] people, if you violate them, they eventually begin to see [all] white people as is a society where the sides have already become very anchored and cynical by years of being separated."

Although Bird has lived outside of Africa for several years, the majority of his songs arise from his experiences there. Witness "Athlone Incident" from his Sorry Africa release. Hitchhiking one night, Bird was eventually dropped off in deep in the middle of a black ghetto. Immediately feeling the tension of racial difference, he remembers finally suffering the distaste that was apartheid, in reverse. He had always lived his life free of prejudice and felt at one with the black man, yet because of a simple twist of fate, he suddenly felt the unrelenting weight that is carried by skin color. The hatred he felt still brings a stark and chilling memory as he recalls the years of oppression. “It was difficult to be raised as one with the Africans and then to be scorned by them because my skin was white. I never saw a difference. It was very hard to come to grips with that kind of treatment. But I also finally knew what they had felt for decades.”

Bird has also experienced prejudice of a different kind. As an artist who has been difficult to classify, he has had to constantly prove himself. In 1976, his debut, simply titled Tony Bird was poorly received. In an effort to penetrate the music charts and to appease an ignorant record company, he recorded for a rock audience with electric guitars, keyboards and drums. While the writing was pointed, apolitical, and appealing, the setting did not accurately represent Bird’s vision. Ultimately the album did poorly and Bird confesses he felt that the music reflected his confusion. “I wasn’t really sure where I fit in musically. I was naive and took the advice of the record company executives who saw me doing something far different from what I heard myself doing. But you don’t know that until it’s too late, sometimes.”

In 1978, the critically acclaimed (and impossible to find) Bird Of Paradise was released and, it too, yielded little public recognition. Again, it may have been the message or a reflection of the time in which it was released. While apartheid has been an overwhelming issue for those subjected to it, its crimes and atrocities have not been widely apparent to the western world until the last decade.

Twelve years later Bird releasedSorry Africa and, finally, the world and Tony Bird are in synch. With a heightened awareness of the crimes of South Africa, Bird’s message has at last become relevant. Some of the material on the album consists of remade versions of songs recorded on his first two albums ("Rift Valley" and "Athlone Incident," in particular).

Sorry Africa has all the necessary accoutrements of Africa. With its high-pitched guitar, chattering percussion, and chirping vocals, the music conjures images of the broad African veld. Acoustic and sparse, the production remains truer to Bird’s vision and delivery than anything he’s recorded to date. Drawing his inspiration from artists such as Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Jim Reeves, and Hank Williams, Bird’s roots are far closer to folk than rock. The result remains unclassifiable.

Humorously remembering living in rainy London, Bird pays tribute to American country music in "Going Back To Cincinnati.”

Using a variety of sounds Tony Bird embodies a unique aspect of Africa seldom seen in documentaries. As such, he is a white son of a black Africa that writhes over the tormented relationship of its troubled offspring. Torn between its past and its eventual future, a unified Africa will arrive in time, just as Tony Bird has — a symbol, a voice, attuned as much to her pleasures as to her pains.

Sorry Africa, Bird recounts how apartheid has vented its tragedy on all the people of Africa. The blacks feel their pain from the severe prejudice and an unconscionable lack of freedom while some whites suffer from an unnecessary, yet painfully real, separation from the blacks and their culture. It cannot always be assumed that the prejudicial role of the whites of Africa is universal. It is a difficult concept to grasp and may appear trivial when compared with the plight of the oppressed blacks — hatred, banishment, restraint and oppression.

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge