With a population of 1.3 million Indians, Durban is the largest “Indian” city outside of India. No wonder then that South African multi-instrumentalist Guy Buttery picked up a fair bit of Indian music there. But in the past few years, he has surrounded himself with Indian classical music, which he says, “Plays 24×7 in my home”.
Buttery will perform alongside tabla player Mohd Amjad Khan at Amarrass Nights at Sunder Nursery in New Delhi on Saturday. They will be playing songs from Buttery’s last album One Morning in Gurgaon, which he recorded with Amjad and sarangi player Mudassir Khan and released in 2021. Buttery will also perform new material that he and Amjad worked on during their July tour of South Africa. Qawwali group Rehmat-e-Nusrat and Kumaoni folk act HimaliMou will also perform at the event, a monthly series that aims to promote and nurture folk and traditional forms of music and arts.
Dubbed the ambassador of South African music, Buttery has played at sold-out shows across the world in places like the US, UK, Australia, France, Brazil, and Italy. His music is deeply rooted in South African culture, music and instrumentation. The artist has played with several artists such as Dave Matthews, Jethro Tull, multiple Grammy Award winner and founder of Windham Hill Records, William Ackerman, Vusi Mahlasela, Piers Faccini, Kaki King, Dan Patlansky and the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra, among others.
“I’ve observed, consumed and been involved in a variety of different projects over the years, working with different types of world music. Melodically, there’s nothing richer than Indian classical music. The way phrases are performed and notes are revealed over time, there’s such a narrative there. The microtonal aspects (of Indian classical music) automatically make it richer because there’s more material to work with melodically. I’m just living and breathing (the music) on most days. I’ve always felt very honoured to have come across this music,” says Buttery.
The multi-instrumentalist, who is primarily a fingerstyle acoustic jazz guitarist, cites Sitar player and Hindustani vocalist Kanada Narahari as his greatest teacher in terms of classical music. On his Bandcamp page, Buttery recalls having met Narahari, an Ayurvedic doctor, to treat his debilitating fatigue. Narahari played his sitar and set Buttery on a strict daily diet of Raga’s to fast-track his recovery,” the post on the website read. The two then went on to record the album Nāḍī and an EP called Sonokota.
From his solo performances to collaborations with other artists, Buttery’s mellifluous guitar arpeggios coupled with intricate jazz motifs and sartorial improvisations make his music unique. His sincerity towards Indian classical raga structures and improvisations is illustrated when he talks about a piece of certain advice that Amjad once gave him. “When you’re in concert and playing the same raga that we played last night or the night before, he (Amjad) said that if you find that you’re repeating yourself, you’re no longer in the present moment. There should be, at that moment, a sort of internal inquiry about yourself: why am I not being open right now? If you’re not exploring all the time, there’s maybe something wrong, something a bit stuck inside that needs to be loosened. If you make mistakes along the way, that’s part of the experience. Nothing is scripted and nothing is perfect. That stayed with me a lot,” he says.
Talking about translating Indian classical music onto the guitar, Buttery talks about using slides and bends that correspond to the tonal shifts in the music. “There are ways to phrase things in a way which creates the illusion of a microtonal guitar. But there’s also the beauty of the guitar is that you can bend the note, which you can’t do on a piano, for example. So I can find the notes between the notes with some ease and most guitar players can just maybe a lot of guitar players might not. They might think it’s wrong. That’s where the paradigm shift is…,” he says.
The guitarist also mentions learning the techniques to play Indian classical music on guitar from watching the late Indian mandolin player of Carnatic music, U. Srinivas. “I was fortunate to see him in concert in Durban. He had an instrument that was effectively a Western instrument, a sort of small baby guitar. He was playing microtonal things like no one else,” says Buttery.
Buttery is currently working on four new albums, which are set to release next year. The guitarist is also working on another album with Amjad and Mudasir. Next up is an album with legendary South African artist Madala Kunene. Apart from these, Buttery is also working on an electronic ambient album.