Born in 1945 and growing up in Malawi, Tony Bird might be expected to have absorbed some unusual influences, and indeed he did. Long before Paul Simonâ€™s Graceland brought quirky African vibes to bear on Western folk, Bird created music of wonderful fusion and vibrancy. Prolific he isnâ€™t, three albums in thirty years, but both his CBS records (the second produced by Leonard Cohen stalwart John Lussauer) are at times hauntingly surreal, and both are ultimately rewarding experiences.
Imagine that during an Eartha Kitt impersonation show, Bob Dylan dons a slinky number and proceeds to warble like the mannered, campy, old-fashioned girl. Unlikely in the extreme, but that is the closest aural analogy for Birdâ€™s unique delivery. It may have held him back from wider success, as would his brief period on CBS coinciding with the arrival of punk, but like many acquired tastes, the strange style becomes intoxicating.
Birdâ€™s music is a curious mixture of local African cadences and Dutch Afrikaner traditions blended with a Greenwich Village sensibility. On his self-titled debut album, he isnâ€™t so much a protest singer as an apologist for the sins of the whites in Africa, and an evocative chronicler of the beauty of homelands that belong close to his heart. A song such as Athlone Incidentâ€ could easily be renamed â€œLiberal White Boy in Harlemâ€ with its brilliant evocation of the sensibility that looking like the oppressor doesnâ€™t automatically mean that you are one. Think Gil Scott-Heron on a white guilt trip:
â€œO man I felt so helpless
And I trembled in my shoes
I felt like a sacrifice
For the years of bad, bad news
For how can you tell a man youâ€™re neutral
When heâ€™s always been misused
When heâ€™s never known nothing from others
But hatred and abuse.â€
â€œOuteniquaâ€ is equally powerful in the way it brings home the beauty of his native landscape, with lines that evoke a sense of an African pastoral nature, and shows the power and depth of feeling with which he imbues his lyrics:
â€œThe morning mist begins to lift
To release the further sound
And the golden grasses bowed with dew
Now are rising to the sun
The hillsides to are changing hue
As the shadows turn to flowers
And the mountainâ€™s steeps meet blue to blue
In a scarcity of clouds.â€
â€œWayward Daughtersâ€ plows the same furrow as â€œSheâ€™s Leaving Home.â€ Had Merseybeat kitchen sink traumas been warmed with African sunshine, this might have been the result:
â€œBut young daughters donâ€™t leave your home you know
Just so they can be alone
And wander in the big wide world
And they donâ€™t mean to make you cry
When you find theyâ€™ve said goodbye
And you wonder where and why theyâ€™ve gone.â€
Bird possesses that rare ability to suggest as much between lines as he infers in those he actually sings.
Bird of Paradise develops these themes of compassion and travelogue, but exhibits a more personal and intimate side of his nature. In â€œNothing But Time,â€ he creates a mood of tremendously wistful sadness, with a melody to match:
â€œAnd her eyes were leopard green
And they burned within her smile
They almost spoke her mind
Without a move
But now those eyes are closed
And-a-faded from my sight
And now she ainâ€™t nothing but time.â€
A sense of political injustice is astutely evoked in â€œBlack Brother,â€ a plea for understanding beyond the immediacy of political compromises:
â€œOh dear brother black brother caught up in the storm
Standing all alone in the white manâ€™s uniform
Turned against your brother in the hour of Africaâ€™s fate
What do you defend are you in the wrong place.
Yes dear brother black what a terrible fate
Your brothers are standing before you in hate
Now you kill for a third the pay of a white fighting man
Oh their blood is your blood itâ€™s getting late to understandâ€¦
If youâ€™re not part of the answer
Well youâ€™re part of the scheme.â€
The plight of Iraqis being blown to smithereens while queuing for state-related jobs means this thirty-year-old song starkly reveals how slowly the world turns.
Perhaps the most haunting song he has yet recorded, and the most exquisitely beautiful, is the moody and lyrical â€œThe Mynah Birds.â€ One for the cabaret at the end of the world, all sadness and lilting clarinet, crammed with lovingly well-crafted lines laced with unshed tears:
â€œDay has brought its labors dull
The soul has sought escape
And now at dusk and evening lamp
I linger in a trance
Near big dim trees where mynah birds
Call out through the smog
As crowds of hurry homers
Scurry by the park
And am I the only one to hear
The mynah birds a-calling, in the dark?
Oh how long till love is heard
In these times of bite and bark?â€
After Bird of Paradise, Tony Bird didnâ€™t release another album till 1990, when Sorry Africa appeared on Rounder Records. It features revised versions of â€œAthlone Incidentâ€ and â€œRift Valley,â€ and the title track continues his dialog with his longings for a homeland that raises issues of guilt. It remains his only release on compact disc. Another album was trailered by Rounder in the mid-â€˜90s, but that never surfaced.
It seems unlikely now that Tony Bird may add much more to his trio of releases. Perhaps Columbia will bother to place his recordings in their Legacy series. As innovative and crafted efforts go, these are superlative labors that merit this. They deserve to reach a new and wider audience, but as with many fine things, they appear destined for the praise of a small coterie. If you like acquired tastes, then acquire these. Savor and share, and hope like Oliver for a little more. - Robert Cochrane
Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath, will appear via SAF in 2008.