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Tuning in to Guy Buttery’s global language

Published on 30 January 2018

It is the first time since 1981 that the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Music has has been given to a non-classical artist, writes Estelle Sinkins

KEEPING the news secret that he had won the coveted Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Music is one the hardest things that Guy Buttery has had to do. “They told me about it in July last year,” the Durban-based guitarist said. “But I managed to keep quiet about it. The only person I told was my wife.”

Since the news broke, he has, however, realised just how big a deal the award is. “I have always been aware of the Young Artist Awards, but it was always classical music artists who won, so I never ever thought it was on the cards for me,” Buttery said.

The Standard Bank Young Artist (SBYA) awards are the country’s leading arts award, and 2018 marks the first time, since 1981, that the music award has been given to an artist outside of the classical music genre.

“I believe the decision speaks volumes for both the SBYA committee and the award itself, for branching out and recognising other musical genres. I am deeply humbled by this,” Buttery said. “And I have realised it is going to be a very enabling and amazing project. It’s exciting, daunting, all those things …”

Stretching boundaries

A talented composer and extraordinary guitarist, Buttery aims to stretch the boundaries of fingerstyle guitar playing to its limits. His unique style of playing is deeply rooted in South Africa, but also manages to speak a global musical language — as his recent successful tour of New Zealand demonstrates.

“We did eight concerts in nine days,” Buttery said. “We played in great venues and the people were super nice. We were welcomed everywhere we went.”

New works in new settings

As part of his Young Artist Award, Buttery will get to perform on the Main programme at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year.

Asked if he has decided on his programme, he said that while he has a number of ideas, nothing has been set in stone. “One of my ideas is to present new work in new settings,” he added. “I think that as artists we need to be constantly exploring and expanding. Being recognised means there are people out there who connect with what I do and that’s amazing. I want to try and see that grow.”

More importantly, Buttery is thrilled to be back on stage after being struck down with illness in 2016. “It was a tough year. I had to cancel 30 concerts and a tour of Italy. But I’ve definitely got my mojo back and I’m really looking forward to hitting the road,” he said.

Taking it slow

Buttery is also working on a new project with sitar player Kanaada Naranhari. “We have been spending two or three days in my recording studio and are just taking things slow and letting the music develop organically,” he said.

Born on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast in November 1983, Buttery was introduced to music at an early age through his mother, who plays the piano, and his older brothers who played guitar.

He grew up listening to Zulu men playing maskandi music on oil-drum guitars and the sounds of the tabla and sitar in the local Hindu temples, as well as to the likes of The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley. After hearing John Paul Jones’ mandolin on Led Zeppelin’s Battle of Evermore, Buttery bought a mandolin of his own and then later, influenced by Ravi Shankar, a sitar.

Using these instruments and various guitars, he has explored new musical sounds while working with Nibs van der Spuy, Gito Baloi, Vusi Mahlasela, Steve Newman, Madala Kunene, Michael Hedges, Missy Higgins, Violent Femmes, Martin Simpson, Jethro Tull, Donovan, Shawn Phillips, Piers Faccini, Valiant Swart, Tony Cox and Farryl Purkiss.


Buttery, who studied jazz at the then Natal Technikon (now Durban University of Technology) and later at the Durban School of Music, released his debut album, When I Grow Up…, in 2002.

He also became the youngest nominee in the history of the South African Music Awards (SAMAs) that year, when he was nominated for best instrumental album and best newcomer at the age of 18.

In 2005, he released Songs from the Cane Fields, which was nominated for best instrumental album at the SAMAs. His most recent album, Fox Hill Lane, which features Dan Patlansky, Madala Kunene, Tony Cox, Syd Kitchen and Nibs van der Spuy, won the best instrumental album at the 2010 Samas and a Standard Bank Gold Ovation Award at the 2010 National Arts festival in Grahamstown.

Did you know?

  • Former winners of  the Standard Bank Young Artist Award include William Kentridge, Mbongeni Ngema, Sibongile Khumalo, Helen  Sebidi, Mathinus Basson, Robyn Orlin, Darrell Roodt and Neil Coppen.
  • Guy Buttery’s fellow winners this year are Chuma Sopotela (performance art), Igshaan Adams (visual art), Jemma Kahn (theatre),  Musa Hlatshwayo (dance) and Thandi Ntuli (jazz).
  • The winners were selected by the National Arts Festival committee, chaired by Brett Bailey.

This article was first published in The Witness. Republished with kind permission

Estelle Sinkins is an arts journalist based in KwaZulu-Natal. She covers theatre, dance, music and visual arts on her blog, The Luvvie. Follow Estelle on Twitter @Sinkins_E

Photograph by Harold Gess.  Follow Harold on Instagram @haroldgess