This feature appeared in The Toronto Star on March 30, 1997
The Bird Of Paradise is back.
TONY BIRD, the Malawi-born, Zimbabwe-raised singer and songwriter whose musical plumage offers feathers of blues, folk and country in his self-proclaimed “African folk rock,” returns to Toronto next week for two rare concert performances at The Rivoli on April 4 and The Water’s Edge Cafe on April 9.
Gifted with a compelling sooty voice, an intriguing nasal delivery and a knack for picturesque imagery , the 48-ish singer’s first two Columbia albums — 1974’s Tony Bird and 1976’s Tony Bird Of Paradise — contained songs such as “Rift Valley,” “Athlone Incident,” and “Black Brother” that praised Africa’s environmental beauty and decried its apartheid policy years before fellow South African JOHNNY CLEGG’s politically charged music crossed the Atlantic.
For his uncompromising observations in an uncertain political climate, Bird was forced to take flight from his homeland to Europe in the mid-70s, and eventually migrated to New York.
Since the release of his third and last album, 1990’s Sorry Africa, the wondrous dismantling of apartheid has planted new hope in the heart of Tony Bird: He wants to go home.
“I don’t preclude the possibility of going back to Africa for good at some point,” says Bird over the phone from his Big Apple roost. “I left a long time ago, back in the early ’70s, but now things have changed. went down to the Malawi Embassy here in New York a few years ago to see what my status was, and they informed me that I had none. It was probably a mixture of being away a long time, and colonial parents, and my music. They didn’t really say exactly, but it would be nice to be reinstated.
“But I am still a scatterling of Africa, to quote our dear friend Johnny Clegg. I have never felt particularly settled since I left. The place that’s still in my heart in Africa. If I could get a little more established, I think that’s a possibility.”
Bird’s optimism is evident on many fronts. His fourth album, Precious Life, is finally scheduled for a release on Rounder Records this summer after a year-long delay; he’s got a new agent; and he’s winning a battle with a neuro-muscular disease that he has been battling the past 14 years.
“It’s always been a struggle for me,” says Bird. “I have a unique and different style, and I have what some people find is a rather oddball voice. It’s not only been hard for me to get booking agents, but record deals have not always been forthcoming. I have managed myself, but it’s hard to be doing all that, and be out on the road. The intention from now on is to try and bring out a new record every year.”
Ultimately, Bird defines his musical role as that of a healer.
“Most of my life, I’ve been on a search for things that can unite life rather than divide it, possibly because of my very divisive background in growing up with colonialism and racism in Africa. It was obviously a very conditioning experience in terms, that I didn’t exactly turn out a particularly, broadminded human being in the end, and I had to do a lot of work on myself.
“My music has ended up being a synthesis of universal spirituality, politics and nature.”