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Bokani Dyer: African Piano

Seton Hawkins By

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I think a lot of my music touches on identity, which is a personal thing, but I think it also echoes in the societal issues of the time that we're dealing with, especially in this part of the world. —Bokani Dyer
Throughout this decade, pianist, composer, and bandleader Bokani Dyer has stood as one of the most formidable and creative keyboard talents in South Africa today. Raised in a musical family—his father is the legendary saxophonist Steve Dyer—Bokani Dyer quickly demonstrated an extraordinary musical vision and identity of his own. Indeed, albums of his, notably Emancipate the Story and World Music, stand as modern classics highlighting the breathtaking creativity in South Africa's music scene today.

As Dyer releases his fourth album, entitled Neo Native, the music finds him in a pared-down setting, highlighting the gorgeous interplay of his working trio, exploring the complex question of identity in South Africa, and delving even more deeply into a keyboard concept he has dubbed "African Piano."

All About Jazz: You're born in Botswana, and born into a musical family. Can you talk about your earliest memories?

Bokani Dyer: My father [saxophonist and composer Steve Dyer] is a musician, and he was part of a community of artists who were forced into exile into neighboring countries. He was a part of a group who were based in Gaborone [capital of Botswana] at the time that I was born. A lot of things were happening; I don't have a conscious recollection of that time, but that was environment surrounding me when I was born.

I would say that my earliest memories were travelling with my dad when he was on tour. He was running a band called Southern Freeway, which he recorded in about 1989. I remember meeting the musicians, hanging out and checking out the rehearsals and soundchecks. Those would be my earliest musical memories.

AAJ: Your dad's music finds him jumping across genres and styles with tremendous facility. It's something that seems to be present in your music too, an ability to synthesize many styles and sounds.

BD: I guess because of the exposure to it, you almost cannot control what goes in! But I agree that his music has been informed by many influences.

AAJ: You have major watersheds in your career as we enter the 2010s. However, can you talk about your time prior to that, specifically your time studying at the University of Cape Town?

BD: UCT was great. When I got ready to study, I was first thinking of going to the States. I was getting into Jazz, and thought it'd be great to study at Berklee, so that was my first choice when I thought about studying music. But that was not to be. My dad had played with many musicians in the scene, and he felt the University of Cape Town was the best school at the time. My first year was 2004, and it was a great experience. I studied with Mike Campbell, who was the head of the department, and my piano teacher was Andrew Lilley.

The most important thing about studying there, in hindsight, was being with other young musicians. That was the most profound thing about it, finding people and working together. It's important to have these contemporaries who are speaking the same language, in the same phase of life. These are also people who grew up in similar circumstances. We had a lot of the same influences growing up in Southern Africa. The connections formed then still continue in my musical relationships today.

AAJ: Yes, in fact while your album Neo Native came out this year, in the past year we also hear you playing beautifully on albums by artists like Shane Cooper, Benjamin Jephta, and Sisonke Xonti. Can you talk more about the community of artists?

BD: I think it's a very special time at the moment. There is an awareness of this energy, and it's a beautiful thing. It can only make things greater, and a lot of young musicians are creating really amazing work. It feels fresh, and I'm very proud to be a part of that group. I think the world at large is starting to open up with interest to what's going on in South Africa right now.

AAJ: In terms of your being a part of that movement, let's look at some of your records. Your debut record Mirrors came out in 2010. Can you talk about that album's conception and how you approached it?

BD: I wasn't approaching anything! I had some compositions, and I needed to find a way to get them down. I had no basis from which to work. I had tried with my trio, and we had recorded some things, but I wasn't happy with the tracks, and so I added some horns on top of the tunes. There were a few separate recording sessions to make up that album, so it was recorded between 2008 and 2010, different sessions with different musicians. There are some trio tracks, some quintet stuff, and some separate sessions with bigger bands. Basically, that was my first statement, and I just wanted to put my best foot forward, my favorite pieces.

AAJ : The piece "Song No. 2" from that album includes moments that remind one of Bheki Mseleku, while your keyboard playing on that track has the same singing touch as someone like Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. Were they influences of yours?

BD: Definitely, they were inspirations to me. I was listening to a lot of Bheki Mseleku at the time, but I think that the nature of the influence is not always apparent when I listen to my music. I don't necessarily hear a direct influence of Bheki's, but he has been a huge inspiration, musically and otherwise.

In fact, the track "Whisper" was a dedication to Bheki. How it came about was that Charlie Haden was playing at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and he gave a workshop that I attended. He had previously recorded the album Star Seeding with Bheki Mseleku, and he was talking about this thing that all great players had, which is a whisper. You can hear the notes being played, but along with that there's another frequency you can hear at the same time. The way I took it was a spiritual frequency that goes along with the music. So that was a track dedicated to Bheki.

AAJ: Around this same time, you win the Standard Bank Young Artist Award. In winning that, you entered into an incredible lineage of piano players who had previously won that award. That award also led to your album Emancipate the Story. Can you talk about that period?

BD: The award is a huge thing, and something I was not expecting. It's not an award that you can apply for; it's a blind panel, and it happens behind closed doors. Basically, the panel members recognize the work that you're doing and choose their candidate, and only notify you when you have won. It was amazing to get the phone call telling me I was the 2011 Young Artist.

Once that had sunk in, I had to think about what I was going to do. Most artists with the award then record an album, so what I felt was that the baton was being handed to me and I needed to carry the tradition of South African Jazz forward. What happened was that I went into a period of intense listening to as much South African Jazz as I could, to see where it was at, and to think about how I could contribute in a meaningful way as a younger voice. Emancipate the Story was basically an album written specifically for that project. All the music was written over three months, and it was like a composition project I undertook. I wanted to say, basically, "This is my contribution to South African Jazz."

I tried to capture the spirit of South African music and present it the best way I could. The album opens with "Fanfare," which pulled from Zim Ngqawana's approach, that very modal aesthetic that he touches on. It's a great, signature sound of his, and very distinct. I think we younger South African musicians really can and do appreciate the contribution Zim made. "Meditation Suite" was a more Bheki-influenced piece. It was inspired by one of his pieces: "The Age of Inner Knowing" from his Celebration album.

AAJ: Let's contrast that with the World Music album that followed. You make an interesting point with Emancipate the Story about trying to touch on the soul of South African styles. With World Music, the sound and textures shift quite a lot; you also directly bring in the broader moniker of "world music." Can you talk about what changed?

BD: Emancipate the Story came at a time where I had been recognized as a young Jazz artist of South Africa. I felt there was a kind of a responsibility to fulfill a responsibility that I felt came with the award. World Music was a departure, one in which I was looking at myself and the way I grew up. The world is getting smaller, and we are being exposed to anything and everything. I heard about a heavy metal band in Botswana, and you might not think of guys on the Southern tip of Africa doing something like that. But eclectic is now becoming the norm. There are so many things we're exposed to as we grow up, that to put a name on something or fit it into traditional thinking on what it "should" be can be restrictive. So for me, World Music was a statement to say that I accept all the different music I've come across that has influenced me, and that I want to find a way to freely express myself on the album.

AAJ: Absolutely, and South Africa has that incredible range of cultures and corresponding musical styles. Can you talk about how that influenced the way you approached your latest album, Neo Native?

BD: Well, if you know about South Africa, the history, and where we are right now, you know there's a lot of dialogue about where people come from, and trying to place people. It's funny, because two people with such distinctly different realities can call the same place home, which is quite an interesting thing for me.

Because of myself and my diverse heritage, what do I call "native," or where's the land to which I'm native, and what does that mean in this day and age? What is the "native" in this day and age? Does "native" have to reference a physical place? Could it be an idea that gives you the feeling of home? That's basically what I was trying to get at with the title of this album. I think a lot of my music touches on identity, which is a personal thing, but I think it also echoes in the societal issues of the time that we're dealing with, especially in this part of the world.

AAJ: You mention where South Africa is at right now, and obviously a key discussion regards issues of land, land redistribution, and the grappling with the colonial past. Is your album trying to engage in that discourse?

BD: I wouldn't say it's a direct reference to that debate. I'm trying to maybe shift the narrative slightly. It's great that these issues are coming to light, with the black majority being vocal about the history of this country and looking at ways to address the injustices of the past.

But I do think in this day and age it's very easy for convenient, simple titles to describe complex issues -hashtags. When we talk about dismantling whiteness, I think it creates an anti-white sentiment. I am very interested in finding a way that we can describe the struggle in a way that is more true to everyone who has an interest in building a better future for all as opposed to a generalization which does not capture the full story. For instance, somebody like my father who was a part of the liberation struggle, as a white man in South Africa, is there space for the recognition of his contribution and the contributions of other white freedom fighters to the South African story in the current discourse?

So when I look at Neo Native, I don't want to talk about something like the "Rainbow Nation" [nickname for post-apartheid South Africa], because of the past 25 years it feels like a naively idealistic idea to speak about. Instead, it's trying to accept that we all come from this place and then figure out how we find a way forward that makes sense for all people who call this place home.
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