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.

AAJ: You bring up this idea of constructing a narrative around something as complicated as issues of identity. Musically, let's look at how you navigate it. What immediately pops out is the trio format. This particular trio seems to have been in operation for a few years at this point. But how did it congeal?

BD: Well, it's had a few incarnations since my decision in 2015 to take up the trio format. That was kind of my conscious decision to say I wanted to explore the trio. There's something really special about the trio in a Jazz context because it allows for more an elastic approach to when the melody starts, when it ends, when the solo starts, you know, that kind of stuff. And it feels like there's a lot more space for each member because it's such an intimate format. It allows for more freedom for all of the members contributing to the music. So when I started, it was [bassist] Shane Cooper and [drummer] Marlon Witbooi, and it ended up a year later as the current format, which is [drummer] Sphelelo Mazibuko and [bassist] Romy Brauteseth. I kind of settled on that because I felt it was the right balance of energies. They're just great people, easy to work with, and we have a great time on and off stage. It felt right to continue the journey with them.

AAJ: One thing you bring up is this idea of the freedom in the melody, and that certainly jumps out on the pieces from earlier albums that you revisit on Neo Native. "Kgalagadi" gets a very drastic overhaul, and "Waiting" gets a beautiful reworking. Can you talk about why you picked them to re-record?

BD: Well, with "Kgalagadi" I had come up with this bass line, and it was a seed of what was to be maybe another composition. But then, I was playing the bass line the one day and then I played the "Kgalagadi" melody over that, and it really just worked out. That one is, I would say, the most drastic reworking of an earlier piece. I always wanted to put it down, and for some reason the way that bass line works with the melody just fits better with the trio format.

The song "Waiting"—which I first recorded on World Music as the opening track "Waiting Falling"—that was basically just the direct translation of the same composition. I didn't really change anything; it's just interpreted for trio. We played it a lot and it kind of grew into us, and I felt like we brought something special to it. So I thought it was a good song to include on this album.

AAJ: The original recording of "Waiting Falling" on World Music features that beautiful way the melody is split into a call and response between the horns and guitar. In that pared-down version of the trio, it is striking to hear it played so differently.

BD: Well, it's still got the same elements. It's just that I am now, as the pianist, playing all the parts. So you're hearing the same instrument playing the call and the response, which is kind of a different thing. But I think it works.

AAJ: With "Dollar Adagio," you pay tribute to Abdullah Ibrahim. Can you talk about the influence he's had on you?

BD: Well, he's an inspiration as someone who really carved out his space in the musical world. The reason I called it "Dollar Adagio" is because adagio is a kind of laid-back way of playing. And the reason I did that was because when you listen to Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim recordings, they give you the impression that he's got all the time in the world. He really takes his time and there's a lot of space. There was that documentary that was done on him, A Brother with Perfect Timing, which is quite accurate in terms of just the way he can communicate so much with so little. He's got that special quality, and I think that's the thing that struck me the most about his music and approach.

AAJ: We should also talk about the suite on Neo Native, "The African Piano Suite." Can you talk about each of the four movements, and the decision to include a suite?

BD: The past three albums, from Emancipate the Story to World Music to this one had something that's called "African Piano." Basically, my thinking in the African Piano concept is to approach the piano a bit of a different way. I'm trying to draw inspiration from traditional African instruments and African music influences, basically not looking on piano as a Jazz and Classical instrument appropriated for the purposes of African music, but instead looking into the past and looking at very traditional music and seeing how to bring that message across on the piano. This is basically my thinking when I get to the "African Piano" music.

On World Music, I had a prepared piano with overdubs. So there are three layers of piano. I've been doing that in my live trio show as well. I start with paper on the strings, and it's amazing to hear the sound and resonance. A lot of people come to me after the shows and say, wow, that thing you did really took me into that world. My plan is for my next album to be a solo piano, prepared piano album, and looking at a whole album of this kind of African Piano idea.

On the "African Piano Suite" on Neo Native, the first movement is "Nguni," which I had as like a Coda that never got recorded on the World Music album. I usually played it on the live shows after the song "Vuvuzela." The second piece is "Xikwembu." Xikwembu is a Shangaan word, and they speak Shangaan in South Africa and in Mozambique. I got this title when I was performing in Mozambique. The concert promoter in Mozambique came up to me after the show and said, "wow, man, when you play you get completely possessed by something. It's like the spirit gets you." The word for that is xikwembu, and he had said to me that I should, I should write a piece with the title "Xikembu."

"Chikapa" is the nickname for the late great Ray Phiri, who passed away last year. Just before he died, I was actually doing some musical direction for his band. I wasn't playing, but I was kind of guiding the band, arranging the music and running the rehearsals. In one of the rehearsals, he sang a melody in preparation for one of the shows, which led me to the piece on my album, so it's a tribute to him on that one.

The last movement is "Mutapa," which is paying homage to the homeland of my mother's tribe, the Kalanga people. My mother is from the northern part of Botswana, which is very close to Zimbabwe, so the language is very similar to Shona. Historically, that's the empire of the Shona people, which incorporate Kalanga people, and that was called Mutapa.

AAJ: This idea of the African Piano is fascinating, given how rich the level of piano innovation has been throughout South Africa's Jazz history. People like Abdullah, Bheki, and Tete Mbambisa, but also some of your contemporaries like Kyle Shepherd, Afrika Mkhize, and Thandi Ntuli. They're all great innovators, but also all very distinct in their playing.

BD: Yeah, I don't know what it is. Piano is a special instrument, though I think there are innovators on every instrument. A lot of African music comes from the drums, and I feel there are a lot of innovators of drums as well, who have their own signature touch.

I think that with every instrument played by South African musicians, if you look at the lineage, you will see that there is a lot of innovation. But I guess with the piano being what it is, a half-melodic/half-rhythmic instrument, maybe it's more apparent. Maybe it's an instrument where you can see the individuality or the uniqueness the most. When you're playing African percussion, there has been less cross-pollination so the innovation may seem less apparent. But now if you have that rhythmic consciousness, getting onto the piano, which also the potential for a rhythmic interpretation while also having the melodic aspect, you can bring out a unique sound and communicate a lot through the piano.

AAJ: You mentioned this idea of the African Piano project, but is the trio going to remain a primary vehicle for you in the near future?

BD: For sure. For now I'm very happy with the trio. Maybe next year, we can look at doing another record. But this is the first time in my career where I've had the luxury or the privilege of having a working band that stays constant for an extended period of time. It feels like it goes from strength to strength, and the music is very instinctive and natural. I'd like to keep that alive for as long as possible.

Selected Discography

Mirrors, Bokani Dyer, (Dyertribe Music, 2010)
Emancipate the Story, Bokani Dyer, (Dyertribe Music, 2011)
Ubuntu Music, Steve Dyer, (Dyertribe Music, 2012)
World Music, Bokani Dyer, (Dyertribe Music, 2015)
Iyonde, Sisonke Xonti, (Iyonde Music, 2017)
Neo Native, Bokani Dyer Trio, (Dyertribe Music, 2018)

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