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Bokani Dyer: African Piano

Seton Hawkins By

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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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CD/LP/Track Review
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Neo Native

Neo Native

Self Produced

World Music

World Music

Self Produced


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