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Bokani Dyer: African Piano

Seton Hawkins By

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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.


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