INTERVIEW: Bokani Dyer by Gwen Ansell (European tour 24 April to 12 May)

The Bokani Dyer Trio: Romy Brauteseth, Bokani Dyer and Sphelelo Mazibuko
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South African pianist Bokani Dyer opened a European tour with his trio last night in Amersfoort, Netherlands, and will be playing three dates in the UK in early May. This interview, to mark the release of his fourth album Neo Native in 2018 is reprinted from her blog with the generous permission of South African music writer Gwen Ansell:

“What does being a ‘native’ mean?” asks pianist and composer (and 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz) Bokani Dyer. “Does it mean you’re tied to a specific geographical location? Or that you’ve found a home within a certain community of ideas?”

Titles are important to Dyer. Each of his earlier three albums (Mirrors in 2010; Emancipate the Story in 2011; and World Music in 2015) was thoughtfully – and sometimes subversively – named. (World Music, for example, embodied multiple influences to challenge the compartmentalising commercialism of how the record industry markets the music.) And his fourth, this year’s Neo Native, uses the ‘neo’ not to suggest some modified musical genre in the style of, for example, ‘neo-soul’, but for a “reinterpretation of the construct ‘native’.”

Born and schooled in Botswana before music studies at [the University of Cape Town], Dyer’s father is South African saxophonist Steve Dyer, with whom he travelled (and still travels) regularly. His mother belongs to the Kalanga people, “so my ‘native’ is already multiple things, before you even look at the heritages of my parents’ parents and their broader families. Neo Native carries through a personal interest in identity that’s been present in all my recordings.”

The outing travels far around Africa, from the Kalagadi desert to Mali and other destinations West, to Mozambique, the Northern Province of Ray Phiri, and the Cape Town of the young Dollar Brand. But it’s not facile pastiche: each choice is made to say something very specific.

The Brand track, for example, Dollar Adagio, “is a way of expressing my sentiments when I hear Abdullah Ibrahim playing, rather than an attempt to mechanistically reference him. And, yes, especially the early Dollar – there’s that Monk thing about him then: something my teacher Andre Petersen drew my attention to – that beautiful ability, which the movie Brother with Perfect Timing gets across so well, to say a lot with less than most other players would need. He commands his space, and takes his time…If there’s a musical reference, it’s probably the track Monieba on the Dollar Brand/Archie Shepp album.”

The album’s core is the four tracks – Nguni, Xikwembu, Chikapa and Mutapa – that comprise the African Piano Suite. These, too, are threads weaving through all his albums, and also including African Piano on Emancipate the Story and African Piano – Water on World Music. There’s an upcoming project – “maybe the next album, maybe a bit later” – which will bring all those threads together in a solo album, also employing some prepared piano (which he already plays on stage).

“I wanted to explore the piano in a different way, inspired by African idioms and musical instruments, seeing how it is possible to give those a voice through the piano. This suite is a selection from what will feed into the later solo project, and I’m interested in whether, for people listening to it, it can communicate on a level that’s inherent in ‘Africanness’ before ‘jazzness’.”

The dialogue between African and American voices in South African jazz is a long-running one. Regularly, jazz players will give primacy to explicitly asserting and exploring African elements, for example, Eric Nomvete on Pondo Blues, Ndikho Xaba, Sakhile in the 1980s or the late Moses Taiwa Molelekwa and Zim Ngqawana in our own time. Less obvious but equally important in that context are the intellectual concepts and approaches black South African musicians also bring to international standards, developed through their lives and learning in their communities.

Both of those, believes Dyer, are important for the identity – that word again – of South African jazz. “A lot of my generation of younger musicians are listening to ‘world’ music now. When I hear music from other regions of Africa, it still sounds deeply traditional, but also very fresh and modern. Those nations have had a different journey from South Africa – we’re interesting because South Africa has forged a unique jazz identity: one that sounds both African and jazz. Maybe… maybe…,” he pauses, “we have different musical linkage points back into heritage – I’m still thinking about that…”
The album comprises 14 tracks, all original and mostly new but including re-conceptualisations (in the former case quite radical) of the tracks Kgalagadi and Waiting from earlier outings. Kgalagadi was an arrangement of a traditional theme, and so are the newer Gono Afrobeat and Sangare tribute Oumou, sung by Moroccan guest Asmaa Hamzaoui.

Part of what makes Neo Native such an effective vehicle for these explorations is the tight mutual understanding that has developed between the trio, which also includes bassist Romy Brauteseth (both thoughtful and challenging on Waiting) and drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko (offering fireworks on Fezile). They’ve been working together for more than two years now – “and sometimes I think they know my music almost better than I do!” says Dyer. The trio format allows for close working; the long experience together has created an ease and comfort with one another’s approach. “We’ve grown together, we allow each other to be, and everybody’s freer than they would be if we’d just met for a session. Those relationships let us ask questions like ‘What does this music mean?’, rather than just ‘How can I execute this music professionally?’”

Though it’s easy to hear echoes of Dyer’s earlier work on the album, there’s more here. It’s not about ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, but rather a negotiation of a super-permeable membrane between what he called the music’s ‘Africanness’ and ‘jazzness’. With every release, it’s getting harder – as it should, and as Dyer very deliberately intends – to decide which side of that border you’re on. And that, in this age of xenophobia, tells us about identity too.

The Bokani Dyer Trio plays the opening set at Ronnie Scott’s on Tuesday 7 and Wednesday 8 May, and the South Africa Festival at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (set begins at 7.30pm in the Eastside Jazz Club within the Conservatoire) on Thursday 9 May.

LINKS: Gwen Ansell’s blog

Bokani Dyer’s website

South Africa Festival at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire – Preview

Categories: Features/Interviews

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