“It’s about the interrelationships between patterns”: South African saxophonist and bandleader Steve Dyer’s new album ‘Revision’ is released on 16 September. Interview by South African jazz writer Gwen Ansell.
Ghana’s sankofa bird – which looks back in order to look forward – flies in the title of Steve Dyer’s new release, Revision. “I’m happy the album title can be read two ways,” says the South African saxophonist, flautist and composer, “because it is both a revision of past ideas and a re-visioning of the future.”
Revision is Pietermaritzburg-born Dyer’s thirteenth album as leader. Although he’d gigged while still a student, his stage career really began as a founder-member of the late trombonist Jonas Gwangwa’s outfit Shakawe in the mid-1980s. Music student Dyer had refused conscription into the apartheid army and quit South Africa for its northern neighbour, Botswana. There, Gwangwa was a key figure in the Medu Arts Ensemble, a liberation-oriented cultural collective of exiled South Africans and Batswana. Subsequently Dyer spent time in London and Zimbabwe, as well as working again with Gwangwa in the Amandla Cultural Ensemble of the ANC. He came home to South Africa in 1993.
Those experiences and journeys have influenced his writing, playing and arranging. “Music in the 80s was an agent of change; there was idealism, we were living in a mental utopia of sorts. But I don’t think the change we envisioned has happened to our satisfaction.” The revision, then, entails identifying messages of change that are appropriate for today. “Modes of struggle that were largely imported need to be reconsidered,” suggests Dyer, citing the influence of philosopher Mogobe B. Ramose and his book African Philosophy Through Ubuntu.
“What’s fundamental is how we relate to other people. If [Pan-Africanist Congress leader] Robert Sobukwe could say back in 1959 ‘Africanists take the view that there is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race,’ why are we still failing today to address the underlying inequalities and deal with the prejudice that’s such a hindrance to progress?”
But what he calls that “new frontier of struggle” is the driver for Dyer’s music, not its text: “I don’t go into the studio asking how I can put social imbalance into notes!”
Ubuntu certainly influenced Dyer’s studio process on Revision. The philosophy centres communality, “so it’s not so much about specific instrumental solos but more about an emphasis on playing together and listening to each other. I wanted that kind of interplay between different textures to be part of the structure. That’s why I brought in the [Resonance] string quartet, and marimba player Dylan Tabisher.
“It’s about the interrelationships between patterns.”
That concept, made visible in African textiles such as Congolese Shoowa cloth and Ghanaian Adinkra block-print, crops up repeatedly in Dyer’s discussion of his music. Musical lessons drawn from Africa are woven into the text. The album opens and closes with a Heartbeat: “All living things have a heartbeat, and that speaks of their interconnectedness. That totality of life – and the afterlife – is ubuntu.”
“As South Africans,” Dyer says, “we need to be much more integrated with our continent, not seeing it as somewhere at a distance. When I came back from Zimbabwe – where mbira as both melodic and percussive instrument shaped the music – it was hard to find many drummers here playing rhythms and cross rhythms like I’d heard there. That’s no longer true: the young cats definitely identify their roots as being part of this continent, and the question of identity is more to the fore.”
Dyer first encountered a deliberate, explicitly theorised African approach to music making from a South African: Gwangwa in Botswana. “He was one of the elder statesmen who worked on that more than many others. I’d watch him building a song from the bass drum up: then snare, then bass, then guitar as a really important voice. That way of laying down a musical canvas informed my thinking a lot.”
One track on Revision, No More; No Less, is a tribute to another late elder statesman of African brass, Manu Dibangu. The title comes from words exchanged when Dyer’s Mahube ensemble shared a 2002 Johannesburg concert bill with the Camerounian. “In his career, he was always pushing the envelope. We had the dressing room next door,” remembers Dyer. “He’d play little lines on his sax, then discuss with the musicians. It felt like a different way of connecting with his instrument and his band. I’ve tried to invoke that with a Manu-like cross-rhythm in the second section of horns.”
There’s a more urgent rhythmic feel on Birthright, which feels less like a laid-back Dibangu in Douala, and more like a campaigning Fela at the Shrine. “Yes, it’s definitely a protest song. It was inspired by the movement of the people around Black Lives Matter, saying we’re not prepared to accept anything less than our full status. But in the tune, the agitation for change isn’t location-specific, though it’s certainly Afro-specific.”
Alongside Gwangwa and Dibangu, another musical hero recalled on Revision is Miles Davis in Take Now (words from some studio comments recorded in the trumpeter’s biography). This is the second time Dyer has saluted Miles, there was also Selim Sivad (on video here) on the 2019 album Genesis of a Different World. “Because he never looked at structure as just a head and then a few solos. There was always careful consideration of texture, and that’s my approach here, right through to ending off with an allusion to Pedi pipe music, “ Dyer explains.
The intersection of much more fluid patterns shapes the album’s flute feature: Water Colours (video below). “I found a flute effect where the notes I play get transported into a much more abstract harmony: like the bleed between colours in watercolour painting. But what’s interesting to me is what happens between the tone colours. Each phrase smudges into the next, suggesting the shape of the spaces between us and the way they shade into the personal.”
The personal, intuitive and emotional aren’t neglected on Revision, with lyrical and melancholy tracks such as Bittersweet, Love Lost and Langazelela (Longing). But perhaps the composition most allusive of Dyer’s current life is Parallel Streams. “There’s groove, free playing, a lot of moods. It’s the plurality of life: how we’re all involved in different things simultaneously – and as time moves on maybe they just run parallel or sometimes they intersect,” Dyer says.
One key intersection in the saxophonist’s current life is between his activities as a musician and the recording space he runs, Dyertribe Studios, attached to his home in the countryside outside Johannesburg. He knows about the “young cats” partly because many of them record at the studio, including one of his children, pianist Bokani Dyer, who also participates in studio management. Genre-defying collective The Brother Moves On, for example, recorded their upcoming album Tolika Mtoliki at Dyertribe. Gilles Peterson’s London-based Brownswood Recordings made it the location for the label’s recent South African compilation, Indaba Is. “There are always people from every kind of music there, and in the breaks we’re talking about those pertinent, substantive issues as well as the music.”
The forward-looking face of Revision definitely points to this role too. “I’d like for it to grow even more into being a welcoming creative hub,” says Dyer. “I’ve never been interested in running the kind of clinical studio where you’re afraid to play a wrong note.”
Revision is released on 16 September 2021
LINK: Steve Dyer’s website
Categories: Feature/Interview (PP)