Jazz pianist Bokani Dyer cuts ‘anti-genre’ album, “World Music”

Twenty nine year old Bokani Dyer, born in Botswana of a Kalanga Motswana mother (whence, he got his name, ‘Bokani’) and a white musician father, Steve, who was living in exile during apartheid, has two SAMRO awards to his name. He also recently performed from his new album, “World Music”, at the 2015 Grahamstown National Arts Festival which brought the world closer to what Dyer calls his “anti-genre” music. This was part of his Prohelvetia southern Africa tour with his Swiss Quartet, being connections started during his 2014 residency at the Bird’s Eye Jazz Club in Basel. These original songs in this, his third, album were composed over several years.

Let’s see what this man with a message means in this eclectic assortment of sounds.

CM: ‘World Music’ – I’m hearing various genres…. Where is Bach?
BD: Bach appears on the first notes of the album, in “Waiting, Falling”, composed while I was practicing preludes and fugues, and types of harmonies and structures of melody. This study led me to him. The title refers to the musical aspect of phrases, and contours of music, like waiting for the beat to come, then making a note fall. Lee-Anne Fortuin is on vocals.

Bokani Dyer with Marlon Witbooi & Shane Cooper

Bokani Dyer with Marlon Witbooi & Shane Cooper

CM: Yes, with an even-toned, almost meditative spirit about her…. I liked “Vuvuzela” which starts off with a Latin sound, followed by your impressive piano runs. Buddy Wells’ tenor sax comes with a post-bebop swing. The two saxes and one trumpet sound very much together.
BD: This song was written during the Soccer World Cup period in 2010. It has a jubilant, South African spirit about it.

CM: Yes, it was sassy and fun. The repetitious 3 bar refrain does remind one how monotonous listening to a one-note vuvuzela can be! Next, I found “Reflections” mild and reflective, almost funereal. This mellow mood swings directly into “Outro” (composed with vocalist Moleshe) with repetitive vocal chants accompanying the same reflective chord pattern of your piano, aka vuvuzela. But it was “Transit” that I found most interesting. One hears Arendse’s guitar runs and plucks which set the tone for this piece, while the piano scurries and hops over these plucks. This is a bouncy piece, again showing your versatile chord structures.
BD: The beginning of this song is Herbie Hancock-ish which is a feel I like. It then moves into other influences, from Bheki Mseleku’s ballad style to the Mozambiquan rhythms.

CM: I can definitely hear that Mseleku sound in your chords. The synthesizer wails out the tune with drummer, Marlon Witbooi, keeping the pace consistent. I liked this transit – from piano to synthesizer.
BD: Yes, it’s my love of the synthesizer here and electronic sounds. I played it alot when performing with Jimmy Dludlu and loved being able to bend notes which can’t be done on a piano. I love that, to make a note expressive and ‘slide’, like the guitars do, and make the note sing. It’s anti-genre music! It fragments the ballad.

CM: You like spontaneity…..
BD: Yes. For instance, in “The Artist”, which was written in blurbs and sketches composed over time, it feels like a classic jazz ballad. When I go to jazz concerts, I get thought patterns while listening. Then the inspiration of the moment comes, like with this song.

CM: That’s what I call ‘jazz’: inspirations of the moment, with a response, in spontaneity, unwritten. Your “interlude: See My People Through” seems to be a wonderful frenetic sounding story of migration, almost gospel-like as appeals to the Almighty are made. There’s something hopeful and seeking in the message. It’s short but then swings into the next funky song, “Recess”, with the drum continuing that spiritual theme. Marlon’s drum is always behind the beat, giving that funky layback sound again, like a soul fusion. There was the resolution. Really nice!
BD: This was my fusion piece, with layback R&B sounds.

CM: Then in “Keynote”, we are brought back to a traditional 4/4 be-bop style. One hears a seasoned Belair alto sax pounding out impressive runs and messages. The song moves into a Middle Eastern flair in a minor key, an interesting juxtaposition with an American bebop.
BD: I was listening alot to Kenny Garrett and Terence Blanchard whose influences relate to this song.

CM: Your trumpeter, Robin Fassie-Cock, offers nice runs in “Master of Ceremony” along with Buddy’s sax.
BD: Robin is young, only 22 years old in his fourth year at University, but has a marvellous future ahead of him. He just left for a year study in Norway a few weeks ago.

CM: With “African Piano – Water”, this is a cute pluck pluck dittie with paper covering piano strings, almost like a beginner’s piano 101 with chordal harmony and a playful beat. It sounds like water splashing over rocks!
BD: I wanted to give an Mbira sound, like one hears in Zimbabwe. I am using an overdub, layering piano sounds which echo the effects of water. Then, the last piece on the album, “Motho wa Modimo”, follows that same Africanness of purpose. It means ‘person of God’ literally, but is used in Setwana when something of gravity happens.

CM: This is a solemn piece ending the album. Personally, I would have preferred a more upbeat swing to end this eclectic mix of sounds presented, but ‘Motho’ does offer meditative resolution to messages earlier presented.

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Inside the CD jacket sleeve is a fascinating collage of concepts through words and phrases connoting issues faced by humanity’s masses: “ten million midwives carrying fresh fruit”, “twenty six kora strings to pluck”, “twenty six thousand Somali sheep on their way to slaughter”, “fifty seven thousand car guards queuing for their salary”, “fifteen years of questions between voodoo and black messiah”. Reading this sleeve keeps you gripped with these little word bites that surround our global realities. It then became evident to me that Camerounian journalist and artist, DJ Ntone, from Chimeranga mazazine wrote this sleeve.

Bokani Dyer & Swiss Quartet at Straight No Chaser, Cape Town

Bokani Dyer & Swiss Quartet at Straight No Chaser, Cape Town

CM: Tell me about your projects with electronic music.
BD: I’ve been influenced by Vijay Iyer’s piano playing for its freshness, and Robert Glasper for his determination in sticking to the alternative. I’ve been listening alot to electronic music, particularly people like Alice Coltrane’s nephew, “Flying Lotus”, who produces instrumental-like hip hop grooves with rapping or real instruments. I am experimenting with vocalist Sakhile Moleshe who is part of the “Soul Housing” project, to make up our two-man band using laptop effects with vocals and keyboard only. Sakhile does all sorts of sounds vocally, which is why I include him in “World Music”.

CM: So this is like a beginning ‘world’ Episode, with Episodes 2 and 3 coming?
BD: The next step is to get more into electronic music, with no instruments. I want to produce sound, manipulate it, and open it up, make crazy sounds which are free flowing, outside of any performances. These sounds are present in the world I grew up in, and are present now, with sometimes chaos, stress, anxiety, joys, etc, so I want to harness them and experiment with that.

CM: What else is next?
BD: I think I want to carry this thread of the African piano further. I’d like to put together a collection of pieces played by two or three pianos at the same time, playing interlocking rhythms similar to what mbiras and balafons sound like. For now, I do it alone with a loop pedal. Also, Kyle Shepherd and I are experimenting; we played two pianos at last year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival. That worked like a dream! Because we’re both piano players, we don’t get a chance to play together. Our repertoire was half mine, half his, and all original material. He and I have spoken about doing a recording together.

CM: You’ve travelled outside the country. Where would you like to visit or go for mentoring and work with other musicians?
BD: I plan to use the rest of my SAMRO scholarship of 2013, preferably in New York. So I’m going to apply for an 01 visa to USA, and start identifying a mentor. Also, I’d like to network and find performance opportunities. In 2010, I visited New York and mentored for a few weeks with pianist, Jason Moran, which was very useful. When I visited London last year in November, performing at the London Jazz Festival, I was also able to perform with saxophonist Soweto Kinch. I have been very privileged to have Niki Froneman manage my recent Southern Africa tour with the Swiss Quartet this year, so I look forward to more of these opportunities.

CM: Have you recorded with your father, Steve?
BD: I was on his album, “Ubuntu Music”, which came out 3-4 years ago. We’re doing something together this weekend in JHB.

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Bokani Dyer will continue to have a special relationship not only with his piano, but with us listeners who find rest and calmness in his varied songs.

Published by his own Dyertribe Music, “World Music” features:
Bokani Dyer (piano, keyboards, synthesizer) Shane Cooper (double and electric bass) Marlon Witbooi (drums) Buddy Wells (tenor saxophone) Justin Bellairs (alto saxophone) Robin Fassie-Kock (trumpet) Sakhile Moleshe (vocals) Lee-Anne Fortuin (vocals) and John Hassan (percussion and vocals)

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