Ghanaian Modern Jazz meets traditional Highlife – just barely!

Ghanaian jazz pianist, Victor Dey Jr, wooed audiences at this year’s Standard Bank National Arts Youth Jazz Festival in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), with professional musicians on stage and loads of youthful students of jazz in the audience!

Victor Dey, Jr.

The Diocesan Girls School’s large Hall hummed as this pianist fundi, backed by the improvisational wizardry of South African jazz musicians,  spinned through modern jazz tunes with a West African rhythmic twist.

With Ghanaian music always a foundation of his artistry,  this vibrant soul treats piano keys like cotton, with energy, ease, and an uncanny transparency.  His unusual rendition of jazz icon, John Coltrane’s, ‘Giants Steps’ took all by surprise: silky runs reinterpreting familiar melodies with deliberate off-notes and missed beats, all playfully executed. Another composition, “Mr. PK Ambrose”, named for a fellow bassist who featured on Dey’s first album, Makola, thrilled with its fast pace mounted by both Dey and saxophonist Sisonke Xonti whose runs also caused audience gasps.

Romy Brautenseth (bass), Sisonki Xonti (sax), Marcus Wyatt (trumpet)- Standard Bank

This piece gave all players a chance to triple their usual rhythms, with double bassist Romy Brauteseth stylishly running furiously through her strings.   I kept looking for that West African percussive beat of Ghana’s famous ‘High Life’ style, but Dey ran away with more contemporary modalities….or was it that Johannesburg-based drummer, Ayanda Sikade, dubbed in a familial Ghanaian title of ‘Nana Ayanda’,  stole the show with his frenetic drum solos which wowed all?

Afrika Mkize (left),Victor Dey Jr (middle), Ayanda Sikade (far right)

Whatever one was looking for, or not,  this gifted pianist stunned his fellow artists, like pianist Afrika Mkize, whose fits of bowing and ululations later over drinks in the Hall’s cozy outdoor (and heated) bar foyer drew obvious attention.

 

 

 

 

 

Dey’s latest album, Makola (2017), named after Accra’s main busy market, contains zesty Ghanaian rhythms mixed with jazz, funk, and Latin American, representing “the spirit of the market which is diversity, movement and business”, as Dey puts it.

Playing Fender Rhodes and other keyboards, Dey is well supported by ambitious solos of Bernard Ayisa’s tenor & alto saxophones and  trumpeter Nicolas Genest. Distinct blues, ballads, and improvisations characterise this album without much West African punch.  But there’s a reason for that, as Dey and I chatted during afternoon breaks from workshops at the Youth  Jazz Festival.

Victor Dey Jr.,  born in 1980 and being the son of a diplomat,  spent his very early years in the UK and Algeria, learning piano as well as cultural dynamics.  Back home in Ghana, he completed a Liberal Arts education, and became one of the few who delved into the world of ‘modern jazz’, thanks to occasional alignment with Hugh Masekela and Stevie Wonder.  Granted “Musician of the Year 2014” at the Ghana Vodafone Music Awards, and featured on CNN’s  African Voices in 2016, Dey’s uniqueness was secured and followed.

His soft spoken, polite style of chatting set the tone to understand his impressions of South African jazz as he had faithfully listened to different musicians, like Bheki Mseleku and Andile Yenana whom he also met at the Festival.  Recognizing the strong jazz culture in South Africa with jazz roots and a special vibe, he continues to learn what he might want to add to his own music.  “I’m looking at the stylistics, how South African jazz is crafted, it’s mysterious, spiritual, sometimes dark tones, and what it’s telling you – it’s difficult to describe.  Like Mseleku’s “All for One, One for All” song…..

I suggested he talk with Afrika Mkize who had transcribed Bheki’s compositions.

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Dey is working on his second album with his trio.  “I want something more intimate and intricate.”  Maybe some traditional West African beats?  We’ll see. As we  talked about the more traditional Ghanaian highlife of C K Mann, Dey’s voice saddened. “Oh, that is the old highlife. It’s changed now.  I don’t want to say into what!”  He chuckles confirming my worst suspicion.

“The Highlife is more electronic now, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  But there’s a totally different feel about it now ….. It’s more like pop with the Akan Twi lyrics, and moving into a more global context.”  He suggested that people are playing around this mode, but are moving away from their traditional roots, while understanding the traditional in other more modern contexts.

“This is interesting because I worked on a project earlier this year, and recorded it, taking older classical songs of Ghana and giving them a more modern jazz twist with a light jazz piano .  That is yet to be released  with a well known highlife lady singer, Kodjoe Aisah.  So,  that kind of highlife is not totally dead yet, thank God!”  But are there other musicians willing to keep the traditional alive, and yet move the music forward as improvisational music?   “There are a few guys who haven’t yet put their tunes out .  They’re in that development phase taking so many things in, but it will come.”

This is an issue, remembering  how stuck musicians like Ethiopia’s Mulatu Astatke were in trying to move Ethio-jazz forward, but the schools of music (and fellow musicians!) refused to do this.  So are there music schools for jazz in Ghana?

 

“No, not yet.  Schools prefer the [European] classical and choral music, and African traditional music.  Once in a while, workshops are organized.  I just did a tour in Ghanaian universities, sponsored by the American Embassy, but that’s about it.  Yes, I’m disappointed, but not surprised.   Jazz culture in Ghana was nicer in the 60s and 70s.  But what happened is that the soldiers took over the country in coups and forced curfews on citizens who couldn’t go out to hear the live music at night.  So the musicians left the country.  This is why I’m on a mission to enlighten:  organize workshops, give private lessons for payment or free.  I’m working on something now at University of Ghana which wants to catalogue my music and start a program  –  that’s in the pipeline.”

Hmmm.  The creative artist struggles with time management devoted to creating, but then the other teaching/learning cycle with society takes up space, too.  “I’ll make the time,” Dey says convincingly. “I’ve done some things with neighboring countries like Togo and Benin. My band may be performing at the Lagos International Jazz Festival in Nigeria, too, next year! But I have loved what I have seen and learned right here with South Africans at this Festival!” His eyes gleam.

Well, it’s reassuring to this writer that jazz, with some roots in tradition, won’t die.  I’m watching Dey Jr. like a hawk!

Catch his Youtube video at:  https://musicians.allaboutjazz.com/victordeyjnr

 

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