Two Generations Of South African Jazz
Bokani Dyer is not just a leading figure in contemporary South African jazz, he’s also a living link to its history. His father, saxophonist Steve Dyer, was part of Medu, a radical multi-disciplinary arts collective composed of exiled South Africans as well as members and sympathizers from other countries. From their base in Gaborone, Botswana, Medu’s “cultural workers” (their preferred term) produced films, staged concerts, mounted art exhibitions, conducted creative workshops, and organized public health campaigns. They produced newsletters and propaganda posters intended to critique South Africa’s apartheid government and promote Black consciousness more broadly. The group formed in 1977, peaking in 1982 with the Culture And Resistance Festival And Symposium, a week-long program of concerts, exhibitions, workshops and speeches which drew a lot of attention internationally, but also inspired increased surveillance and harassment from the South African government. On June 12, 1985, the exile community where Medu had its headquarters was attacked by the South African Defense Force; 12 people were killed, including four members of Medu, which disbanded in the wake of the attack.
Bokani Dyer was born in Gaborone in 1986, but his family moved back to South Africa in the early ’90s. He self-released his first album, Mirrors, in 2010; the follow-up, Emancipate The Story, came out in 2011, the same year he won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award, one of South Africa’s most prestigious music prizes. He’s subsequently released 2015’s World Music, the 2018 trio album Neo Native, and 2020’s Kelenosi, an entirely solo disc created under pandemic conditions. That same year, he collaborated with dozens of other South African artists on the Brownswood compilation Indaba Is; his track “Ke Nako” opened the album, and was the first single.
Dyer’s latest release, Radio Sechaba, is his most ambitious and wide-ranging album to date. It features slightly different personnel on almost every track, including a bunch of artists I’ve been listening to with great absorption for several years, like tenor saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, alto saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu, trumpeter Ndabo Zulu, bassist Benjamin Jephta, and drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko. The music is swinging, but also funky and soulful, and has a uniquely South African approach to vocal harmony, as heard on tracks like “Spirit People,” “Tiya Mowa” (on which his sister Sibusisiwe Dyer sings) and a re-recorded “Ke Nako.” Dyer himself sings on multiple tracks, sometimes in English and sometimes in Setswana.
Bokani and Steve Dyer recently completed a US tour together, and I spoke to Bokani by phone at the end of April, when he was in Portland, Oregon. I asked him about re-recording “Ke Nako” for this album and learned that the song was already written with Radio Sechaba in mind when the Indaba Is session was put together. “The Indaba Is project came at an interesting time because I was thinking a lot about this project, Radio Sechaba. So it kind of made more sense to include something from the Radio Sechaba thinking, and yeah, the song seemed to be received really well and it kind of encapsulates the overarching theme of Radio Sechaba. ‘Sechaba’ is a word which means nation, and looking at South Africa today and thinking about ideas of nation-building, 30 years into democracy and big, wide-eyed hopes for the country, and a lot of those dreams have not been realized so far into democracy… thinking about people coming together and people understanding each other is kind of a central theme in the project.”
A key song on Radio Sechaba is “Mogaetsho,” on which Dyer addresses leaders who have not come through for their people. It’s a pulsing soul-funk groove almost worthy of ’70s Stevie Wonder, with some killer trumpet from Sthembiso Bhengu. He sings it in Setswana, because “the design of the language just makes it easier for certain rhythmic things, and I think it has a stronger feeling when it’s sung in Setswana.” He says there’s no exact English translation for the title word anyhow. “It kind of means someone from my home, but it’s also kind of a respectful thing that you say to people, but it’s also kind of ironic, because it’s a song that is criticizing people who are supposed to be taking care of their people and kind of abandon that to enrich themselves. So it kind of increases the sense of betrayal, because it’s like, somebody from your home is doing all this stuff and you call them ‘Mogaetsho,’ the person from home, like a compatriot.”
The question of identity is one that vexes many South African musicians. I’ve had conversations about it with pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, with keyboardist/singer Thandi Ntuli, with Ndabo Zulu, and with Linda Sikhakhane. Dyer has been grappling with this in some depth recently, as part of his pursuit of a master’s degree — his thesis was an investigation of how music can address social issues. “I think everyone is like, who am I and how do I fit into this fabric of South African society? I think it’s a big one because of how the apartheid system classified people in very clear categories, so now what is emerging is, like, people trying to figure out who they are…people taking more pride in their culture and in enforcing that culture. And for me, it’s a really interesting one because my father is of European ancestry and my mother is of African descent, from Botswana. So I’ve been asking the question a lot. Where do you fit in to the grand scheme of things?” He says that more and more he’s drawn to the idea that identity is ultimately false, or perhaps unknowable; “You can’t pin anyone down based on what the color of their skin is or who their parents are or this kind of thing. So I think I am trying to make a statement in saying that people can choose who they want to be, and choose what they want to be affiliated to, and this kind of thing…it may change, but a snapshot of this time right now is, I’m trying to make that space for people to choose who they want to be and how they want to exist.”
This idea of choosing who you want to be and how you want to exist extends to the music on Radio Sechaba. Dyer has the wide-ranging taste of many jazz musicians of his generation, and the album shifts from one “style” to another over and over, while still remaining audibly the product of one man’s imagination. His arrangements, whether he’s playing acoustic piano or synths, programming beats or bringing in multiple horns and backing vocalists, have a loose, organic flow that mix jazz, Afrobeat, soul, hip-hop, and more elements besides. “I’m just trying to express myself musically, and it’s interesting because when you decide to study music — well, in the days that I was in college, you only had the option of classical music, jazz, and opera, I think, that was offered, and African music. You know, you grow up and you’re listening to hip-hop and R&B and all this stuff and then you want to go further in music, and what happens is like, OK, the closest thing to the music that you’re interested in is jazz, and so a lot of people who have very wide palates in terms of music that they’re into or sounds that they like, they’re kind of pushed into the jazz thing. Which is not a bad thing, in my case at least, because you get to learn a lot about the history of music, and music which actually influenced R&B and hip-hop, which the way I see it are kind of branches that come out of jazz and are very much related to each other. So when I put a playlist on at home or whatever, it’s a wide range of different sounds, and I think that that should also be available to us in the music that we create.”
Touring the US with his father has allowed Dyer to explore the history of his country’s music with someone who helped make it, which he sees as incredibly valuable and rewarding for both of them. He recognizes that his life as a South African jazz musician is very different from his father’s, and takes lessons from that. “He always says that he’s really happy that he can see that the younger generation has more opportunities available to them. I mean, the reason that I was born in Botswana was that it was compulsory after he finished his college years to go into the army, and he was against that, so he went into exile, and he was kind of in hiding. He lived a very different life in a different time, and…he plays so much more authentically because he kind of grew up musically in that time, you know? He worked a lot with [saxophonist] Jonas Gwangwa and [trumpeter] Hugh Masekela in those years in Botswana, and he really understands that style and that music, and you know, [my generation] have our thing which is influenced by a whole lot of other things.”
The last track on Radio Sechaba is called “Medu,” and Bokani Dyer doesn’t play on it at all. He wrote it, but it’s a mournful piece, almost like a New Orleans jazz funeral, performed by trumpeter Bhengu, with Sikhakhane and Steve Dyer on saxes, and Amaeshi Ikechi on upright bass. In the album’s liner notes, Dyer writes that the piece was inspired by Jonas Gwangwa, a trombonist, bandleader and composer — Steve Dyer was a member of his late ’70s/early ’80s band Shakawe — who later scored the 1987 film Cry Freedom, and wrote the theme for South Africa’s Olympic bid in 1997. Gwangwa died in 2021.
Although it’s clear that Bokani Dyer is interested in exploring the important questions that arise from being South African — identity, politics — he doesn’t think that makes his country’s musicians, particularly those of his generation, special, nor does he feel it’s a requirement. “I think it’s something that’s in the global consciousness, and South Africa is no different. So I wouldn’t say that it’s forced upon us, but it’s kind of in our surroundings and it’s kind of in the collective consciousness.” What sometimes surprises him is traveling to the United States or to Europe and encountering people who don’t seem to realize that anything in South Africa has changed since the ’80s, like people who watched The Banshees of Inisherin and thought it was a portrait of life in contemporary Ireland rather than a period piece. “Some people are very aware of certain things; I learn a lot of stuff about people who have encountered South African musicians. Like when I was in the UK, they spoke about when the Blue Notes arrived and how that impacted the scene and what was happening politically and their understanding of what exile meant, or how it impacted them. But then you get some people like — we did an outreach thing the other day and one of the ladies who was part of it was surprised that we’ve watched movies. So it’s a sliding scale. She was like, ‘Oh, you guys have Burger King out there?'”
Artemis - "Bow And Arrow"
Artemis is a sextet assembled by pianist Renee Rosnes, featuring trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino, tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover, bassist Noriko Ueda, and drummer Allison Miller. (Tarantino and Glover are new additions; on the band’s debut, Melissa Aldana was on tenor sax and Anat Cohen was playing clarinet and bass clarinet.) They play straightahead jazz in the hard bop tradition, not unlike similar all-star groups the Cookers and the Black Art Jazz Collective. “Bow And Arrow” was written by Miller, so yeah, there’s a drum solo, but it’s a damn good one, and it emerges naturally from the architecture of a very nice, glossy post-bop tune with plenty of harmonizing from the three horns, something you might have heard on a Woody Shaw album from the late ’70s or early ’80s. (From In Real Time, out now via Blue Note.)
Jim Alfredson - "Peepin'"
Organist Jim Alfredson makes his debut for the Posi-Tone label with this album, on which he’s joined by trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, trombonist Michael Dease, saxophonist Diego Rivera, guitarist Will Bernard, and drummer E.J. Strickland. As you’re probably already thinking, yeah, this is a greasy-ass soul jazz album full of hard-strutting grooves and bluesy, wave-your-hand solos. On “Peepin’,” the opening track, Diego Rivera takes the lead, and if you don’t look at the album cover you could easily convince yourself you’re listening to a Hank Mobley album from the mid ’60s. He’s playing straight down the middle, rising to a nice but not wild crescendo at the end of his solo before letting Bernard come in and do the Grant Green thing as Strickland lays down a snapping backbeat and Alfredson fills the rest of the space. This album’s gonna sound great on Memorial Day weekend and as long as the weather’s warm. (From Family Business, out now via Posi-Tone.)
Echoes Of Zoo - "Bee Jive"
Echoes Of Zoo is a quartet from Brussels, Belgium: saxophonist Nathan Daems, guitarist Bart Vervaeck, bassist Lieven Van Pée, and drummer Falk Schrauwen. Daems is the main creative force behind Black Flower, a sort of postpunk dub-jazz project I’ve been listening to for quite a while now. This is the second Echoes Of Zoo album, and it’s more of a band effort than Black Flower, less studio-processed even though the instruments are pushed through a rack of effects. It feels more like four dudes in a room bashing out the tunes. “Bee Jive” opens the album by laying a honking sax groove over stinging rock guitars and an almost Caribbean rhythm. It reminds me of Sons Of Kemet; it reminds me of the work of Theon Cross or Nubya Garcia. It has jump-up energy with a fierce rock edge, and the dub effects make it even more compelling. (From Speech Of Species, out now via W.E.R.F.)
IzangoMa - "City Lights"
IzangoMa is a project led by singer and guitarist Sibusile Xaba and DJ and producer Ash K, but the full unit runs to 15 members, some from South Africa and others from Mozambique. This debut album is a head-spinning mix of soulful vocals, abstract synth melodies laid over thumping electro grooves, lushly orchestrated horns and vocals, and so, so, so much percussion. “City Lights” is nearly nine minutes long, and it seems to change constantly without ever truly changing — Xaba’s vocals float through, chased by several sweet-voiced women, there are multiple saxophonists soloing with varying degrees of smoothness, some surprisingly aggro/free piano wrapped in synth and burbling electric bass, and what sounds like about five people either clapping at furious speed or playing congas. It’s a lot, and yet it all slides together and becomes a joyful communal trance. (From Ngo Ma, out now via Brownswood Recordings.)
Rudy Royston - "Morning"
In 2018, drummer Rudy Royston put together an amazing band — John Ellis on bass clarinet, Hank Roberts on cello, Gary Versace on accordion, and Joe Martin on bass — for the album Flatbed Buggy. It was a meditative, fiercely rural record that drew from the Black string band tradition as much as, if not more than, jazz, creating hillbilly blues grooves that reminded me of the work of violinist Regina Carter. This new album reunites the same five musicians for a more cranked-up but still extremely thoughtful collection of compositions that follow a loose theme intended to soundtrack a day of life under quarantine. “Morning” opens the album, starting things off with cello and accordion drones that filter into the room like sunlight around the edges of a curtain, and when Royston brings the band to attention with a soft roll, they start playing a winding melody that could be folk music, could be jazz, could be a lullaby. After just under two minutes, Ellis starts playing a repetitive but jaunty melody, with Versace and Roberts shadowing him until Royston and Martin set up a loping groove that sounds like someone cooking breakfast with a smile on their face. (From Day, out now via Greenleaf Music.)
Asher Gamedze - "Locomotion"
South African drummer Asher Gamedze is joined by trumpeter Robin Fassie, tenor saxophonist Buddy Wells, bassist Thembinkosi Mavimbela and vocalist Julian “Deacon” Otis on this album, his second as a leader. Like many players of his generation from that country, he’s exploring ideas of identity in his music, not just questioning how to make a kind of jazz that represents South Africa but also what it means to be South African in the post-apartheid 21st century. He’s a political organizer when he’s not on the bandstand or in the studio, and while this isn’t an explicitly polemical album, it does have a mourning, spiritual quality that puts it in the lineage of socially engaged jazz from Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite to John Coltrane’s “Alabama” to the work of Winston Mankunku Ngozi. “Locomotion” kicks off with an intricate drum-and-conga beat, quickly accented with a punchy two-horn melody and thick, booming bass. It’s familiar and comforting, but also forward-looking and exciting. (From Turbulence And Pulse, out now via International Anthem/Mushroom Hour Half Hour.)
Milford Graves - "March 11, 1976 I"
Drummer Milford Graves made one of the most balls-out free jazz albums of all time in Bäbi, a live session recorded at the WBAI-FM Free Music Store in New York on March 20, 1976, with saxophonists Hugh Glover and Arthur Doyle. This double album contains recordings from January through March 1976, taped in Graves’ basement studio in Queens. The March 11, 1976 session features all three musicians; there are also recordings from January 24 with just Graves and Glover, and a short drum solo from February 2. The music begins with Graves shouting the date from behind the kit, then launching into a thunderous solo. He started out as a Latin percussionist, so his version of free jazz drumming was always more focused on the top (the snare, toms and cymbals) than the bottom (hi-hat and kick), and that’s definitely the case here. He’s hitting so hard he’s almost overloading the tape, and that’s before Arthur Doyle comes in shrieking and howling at full power, never easing off for an instant. He’s blowing so hard, it can take a while to even notice Hugh Glover, who’s rumbling in the right-hand speaker like he’s blowing into a drainpipe. This is wild shit, free jazz of the “expect an angry phone call from the neighbors” school. (From Children Of The Forest, out now via Black Editions.)
Kassa Overall - "The Lava Is Calm"
Kassa Overall is a fantastic drummer, but he’s much more than that. His previous albums I Think I’m Good and Go Get Ice Cream And Listen To Jazz blended high-level improvisation and rhythmic fluidity with hip-hop production and frequently quite dark, introspective lyrics, and his latest release, Animals, his debut for Warp, continues down that path. The list of guests on the record includes Vijay Iyer, Danny Brown, Laura Mvula, Lil B, and Shabazz Palaces, and the music features thumping beats, surging strings, and melancholy melodies. On “The Lava Is Calm,” he’s joined by Theo Croker, a friend since college who’s just as disdainful of the boundaries between genres. Croker plays gentle trumpet as the song begins, before Overall comes in singing “There’s a mountain inside me/ Yet the lava is calm,” expressing a newfound sense of inner peace that’s good to hear, considering how public he’s been about past traumas. The track also includes both electric and acoustic guitars, switching between gentle picking and sudden bursts of noise as the beats leap into jackhammer mode. It’s an astonishing production. (From Animals, out this week via Warp.)
Irreversible Entanglements - "Nuclear War"
Back in 1990, the Red Hot Organization, a nonprofit group dedicated to raising awareness of health care issues (specifically AIDS) through pop culture, released Red Hot + Blue, a collection of alt-rock and pop covers of Cole Porter songs that raised close to a million dollars for the activist organization ACT UP. Since then, dozens of other Red Hot compilations have come out; one of the best was the jazz-centric Red Hot + Cool: Stolen Moments, released in 1994. Red Hot + Ra: Nuclear War is the first Red Hot release in several years, and it’s apparently the first in a trilogy that will pay tribute to the music of Sun Ra. It contains a nearly half-hour, three-part piece by Angel Bat Dawid as well as tracks from Georgia Anne Muldrow and Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O, and it ends with this epic, nearly 19-minute live explosion from Irreversible Entanglements. “Kiss your ass goodbye,” Moor Mother chants in furious tones as the band slams the groove down behind her, trumpet and saxophone and electronics searing the air as the bass and drums kick and thump. Watch the video. It’s incredible. (From Red Hot + Ra: Nuclear War, out this week via Red Hot.)
Henry Threadgill - "Movement 1, Sections 1-2"
Pulitzer Prize-winning saxophonist and composer Henry Threadgill has an autobiography out — Easily Slip Into Another World, named for his 1987 album — but this record isn’t connected to that; they’re just coming out at the same time. In recent years, he’s been composing large works for large ensembles, and this is a three-movement suite played by 12 musicians, with Threadgill conducting but not performing. It was performed at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn as a multimedia spectacle in 2022 that included recitations of poetry, projections of paintings and photographs, and pre-recorded film footage and choirs. It was recorded live, and filmed.
The music was inspired by Milford Graves’ ideas about integrating the human heartbeat into music (he used to bring musicians into his basement studio/lab and literally hook them up to an EEG, project their heart rhythms on a screen, and command them to play along with themselves). And indeed, it has a surging, organic quality, ebbing and flowing in a manner that strict metronomic time wouldn’t allow for. The ensemble includes Alfredo Colón and Noah Becker on alto saxes (Becker doubles on clarinet), Peyton Pleninger on tenor sax, Sara Schoenbeck and Adam Cordero on bassoons, Jose Davila on tuba, David Virelles on piano, Craig Weinrib on percussion and electronics, Sara Caswell on violin, Stephanie Griffin on viola, and Mariel Roberts and Christopher Hoffman on cellos. The track streaming here begins the piece, and it’s almost entirely a piano solo, a sort of overture from Virelles, though at the very end the saxophones come in. Like previous Threadgill albums Dirt…And More Dirt, In For A Penny, In For A Pound, Old Locks And Irregular Verbs, and Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus, this is a big piece meant to be absorbed as one thing, not a collection of tunes. So when you’ve got an hour, dive in. (From The Other One, out this week via Pi Recordings.)