Steve Dyer and the making of his different world

From saxophonist Dyer’s first album in 1989, to his most recent, there have been 30 years of groove-defining style, context and approach. 

Saxophonist Steve Dyer’s first album Southern Freeway was released in 1989, in Zimbabwe, and his latest album, Genesis of a Different World, has just launched in Johannesburg. In an interview from his farm on the edges of Midrand, to talk about Southern Freeway, it seems a rather strong case of putting too much store in history and the importance of first acts. Perhaps not. It might be from the outlines he first laid down in that first album, made and recorded in Harare, that he is working towards the beginning of a different world now.

For one thing, that first album occupies a territory sometimes called “another country”, not just because a number of people involved in the record, including champion drummer Jethro Shasha, sublime bassist Don Gumbo, guitarist Handsome Mabhiza and a few others, are now dead.

For another, the Harare in which they recorded Southern Freeway was lively, a vibrant cultural hub, not the hangdog city it is now, plagued by decades of misrule. This can be seen in the shortages of electricity and water and how its residents eke out precarious existences in a post-Robert Mugabe world, which is eerily similar or even worse than that left by the deposed dictator.

A distinct rhythm

Dyer had been living in Gaborone, Botswana, since the mid 1980s, when he befriended members of Wells Fargo, a Zimbabwean rock band comprising drummer Ebba Chitambo, bassist Never Mpofu and Mabhiza. The band used to play on the Botswana hotel circuit for months on end. (Wells Fargo has recently found new fame after the re-release of some of their work by an American label). In the way that musicians drift to their own, Dyer occasionally played with the band. 

After living in Zimbabwe for about a year and wanting to record his first album, it’s natural that he drew the core of the rhythm section from his old friends in Wells Fargo. He had first gone to the United Kingdom with the intention of recording, but found it difficult working with British musicians there who didn’t quite understand Dyer’s sound.

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“I found myself gravitating to South Africans, because [of] a bassline that you might think of as natural, the Mbaqanga bassline, if you are playing with an English bass player he would be playing something different. Things that we take for granted here cannot be felt by them, so I had a problem, so that is when I came back to Harare and said, ‘No, I have got to play with musicians from here and record,’” he said in the kitchen of his family home, where his studio is also located.

That first album turned out to be a breakout success in Zimbabwe and the song Thabiso, especially, was a radio and party hit. “Some kids are called Thabiso in Zimbabwe and there is a couple of people who have told me that no man, you know there is that flute ballad that I was talking about, they say our baby, this baby was made to that music,” Dyer said in his soft accents.  

Groove theory and Genesis of a Different World

In some ways the two albums, separated by 30 years and plenty of stellar albums Dyer made as band leader and producer have one thing in common: a certain kind of groove which is, really, another word for music to which we can dance. It’s something Dyer talks about with emotion and conviction when he explains some of the creative decisions he took in the making of the latest album. 

“Within this project I looked at how I can create a different sonic world texturally hence trying to use two drummers, using overlapping keyboards, sometimes using two basses overlapping to get a different world of my creativity, if you like.” 

On the Genesis of a Different World album, there are two drummers, Leagan Breda and Lungile Kunene. One was for “laying down a groove; and the other one was being a bit freer around that groove” because with “a lot of improvised music you can get some power from using two drummers that’s not as easy to get from one”. 

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It’s not just two drummers, the album also features two acoustic pianos, Dyer’s son Bokani Dyer and Thandi Ntuli; bassists Amaeshi Ikechi and Romy Brauteseth; trumpeter Sithembiso Bhengu and Sisonke Xonti on baritone and tenor saxophones; Dyer’s daughter Busi Dyer on voice; and Dyer himself on a variety of instruments, including tenor and baritone saxophone, flute and keyboards and as producer – a role which over the decades he has mastered.

Take, for instance, the number five song Homeless that begins with a salutary, marching style drum roll, which, after the 10-second mark, is then overlaid with the bees’ hum of the pianos, a foundation over which the three horns soar and the bass resonates to create a head-bobbing tune.

Identity and art

The song Percussion Piano is reminiscent of what Dyer’s said about his own identity, stating, “I regard myself as with indigenous Africa, but I am not of it. What I mean is … I do not have a long genealogical tree that is rooted within Africa. I mean, I am a couple of generations longer than a lot of laaities. I think in order for us to recognise the completeness of ourselves we have to cope with what our influences [have been] … some of my influences have been Mbaqanga and marabi and mbira music from Zimbabwe and all that [but] other influences have also been of the Western tradition…”

On the song Percussion Piano, Dyer, who is very conscious of his European descent and who studied classical music at the former University of Natal (now part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal), is thinking of the piano in terms that recall what the late Afro-American master pianist and composer Cecil Taylor told British journalist Val Wilmer: “In white music, the most admired touch is light … We in black music think of the piano as a percussive instrument: we beat the keyboard, we get inside the instrument.” 

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Indeed, half way through the song, what Dyer (and Taylor) are talking about regarding the piano is realised, as the instrument comes alive percussively, so to speak, and as the drums – the very essence of the percussion – respond to its intimations. Dyer explains his thinking: “I wanted to look at the piano as a tuned percussive instrument. The piano has dominated Western music for centuries, mostly with a focus on melody and harmony. I wanted an alternative to that.”  

At university, Dyer had listened to pieces composed by Steve Reich and Philip Glass that make use of “repetitive patterns influenced by African music”. In his production of the album, some songs are made up of different interlocking piano patterns. On the recording itself, he explained, there were sometimes three acoustic piano parts overlaid on top of each other, but not recorded at the same time because of logistical constraints. “On the live show I used two acoustic pianos playing together at some points to generate a similar effect in real time.”

The eighth song in the album, Selim Sivad, (perhaps a nod at Selim Sivad: A Tribute to Miles Davis, an album by the World Saxophone Quartet) has the restrained accents of a dirge but also the unbounded expressiveness of an anthem. Dyer, this time on the flute, manages to combine the two ends to result in an exquisite sing-a-long melody.

The genesis of Genesis

Explaining the genesis of the album, Dyer says that some of the ideas behind these songs date as far back as eight years while others are more recent. 

“The challenge has been how to make something work so that you can improvise over a groove, be it rhythmic, because I think we live in a rhythmic kind of society, Africa is rhythm, so a heartbeat is a rhythm, so how to maintain that because I often feel that improvisers within the South African context start a rhythm and all of a sudden they will say, ‘Let me remind the people that I have gone to university and I know those different chords,’” he explains. 

What Dyer wanted to create was what he described as “parallel streams” in which “rhythm” and “melodic inventiveness” are laid over each other. “That has taken some time, it was quite an adventure and a challenge and I think something has been achieved now. It is not the end of the road, but I believe I have managed to achieve something for myself,” he says.

At the end of the interview in his studio, an imposing building with a raised roof a stone’s throw from the family house, he explains how he got into production. “Necessity is the mother of all invention,” he begins. “But I think there are certain similarities between arrangements, music and production. My father was an architect so he helped me with the design of this building, so I remember when I was growing up I was always interested in shapes and design, and I suppose that is what production is, you are designing sound.” 

Dyer puts his sonic design skills, his own playing and his band leader skills on the Genesis of a Different World to great use to produce a groovy album of great beauty.

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