In 2007, at the original location of the Irish-themed sports bar The Scrumpy Jack in Cape Town’s bohemian Observatory suburb, acclaimed jazz pianist Bokani Dyer and vocalist Sakhile Moleshe sat trying to unravel each other’s paradoxes over draughts of beer.
For Dyer, the perceptions of him and his music are often not congruent with his intentions, insights and messages, as Moleshe recently confirmed during an interview. “I made a whole lot of assumptions about the guy that just put me flat on my face,” he said about their time together at the University of Cape Town’s [South African] College of Music. “I was a private school wild child and he was, what I assumed, a coloured guy who hangs out with white boys.”
The two bonded when Moleshe learned about Dyer’s upbringing in Botswana as the child of the then exiled South African musician Steve Dyer and his Motswana wife, Tjongabangwe Selaolo (née Macha), their shared love for Bheki Mseleku and “fat basslines, beautiful rhythm and warm, rich harmony”.
“Bokani used to sing like crazy,” Moleshe reminisced, “even before I developed my technique properly. I met him like that, playing those D’Angelo chords and singing like crazy!”
A close friendship, the creation of their experimental band Soul Housing Project, sharing a home for a time and featuring on each other’s records have transpired since that early meeting in 2007.
Dyer and the music he creates are organised paradoxes that usually come dressed to provoke, interrogate and encourage a closer look, a more careful listen and perhaps a change of mind and heart.
Dressed in an all-black flowing ensemble for the performance of his new project, Kelenosi, at the live music venue Untitled Basement in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, in November last year, Dyer caught a stray jibe from a guitarist and collaborator about the red-and-black striped button earrings he was wearing. “It’s not a political statement,” he quipped, referring to a popular political party’s colours and the gender politics of men wearing earrings. He was down the narrow stairs, likely making final preparations for the show, by the time his quick turn of phrase landed through the smoke.
“Well, the holes were still there,” Dyer explained the earrings in an interview after the concert. Before he became a lauded artist, Dyer, as a 13-year-old, dressed in baggy jeans, basketball shoes and diamanté earrings – the culture back then. He wanted to be an R&B star.
The casual candour with which he talked about his early creative life was refreshing and spoke of self-acceptance. About his second album, Emancipate the Story (2011), he conceded that “at the end of the day, I still think that the music is a representation of me, but my thinking was in a certain way”.
Dyer’s core following is from the local and mostly European jazz communities, built over a decade of releasing and touring his own music as well as performing in other formations. As one half of the Soul Housing Project, Dyer had back-to-back summer residencies at the hip Grand Daddy Hotel on Cape Town’s Long Street from 2012 to 2014.
The followings Dyer has garnered from his efforts have, until now, been largely separate. Intent on reconciling the public’s perceptions with his creative experience, Dyer wrote and recorded the nine-track Kelenosi over two months during the extended lockdown period imposed on South African in 2020.
For his audiences, the 34-year-old pianist and composer is in constant transit between the worlds created by the musical traditions he has studied formally and those he learned through experience. But for Dyer, jazz, electronic dance music, R&B, salsa and even classical music, all of which he plays, are not discrete.
“The perception from outside is a separate thing from the way I feel about it. I feel like I’m expressing myself fully. I’m tapping into that openness of music,” he said. “I feel that these worlds are not really separate for me. In this one [Kelenosi], I’m trying to bring those worlds closer together because it’s music that I’ll listen to. Maybe in the morning I’ll listen to a jazz record; in the evening I’ll listen to a beats album.”
Kelenosi acts as a medium, a tunnel between worlds that facilitates communication between them. The name of the record is Setswana for “on my own” or “alone”, and is a partial explanation of Dyer composing and recording all the music himself under the demands of lockdown.
Most of the movement and thrust, by way of harmonies and solos, are driven from the keys. This is pardonable, given the scale of the undertaking. The sensibility of the record is neither jazz, electronic dance music, salsa, lo-fi nor afrobeat. None of these genres, all present as clear influences, takes precedence at any point. Instead, each gets their moments to say something, in the way that only music’s language can.
“As you progress,” he hesitated at the linear idea of improving across time, “I think you become conscious about what you’re trying to say as opposed to just the music that you have. When I was releasing my first album [Mirrors, 2010], it was about the music I had, the music I had created.” In this sense, his expression of true creative freedom comes with being more deliberate but less cautious.
When the lockdown was announced in March 2020, Dyer was some years into recording what would have been his fifth record, titled Radio Sechaba. The project is part of his ongoing masters studies at the University of Pretoria. With it, he intends to solidify the trajectory of more overtly critical and political messages in his latest singles to be released, Mogaetsho (2019) and Ke Nako (2021). Mogaetsho is a term of reference for a person from one’s home, one who is “of us”, and is an indictment of leaders or people in power who exploit the public. “Give them power, they forget about the people,” goes the song’s chorus.
“My thesis is about how music can address social issues,” Dyer said. “Obviously, all the reading that I’ve had to do in relation to that has had me thinking about music and its place in society, the musical process and how we can communicate to consciously feed messages through our music that are speaking about things that the greater community at large is experiencing.
“It’s definitely a deliberate thing on my part right now, especially with this album. And that’s kind of tied into my studies and what I’ve been consuming in terms of reading. Looking back at the history of jazz in South Africa shaped my path for this particular time.”
A major prescript for commercial success in popular music locally is to be, at least for a time, one thing. The South African contemporary jazz scene has, conversely, allowed musicians adept in the improvisational art form the freedom to traverse and blur constructed boundaries between genres and challenge stylistic singularity. This might sound like freedom to those who hear his music, but for Dyer it is simply the only way to exist.