Genesis of a Different World: Steve Dyer’s sonic lexicon of change

Ask multi-instrumentalist/ composer Steve Dyer if the title of his latest album, Genesis of a Different World ( ) isn’t just a little bit New Age-y and you’ll get a very definite no.

album cover“The title refers to an alternative option for growth, not to a misty ‘one new world order’. A New Age-y viewpoint might be that with a magical wave of a wand [the] world will somehow become a better place. But the wealthy, greed-driven, powerful and dictatorial [forces] aren’t going to disappear in a hurry. Instead, increasingly they are being and will be held to account. And in the long term an unsustainable system can’t survive in its present form.”

Dyer will launch the music from Genesis…at the Joburg Theatre, with shows on August 2 and 3 ( ).

The album features Dyer on assorted reeds, guitar, keyboards, voice and effects, alongside trumpeter Sithembiso Bhengu, bari player Sisonke Xonti, bassists Amaeshi Ikechi and Romy Brauteseth, pianists Bokani Dyer and Thandi Ntuli and drummers Leagan Breda and Lungile Kunene. On stage, the format will be similar, though with artist availability demanding some adjustments: Ntuli is replaced by David Cousins on keyboard, Brauteseth isn’t on stage and S’phelelo Mazibuko is the second drummer.

But both teams, and the way they work together, point towards what Dyer sees as the “people first” engine of a different world. “Jazz – or rather ‘improvised music’ has a distinct social code of togetherness,” he says. “In Africa, this is more pronounced – it falls within what risks being a cliched social philosophy: Ubuntu.” But for Dyer, it’s no cliché.

“Many of the ideas in the album started with me presenting Thandi, Amaeshi and Lungile with the challenge of how we can present ourselves as artists with unique sets of life experiences. How I relate to them as people before musicians, and how they relate to each other is integral to the creative process. These young players are open, so with Genesis.. I’ve not been afraid to bring any of my influences to the surface, and they run with them.” Dyer talks admiringly of how his co-players, thorough their musical journeys “are questioning and driving change in their own ways. For example, when Amaeshi first came to South Africa he called himself Sam and was very competently copying musicians he admired. But hear now the confidence he has in expressing himself and playing the unconventional…”

Amaeshi Ikechi

For those familiar with Dyer’s earlier work and albums, there are both continuities and contrasts. The composer’s gift for instantly infectious melodies remains – but on this album, with more improvisation and longer tracks, it becomes a springboard for extended and inventive expression. The catchy tunes are journeys rather than destinations.

And those journeys are very deliberate. The rhythms, textures and instrumental voices of all eight tracks, not just the guiding ideas, enact politics. Dyer’s compositions and arrangements constantly seek an appropriate sonic language, and he’s articulate about how that works for him.

His motivation for the title track, for example, was “We need a different world. That very small percentage with tremendous monetary wealth is getting wealthier. Many of those without, are continually marginalised…human greed continually tramples on the wider human condition…so the music demands that concepts of dignity, equality, freedom and liberation be firmly embedded in human consciousness, not in the cosmetic corridors of speech-writers and academic policy formulators.” To enact that message, Dyer created a track that “moves through many different places – different textures: storotoro (jaws harp) pedal, voice used as an instrument, kalimba with two drummers, contemporary loop – building to an ending with an urgent sax solo…”

Zimasa Mpenyama Lungile
Lungile Kunene

In his work with Mahube (for example, the 2018 album Zenzele, Dyer has foregrounded the groove and dance-led aspects of African community musics (the term ‘traditional’ can be misleading). Here, indigenous voices sound in far more varied ways. Percussion piano asserts the African roots of an instrument often claimed as an exclusively Western invention: “[It] has been the mainstay of Western music for so long. I wanted a different sound from it.” On Bhaca Blue , the rhythm’s affinity with Xhosa music was identified by a friend; Ntuli crafted the chant vocal and radio jazz commentator Brenda Sisane said the tune was reminiscent of ring-dances around a fire. Those collective connotations inspired in Dyer the thought that “Bob Marley says ‘In this great future you can’t forget your past’…the question for me is : what is my past – what should be forgotten and what remembered?”

Such explorations have produced an album that may surprise listeners more used to Dyer’s other stage identities. The music takes risks in its juxtaposition of textures, patterns and voices, and in its travels from easy tunes in improvisations that take Trane journeys from their anchoring harmonies. There’s spirit and skill in the playing, and in the empathy with which players investigate each other’s ideas. And Dyer’s flute-playing, in particular, shows an adventurousness  that hasn’t been quite so well showcased before, especially in the Miles Davis homage Selim Sivad (read it backwards). “Miles,” says Dyer, “was never willing to stay in one place for long…”

SteveDyer sees the genesis of a different world in many places: the new accessibility of information (“My mother used to be my Google, now any information is a computer-click away”) and the youthful groundswell of “assertion of identity and recognition that change needs decisive action.” Now he is seeking ways his musical ideas “can be taken up by people in creative fields other than music; I’d welcome that.” But that process starts with the sounds – and Genesis of a Different World presents sounds that are by turns, surprising, richly beautiful and thought-provoking.

Hamba Kahle Johnny Clegg

Struggle days

It should not have escaped your notice that singer, guitarist, composer, anthropologist and activist Johnny Clegg died yesterday, aged 66. Clegg’s life was remarkable for the way that a no-boundaries interest in guitar music drew him into a deep personal and later scholarly immersion in Zulu culture – and how he built on that to speak tirelessly to the world against South Africa’s destructive divisions during the struggle against apartheid. This playlist serves as a reminder of some of his best-loved songs, and you’ll find comprehensive obituaries in almost every newspaper today. He continued to study and publish on the music, and to compose and tour for the rest of his life, until pancreatic cancer forced him to dial back his relentless work schedule. Clegg won accolades for his music and his campaigning, not only in South Africa but overseas, where the French media were responsible for the soubriquet by which he became best known thereafter: “the white Zulu”. Hamba kahle to a courageous and talented artist.


Mantombi Matotiyana: Songs of Greeting, Healing and Heritage resound

Philippi has been in the news for all the wrong and most tragic reasons recently. In that context of media stereotyping, it’s too easy to forget that – despite longstanding neglect, unemployment and desperation – the people of Philippi continue to survive, live and

One remarkable example is Philippi’s Samora Machel resident, 86-year-old uhadi (resonator bow), umrhube (mouth-bow), isitolotolo (jaws harp) virtuoso and composer Mantombi Matotiyana, who launched her debut album as leader in June. Songs of Greeting, Healing and Heritage is the first CD on the label of the Africa Open Institute of Stellenbosch University ( ).

Look for Songs of Greeting…(the title is both descriptive and an allusion to her clan name) on the shelves or in the online stores of South African music retailers and you won’t find it. Look for reports of the launch on media ‘arts and entertainment’ pages, and you won’t find much beyond this breathtakingly disrespectful and patronising reference from IOL on 6 April. Headlined “Philippi gogo to release her debut…” the story continues: “She may walk with a stick every day but when the music hits, 86-year-old Mantombi Matotiyana can jive and groove with the best of them…” Apparently un-fact-checked, the story confuses a debut as leader (which the album is) with a recording debut (which it isn’t) and within two short paragraphs gives the musician’s age as both 83 and 86.left-facing.jpg

That’s pretty typical of the treatment the musical traditions of black communities and their players receive from the media those communities are expected to pay for and read.

Matotiyana was born in Jenca location, Tsolo District, in the Eastern Cape in 1933, learned her instrumental skills from her mother and other senior women of her community, and was a regular participant in traditional divination ceremonies and other gatherings. She says: “These instruments were played by women. Uhadi was played at night. Players would wait for people to sleep before playing but we were woken up by those sounds. This one (pointing to umrhubhe) was played even by us children. In order to come back from shops immediately when we were sent to buy sugar and tea, we would be asked to play it on the way. It was important to come back quickly as our mothers would be waiting for tea.”

She moved to Cape Town in search of an economic future, settling first in Nyanga and later Philippi. She ran a small butchery, sold craft-work, but eventually found that beer-brewing provided a more reliable income than music – although she still sometimes played and sang for neighbours.

right facingIn her own words to her launch audience last month; “I started brewing mqombothi (traditional beer) for a living. I was not playing the instruments anymore and I had forgotten about them… I had a feeling that [music] was not going to give me quick returns, it was going to be a long process and yet with my beer, I knew I had food every day… Dizu (Plaatjies of Amampondo) approached me and asked me to play, something I flatly refused because I enjoyed and was satisfied with brewing the beer. He persuaded me, and I finally agreed and stopped brewing the beer… I stopped selling the beer. I started travelling the world on an airplane – an exciting adventure!”

As the partnership with Plaatjies developed, as well as South African and international tours, Matotiyana featured on Amampondo’s 1992 album An Image of Africa and the Dizu Plaatjies Ibuyambo Ensemble 2009 album African Kings as well as with the Danish Nightingale Quartet in The Bow Project tour in 2009. (She had participated in the project’s 2003 pilot.) The Bow Project had been conceived as a tribute to the music of another virtuoso traditional musician, the late Nofinishi Dywili. Its originator was composer Michael Blake. Matotiyana also featured as soloist on Blake’s 2013 composition Ukhukhalisa Umrhube, which premiered in France, and Blake was executive producer for Songs of Greeting

+ Michael
With Michael Blake (l) in France

The album has 13 tracks, a dozen songs plus a five-minute interview with the artist. The songs mix traditional refrains, her own original lyrics and melodies and one, Majola, by Plaatjies. The sound foregrounds Matotiyana’s voice and instruments, empathetically augmented on some tracks by the voices of Plaatjies, Ernie Koela and Hope Mongwegi. The lyrics are grounded at once in lived experience and metaphor, as in Wachiteka Umzi Wendoda – about a burnt house and homelessness, or Wen’useGoli, about the ‘cold love’ faced by the migrant worker away in Johannesburg.

The lyrical themes – as informative sleeve notes by Ncebakazi Mnukwana explain – deal with ‘home’ as a physical place layered with home as a place of spiritual bereftness or healing.

And the sound is gorgeous. Often, the recording equipment finds singers like Matotiyana only as their vocal prime is fading. But her voice remains strong, her phrasing clear, and her sense of ornament – that “salt in the song” that characterises and energises Xhosa music – entrancing. “These instruments,” she told the launch, “make me happy. I started playing them when I was young and grew up playing them. Even when something is bothering me, I play and they uplift my spirit. I am very passionate about them. (lit: they come from my heart.)”

Fans of ‘world’ music or roots South African sounds won’t need any urging to seek out Songs of Greeting, Hope and Heritage. But if you don’t know the genre yet, it is worth exploring simply for its musical beauty and capacity to move you. It offers a counter-narrative to stereotypical notions of community music as ‘simple’ (“grooving and jiving with the best of them”, as IOL put it), in the risks it takes and the complex musical intelligence it embodies. Like the music of Magogo ka Dinizulu, it also reminds us that once you step outside the white, male academy, some of the most inventive of South Africa’s musicians were – and are – women. One antidote to the harsh horrors of Philippi may be found here, although, as Matotiyana says: “it seems that our children don’t like this music that much. They will say, ‘Grandmother, this is outdated. We want to watch TV.’ It is my wish though that they learn this music, that there be places to teach them because we are aging now. I want them to learn the music, without abandoning the new things they are also studying.”

The Blue Notes: stills from an archive of absences

Pianist Afrika Mkhize is jamming with vocalist Siya Makuzeni. She leans challengingly over his keyboard, devising smart sonic calls for him to echo or transform, and he responds with relish. Eventually he leans back and opens his hands: “OK, she’s better at this than I am!” Then he taps his forehead, universal shorthand for bassist Thembinkosi Mavimbela and drummer Lungile Kunene to return to the head – the theme – of the song.

But turn off the sound, take a few snapshots, and what would you see in each? An infuriated Makuzeni shouting at Mkhize? A baffled Mkhize retreating, pantomiming: ‘She’s crazy’?

In London 1965

So what does a photograph really “show”? What do we really “see” in it? Those were the questions raised by the words, images and sounds of that night, at the July 4 photo exhibition Before the Wind Blows: 1964 and the Making of the Blue Notes at the Wits University Atrium.

Brought together by jazz scholar Dr Lindelwa Dalamba and visual curator Boitumelo Thloaele (who is concurrently responsible for the major Sam Nhlengethwa retrospective at WAM), the images have an intriguing backstory. Back in 1961, Norman Owen-Smith was a science scholar and enthusiastic amateur photographer. He made the images in Durban, at the then University of Natal where he studied and where Chris McGregor and the Blue Notes were playing one of their rare local concerts before leaving South Africa for the Antibes Jazz Festival and exile. In the 1960s, universities controlled privileged spaces where racially mixed performances might still occur; a traditional Indian ensemble preceded the Blue Notes on stage. Carefully conserved, the negatives travelled with Owen-Smith around the world as he developed a distinguished professional specialism in herbivore ecology. In 2017 and home again, he wanted to identify a repository that could use them, and asked me. And through the close (if, at times, distinctly non-herbivore) ecology of jazz, I asked Dalamba, and she immediately began seeking the resources to restore, display and debate this remarkable visual archive.Township Bop.jpg

The dozen-plus images so far restored to exhibition quality differ from some other visual archives we’ve seen – Basil Breakey’s, for example, or Lars Rassmussen’s. As Dalamba’s address observed, they capture South African jazz during one event in one place, rather than providing, as those others do, a national, multi-year perspective. They reflect the tightness of good jazz: the relationships between the six men playing(Chris McGregor, Nick Moyake, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani, Louis Moholo); human expressions, gestures and emotions. And they weigh the sound of history in their greyscales.

Such images become even more important “in the absence of a sonic archive”, Dalamba stressed. For despite the music recorded by the Blue Notes and various individual members in exile, there’s very little on record from the time before they left. The 1962 Cold Castle Festival tracks of a ‘Chris McGregor Septet’ aren’t the Blue Notes, although you will hear some of the players who formed that ensemble individually in other bands at the event. There are only the albums Legacy – Live in South Africa (re-released by Ogun) and Township Bop to give us some sense of how they sounded before the wind changed to a cold BN posterEuropean Northeaster.

But as Thloele pointed out, there is a significant absence of visual archive too. We don’t know, she reminded us, who else might have been taking photographs then – or where they are now.

We do know a little about black South Africans who were not professional photographers, but who may have owned a camera and documented social events. Countless personal testimonies demonstrate what an effective eraser apartheid’s forced removals were. The council moving trucks were small; boxes got smashed or thrown off. The new ‘matchboxes’ were tiny, on the racist assumption that being able to store precious personal stuff did not matter for township residents. The inexorable demands of dispossession, racial zoning and the labour market split up families and their possessions again and again. Everything – the false and divisive origin myths of retribalisation; removals; censorship; migrancy – was engineered to destroy knowledge of real lived histories and struggles.

So what we ‘see’ in those photographs can be mediated by our awareness of subsequent and even manufactured histories. Their denotation is clear and captioned: “Mongezi Feza playing trumpet at…” Their connotations – apartheid; exile and death to come; the mood and texture of improvised sounds – are infinite. Where the edges of the image are set (framing), and how light is used, influence our readings of the final pictures.Blue Notes booklet cover.jpg

Often today, the greyness, graininess or sepia tones of old photographs are taken as a cue for nostalgia. Open a high-priced champagne lounge. Call it a ‘shebeen’. Add some of those old jazz photos to enact authenticity and you can charge what you like to punters nostalgic for a past that never was.

For the good old days were not what you think they were. They were worse than anything you can imagine in the corrosive macro-and micro-agressions they wreaked on people of colour. But they were also better than anything you can imagine, in the solidarities, creativities and resistances wrought by communities in response.

Those kinds of joyful shared defiances sing out of the Blue Notes images. UK photojournalist Valerie Wilmer declared that the band’s arrival in Europe inspired young Europeans to “develop their own ideas of freedom”.

One audience member was puzzled that Norman Owen-Smith so willingly donated his pictures to an archive: “because I certainly wouldn’t do that!” That tells you some of what we’ve lost. Privatising and commoditising creativity certainly aren’t new, but seeing them as the only possible approach brands the globalised capitalist now that we live in. Owen-Smith understood that public wealth is more important and more sustainable than private riches. More people have already appreciated and learned from those images and the discourse around them – last Thursday night alone – than would ever have done so if the negatives had stayed in a box in his office. Now, their messages need to travel wider.wind changes.jpg