Ask multi-instrumentalist/ composer Steve Dyer if the title of his latest album, Genesis of a Different World (https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/stevedyer3 ) isn’t just a little bit New Age-y and you’ll get a very definite no.
“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 (https://www.joburgtheatre.com/steve-dyer-genesis-of-a-different-world-info/ ).
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…”
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…”
In his work with Mahube (for example, the 2018 album Zenzele https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCzUKEJv-R6oLnFLavKiX7lA, 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…”
Dyer 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.