Bokani Dyer
Bokani Dyer
Image: Raees Hassan

Pianist and composer Bokani Dyer, is embarking on a national tour of his latest album, Radio Sechaba, with performances scheduled for Cape Town and Joburg, marking  his first complete national tour of the record. Dyer will also be playing at the much-anticipated return of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in May, which has not taken place since the pandemic.

Radio Sechaba was initially conceptualised in 2019 but because of the limitations of recording under the pandemic, was halted for various reasons. The album explores the idea of nation building, with Sechaba meaning “nation”. Dyer says, “It is something I have been thinking a great deal about — how I can use my music to reflect the current moment in South Africa and where we’re at, as a people.”

At the time, Dyer was completing his masters at the University of Pretoria. “I think it worked in my favour. My thesis was about how younger jazz composers use their compositions to address matters of social importance.” Dyer conducted a series of interviews with musicians on their approach to identity in music and social matters they’re concerned with. That process informed a lot of his thinking around conceptualising the album and helped to get a sense of South African artists’ head space in the current moment.

However musically, Dyer did not sit idly either and used the lockdown period to release a beautiful solo beats and piano album, composed mostly of electronic production called Kelenosi translated to “by myself”, and he says it was a way to keep sane during all the time at home.

The bulk of Radio Sechaba was written during lockdown and was recorded over various sessions over the years. “For me, the idea of using the word radio is very simply as this kind of form of media where you switch on and you’re basically prescribed a listening experience, based on the agenda of whatever the station is. So, my agenda is like you’re tuned into Radio Sechaba, which is messages about nation building, messages about empowerment, and this is my prescribed listening as a radio station,” Dyer says.

He later made the connection with the iconic Radio Freedom — an alternative radio station started as an anti-apartheid mouthpiece. Another important radio connection that comes out during our conversation is around Radio Bantu, which was an apartheid project that tribalised ethnicities through various radio stations. Radio has been a central listening space for South Africans for many years.

Through Dyer’s interviews with artists, he realised there are common threads in the thinking around politics or identity that is not always overt in their music. “A lot of the things that I’m thinking about and trying to say in Radio Sechaba are things like; you don’t need to deny any part of your artistry to try and make a tailor-made political statement. I think if you follow your instincts, there’s a lot of wisdom in instinctive thinking.”

This fourth album from Dyer breaks some new ground as several of its compositions feature him singing, something many audiences may not have been used to knowing the pianist for. However, Dyer said he used to sing when he was younger and he was part of a choir growing up during primary school, before moving to the flute and then piano. It was only in recent years that he felt more comfortable creating music for albums using his voice, and as he says, “I had things I wanted to say, so songwriting gives you that kind of vehicle. I think it's easier to package a thought when there are words involved as opposed to just instrumental music, so you can really say exactly what you’re thinking.”

For Dyer, it was also about being more confident and comfortable while playing and singing at the same time, and learning to understand the voice as an instrument. On the album, Dyer sings in English, Sesotho and Setswana.

Trying to find the sound he was looking for involved a lot of trial and error, and the album was essentially created with thinking about how to translate the music into a live performance. The album features contributions from many different South African musicians due to the lengthy period it was recorded over. Upon listening, it is telling that this album is an amalgamation of all Dyer’s previous projects and influences combined into one; thus, making it varied.

Bokani Dyer says Radio Sechaba is prescribed listening
Bokani Dyer says Radio Sechaba is prescribed listening
Image: Con Hill

In this time, Dyer also paired up with his father — musician, composer and producer — Steve Dyer, at his Dyertribe studios, just outside Johannesburg. The elder Dyer had produced many South African albums before, and this tradition has passed on through the generations and together the pair work together on different music projects. He says this has been a significant learning experience in terms of music production that keeps growing.

For the release of the album, Radio Sechaba was picked up by UK-label Brownswood Records for distribution, and as a result received massive international attention and it has also opened up new doors for Dyer to perform more internationally — which is really important as its one way for South African artists to reach a bigger audience amid navigating a tough music scene back home.

With this record, we see an approach by a fine musician making sense of the political climate of the country we’re living in and finding ways to navigate that together as a community; one not only rich in its message but also musically lush.

© Wanted 2024 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.