“Saxophonist Steve Dyer recalls how excited he was when his first born child Bokani was born in 1986.  He even composed a tune for the new born baby who was still in hospital. The young Bokani used to say he was his father’s secretary. Steve took his son to typing lessons while he was very young. That probably helped Bokani in finger co-ordination that is a big strength in his piano and keyboard playing”

While growing up in Pietermaritzburg as a young man, Steve Dyer would see maskandi musicians walking the streets as they played their guitars, and hearing the sound of Soul Brothers and kwela music playing on the radio. He began composing music at the age of 10. His father used to sing in amateur choirs, and he and his mother listened to plenty of Western classical music from the Baroque era to modern music. He remembers Pietermaritzburg as big enough to have some opportunity, but small enough for him to feel not everyone was trying to do what he was doing.

After obtaining matric he was lucky to receive a scholarship that saw him enrolling for a B Music degree at the then University of Natal (now called UKZN) where he graduated in 1981 majoring in saxophone and flute. “Unfortunately, my time at the university was just before they offered the Jazz and Popular studies programme, so my degree was on Western classical music”, he told Jazz It Out. That era also saw a lot of social unrest in the country and the band Juluka formed by the late Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu enjoyed popularity.

Upon finishing his music degree, Steve was expected to join the SADF as was compulsory for all white males.  He refused military conscription. “I never for one moment thought about wearing an apartheid army uniform”, he said.  The young music graduate left South Africa and lived in Botswana for 5 years where he was a cultural activist with the Medu Art Ensemble.  Bokani was born in Gaborone while the Dyers were living in exile.  When he heard the news about the birth of Bokani, Steve was so thrilled and composed a song titled “B.A. from Durban way” which was included in the debut album of Southern Freeway, a group that he founded.

Pianist Bokani Dyer. Picture by Jonathan Rees

As musicians are always on the road, Bokani recalls how excited he would be when his dad was around and would be upset when he had to leave. “My dad was more on the lenient side compared to my mother”, he said with a chuckle.  He describes Steve as a special man whom he has learnt a lot from.  “I would say his parenting style is to be more like a friend looking at understanding where you are at as opposed to imposing his way to children”, he told Jazz It Out.  Bokani said he had a great childhood and was always close his extended family.

While living in Botswana, Steve helped trombonist Jonas Gwangwa in the formation of the band Shakawe where he spent 3 years.  By that time, he was listening to saxophonists such as John Coltrane and Winston ‘Mankunku’ Ngozi.  He remembers Bokani as someone “who was always a happy child and now a happy adult”.  His son has always been respectful to his parents and elders in general, but at the same time questioning authority where necessary.  “He always really worked hard on music”, which explains how his son has received so many accolades and has made a big name for himself.

In 1988 after a brief stay with his sister in London, Steve settled in Zimbabwe.  This is where he formed the group Southern Freeway that recorded two albums, their self titled which was released in 1989 and Indlela Yenkululeko in 1992.  The group was made up of drummer William Mhlanga, bassist Never Mpofu, trumpeter Sipho Ncube, vocalist Thandeka Ngono, guitarists Handsome Mabiza and Kenny Marowa.  Louis Mhlanga had a stint with the band.  “We had 3 guitarists with the band at some point, he said.

Saxophonist and flautist Steve Dyer

In 1990 Steve joined the Amandla cultural ensemble of the ANC on a 7 week tour of Japan.  He returned to South Africa in 1993 when it was clear the country was moving towards democracy.  Since his return, he has released 7 solo albums which are “Down South in Africa” (2000),Son of the Soil” (2004),Lifecycle” (2006), “Native Art “(2007),Ubuntu Music” (2012),Confluence” (2014) and “Genesis of a Different World” (2019) which was recorded live at the Jo’burg theatre on the 2nd and 3rd of August last year. “Lifecycle”, “Native Art” and “Ubuntu”  received SAMA nominations.

Moving to South Africa for the first time in 1993 was quite an experience for the young Bokani.  For one, Johannesburg was much bigger than Gaborone in terms of size and population.  Life in Johannesburg was very fast compared to that of the laid-back Botswana capital.  For the first time he had to consider safety issues after witnessing someone getting shot in Yeoville which is an incident that will forever be in his memory.  His parents played a lot of Pat Metheny, Khadja Nin and Oliver Mtukudzi.  “These artists were on high rotation in our household”, he recalls. His father had a recording studio in the backyard.

After matriculating, Bokani headed to the Mother City where he enrolled for a B Mus at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and graduated with distinction.  He made many enduring friends at the tertiary institution which he still collaborates with to this day.  These include bassist Shane Cooper, saxophonist Sisonke Xonti, vocalist Sakhile Moleshe and many others.  He also met his future wife Lee-Anne while studying at UCT.  Unlike many teenagers who have to convince their parents about the choice of studies, having a father like Steve made this task very simple for Bokani.

Steve Dyer’s 2012 release titled Ubuntu Music

2011 saw the release of Bokani’s debut album titled “Mirrors” where he worked with his contemporaries in Cape Town at the time, most of them who were at UCT with him.  These were Shane Cooper, Andre Swartz, Sakhile Moleshe, Lwanda Gogwana, Sisonke Xonti, Chris Engel, Helder Gonzaga and Claude Cozens.  While the jazz fraternity was still mesmerized by the work of this brilliant pianist, he released his second album “Emancipate The Story” in the same year.  His hard work was rewarded when he won the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year, something that came as a complete surprise for Bokani.  “It gave me a lot of exposure and put my name out there for the first time”, he told Jazz It Out.

In 2013, Bokani clinched first prize in SAMRO Foundation’s Overseas Scholarship Competition.  His prize money went towards visiting the UK for a lesson with Robert Mitchell, as well as some masterclasses with Swiss pianist Malcolm Braff in Basel, Switzerland.  He describes Braff as an amazing musician and an inquisitive mind.  It was interesting to get some insight into how he thought about his rhythmic concepts and his quest for maximum fluidity in metric modulation. Braff is currently designing an app around this concept.  “He is very talented and I enjoyed our time together”, he said.

2018 release Neo Native by Bokani Dyer Trio

In 2014 he was chosen for a Pro Helvetia funded Artist Residency in Switzerland. Bokani met musicians Donat Fisch, Stephan Kurmann, Norbert Pfammatter and Matthias Spillmann, with whom he went on to form the Bokani Dyer Swiss Quintet.  The first European tour with his Swiss-based quintet in 2014 was made up of performances at venues around the Czech Republic.  He was invited to perform at the opening of the London Jazz Festival later that year, as well as in a tribute to South African supergroup, the Blue Notes, led by Shabaka Hutchings. 

His third recording “World Music” was released in 2015 which received a South African Music Award (SAMA) nomination for Best Jazz Album.  The album featured Buddy Wells on tenor saxophone, Justin Bellairs on alto saxophone, Robin Fassie-Kock on trumpet, Shane Cooper on bass, John Hassan on percussion, Lee-Anne Fortuin and Sakhile Moleshe on vocals.  Bokani moved to Johannesburg and is working on several projects with his father Steve.  He composed the original for “Catching Feelings”, a film directed by top SA comedian Kagiso Lediga.

Together with his highly acclaimed Bokani Dyer Trio, made up of double bassist Romy Brauteseth and drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko, he released his fourth album “Neo Native” in 2018 which has seen the trio travelling to many parts of South Africa as well as Europe much to the delight of jazz enthusiasts that are always in awe when they witness performances by the trio.  He met Sphelelo, a music graduate from UKZN through Prince Bulo who recommended the drummer from Newcastle.  Bokani met Romy a graphic designer who decided to make a switch to playing music professionally while he was still in Cape Town. “Romy is honest in her dealing with the music”, he said.

Vuvuzela – Bokani Dyer

Besides the 7 solo albums that he released, Steve has also embarked on several projects.  In 1993 he was the music producer for the Walter Sisulu documentary which was directed by John Matshikiza.  When the ANC celebrated its centenary in 2012, he was the cultural programmes creative advisor, curator and co-ordinator. Some of the artists he has worked with include Oliver Mtukudzi, Vusi Mahlasela, Ringo Madlingozi, Msaki, Ami Faku, Selmor Mtukudzi, Ammara Brown, Sisonke Xonti, Thandi Ntuli, Siya Makuzeni, Hope Masike, Judith Sephuma and Mbuso Khoza.  In 2017 he conceptualized a show called “Mantswe a Marabi” paying tribute to the Marabi musical tradition.

When asked to describe Steve as an artist, Bokani said he places a lot of importance on energy and looks to create the right energy space so the music can emanate from his place.  “I think he is sincere in his expression, which is a difficult thing to achieve, although it is not really an achievement but more letting go and focusing on honesty”, he added. Steve is equally proud of the man and artist his son has become. “Bokani often feels to me as much of a friend than a son. When we play together it is no longer father and son but musician to musician”, he said. Bokani is also grateful of the special moments the two have shared on stage.  “I sometimes forget that he is my father because we interact more like friends now”, he said.

Steve joined the music industry at the time when there a cultural boycott against South Africa.  In his era, there were fewer magazines, radio stations and TV channels.  To make things worse, some of the songs they recorded and performed were banned because of the strong political messages they had.  This did not give them the exposure and the commercial success they were hoping for.  Bokani agrees that things have been much easier for him due to the world opening up to South Africa. “Steve consciously sacrificed a lot careerwise for his children to have a present father”, he said.

Homeless – Steve Dyer

The 60-year-old Steve feels as creative now than he has ever been. “I want to embrace change and not become yesterday’s man but not let go of my values”, he told Jazz It Out.  His favourite saxophonists are John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Duke Makasi, Carlos Ward and Wayne Shorter.  The former squash and cricket player has an interest in other forms of art such as theatre, film, visual art, dance and how these different artistic disciplines work together.  Who knows what this creative may venture into in years to come?

Bokani, who turned 34 this year said the world of arts and entertainment must expect “more music” from him.  He has started checking out woodwork in his spare time which he feels is an extension of his creativity.  His favourite pianists are Andile Yenana, Afrika Mkhize, Bheki Mseleku, Taylor Eigsti, Ahmad Jamal and Hank Jones.  What is his message to his father?  “I would like to say Happy Father’s Day. I have no reservation in speaking on behalf of my brother Xolani and sister Sibusisiwe in saying that he has been a good father to all of us.  He has been open and engaging, getting to know us for the people we are”.

The Dyers are also on social media.  Steve’s Facebook account is Steve Dyer.  Subscribe to his YouTube channel Steve Dyer Music.  Bokani’s Facebook Page is Bokani Dyer – Artist Page.  Follow him on Instagram @bokanidyer and Twitter @BokaniDyer. His YouTube channel is Bokani Dyer.