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Marking 30 years of South African democracy with multi-generational jazz

Bokani Dyer playing the piano while his father Steve Dyer plays the saxophone

It’s the day before the national elections in South Africa, and the saxophonist Steve Dyer is hanging out at home while his son, Bokani, calls from outside a venue in Johannesburg where he’s about to get on stage. Collaborating under the name Dyertribe, the pair represent two generations on the timeline of South African democracy informed by the chords and rhythms of African jazz. One point on the spectrum is born from the resistance against white minority rule and inspired by kwela music and pioneers like Abdullah Ibrahim, and the other came of age in the so-called rainbow nation soundtracked by kwaito and deep house music. Both, in their essence, ask how the collective names and identifies itself to counter the messages of inferiority received during decades of subjugation.

“It’s the advent of the self -realization of many young indigenous African people: Who am I? What does this democracy mean to me? What does freedom mean? What does liberation mean?” Steve says about this moment that is coinciding with, and resulting in the rebirth of jazz. “It's often quite critical, but it's a thing of asserting self-identity. And part of that assertion is tapping into the music of South Africa from the rural areas as well as the urban ones.”

“It's a generation that I'd say is interested in the tradition, but also in moving forward,” Bokani adds.

Thirty years after the first democratic elections in South Africa, the country feels like it’s cycling into a new era after the African National Congress lost its majority in parliament for the first time since Nelson Mandela became the first fairly elected president. It was on the eve of that momentous vote in 1994 that Steve returned to South Africa, having left the country in the early 80s to avoid mandatory conscription into the South African Defence Force.

From across the border, the musician heard home through the exile sounds of Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa, and while living in Zimbabwe, formed a band called the Southern Freeway. When he returned to South Africa, he dove into multiple projects; over the years he directed the Soweto String Quartet, produced for the legend Oliver Mtukudzi, including the seminal album Tuku Music, and released seven solo albums. Now he’s excited to travel again and share some of his new compositions in his own next era of self-expression. “My question to myself is – because I always think that the strongest music, historically, is music that is tied to some kind of social movement – what kind of social message are we trying to portray and give to the world?”

Part of that answer can be heard in the younger Dyer’s seventh album, Radio Sechaba, which was recorded at the family’s Dyertribe studio in Johannesburg and released in 2023. Drawing on Bokani’s absorption of R&B, funk, soul and the sounds of home, the album weaves the global with the local for a singular, yet distinctly South African, sound. The standout lead single “Ke Nako,” translates to “It’s Time,” and speaks to the themes in Radio Sechaba of self-determination and freedom for the individual and the community. It also feels likes it's declaring that it's time to demand more from those in charge using the power of the collective voice.

“There are challenges,” Bokani says of being a professional musician in South Africa. “But despite the challenges, I think the music is very much alive, and the spirit in the music is really strong. And I think that keeps the fires burning.”

In this precipice moment of looking back and looking forward, the same place that a lot of the world seems to be, South Africans persevere the way they always have. “South Africa is such a musical nation,” Steve says. “There's music everywhere and there's singing, there's vocal choirs, there's just music all the time. Whether it's religious worship or rituals in the African tradition, music played a part within the community. And that's where I tend to get a sense that [South Africa]’s a bit different because the community's always been there.”