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Thomas Dyani-Akiru

Thomas Dyani is in the forefront of a generation of international percussionists who move between cultures as easily as they move between sessions. Multiracial and multi-lingual, he was born in Copenhagen of a Danish mother and Nigerian father. The family lived in Nigeria until Thomas was 7. Then his parents split up and he and his mother returned to Denmark. Shortly therafter, Johnny Dyani, a popular South African bass player, became his stepfather.

Northern Europe was a magnet for some of the great black jazz artists in the 60's. It was an open society racially when racism was still strong in the United States.

"There wasn't any black people in Scandinavia, but people were educated. I think racism is about being ignorant more than anything. And because the people were educated they probably knew more about Africa and it's history than the average black person. So black musicians were welcomed there."

Dollar Brand, Archie Shepp, Kenny Drew, Dexter Gordon, and Don Cherry, all called Europe home. Johnny Dyani played and recorded with everybody, and he introduced Thomas to the wider musical world.

"It was kind of like I was raised between worlds. I remember starting to play when I was 4 or 5, even before moving to Denmark. And the things you have to learn if you grow up in the West, like how to feel the clave or how to feel 6/8 or 12/8, were things preprogrammed in me from living in Nigeria. Then from 7 on, I grew up as a Dane more or less, but with those other things already instilled."

It was a culture of contrasts that Thomas grew up in.  A world of expatriate, mostly black jazz musicians in a sophisticated, urbane, and mostly white European capitol. There was a constant stream of players moving through the house and impromptu jam sessions were the norm. All the while his stepfather encouraged and guided Thomas in a gentle way.

"If I hadn't played for awhile, he'd be like, `Son, come here, let's go and play.' So he'd sit down at the piano and put the drum between my legs, and we would jam. He wasn't the kind of dad who would say, `You gotta practice your scales', or rudiments or whatever. He wasn't like that, he was very mellow. And he would quietly condition me in those ways."

Because his stepdad was a player, he got to see the inside of clubs that didn't allow underage kids. Places like the original Montmartre in Copenhagen where Miles and Bird recorded. There were also the children of other players to hang out with, or make music with, like Dollar Brand's son Saquay, or Neenah and Eagle Eye, Don Cherry's kids.

"Don Cherry and my stepdad Johnny Dyani were very close and played a lot together. And I remember taking the ferry up to Sweden, then driving in a car to Don Cherry's farmhouse which was out in the country in the middle of nowhere. It was funny because he gave us directions like, `When you get to the village you turn and drive for 5 or 6 miles and you look for this house that's red and wooden' Well, we think okay , we've got the directions. And then we get on this road and we pass about a hundred and fifty houses and every one of them is wooden and red."

In 1988 he went to Cuba and studied Afro-Cuban drumming at at a prestigious learning school.

Then when the 90's dawned he moved to London and began playing a wide variety of styles. He got steady work in the pop music field, gigging and recording with, among others, Paul Young, Deseré, Karen Wheeler (Soul 2Soul), Lady Smith Black Mambazo and Tim Finn (Crowded House). The list of jazz artists he's worked with is extensive, and he's currently touring with the world popular contemporary jazz band Incognito. In addition, he will be managing the percussion section of Walt Disney's The Lion King when it begins its London stage run in the fall.
Thomas is also a musician who's very particular about the instruments he plays.

"To me, getting to use instruments from Latin Percussion (LP Inc.) is a wonderful thing because first of all, you can get them most everywhere in the world and they're great instruments. You know what you're getting. Like I know I can order a Galaxy or a quinto or a conga, and they're going to sound right".

Interestingly, one of the things that sets Thomas apart from a generation before is not only what he plays, but how what he plays is applied. Digital sampling has given musicians and producers a tool to manipulate sound that didn't exist a decade ago. And though much of the music is digitally generated as well, it hasn't put rhythm players out of work.

"The one type of musician that gets work out of canned dance music is us percussionists. There's still a lot of live percussion in it. Sometimes they take our entire performance and just run it. Or they might split it up, take loops and samples of what you've done and put it in different places. Sometimes I hear a track that I worked on and I can't even recognize it, like, 'I didn't play that there'. Sometimes they even take a pattern that you played and turn it upside down. But it's still you playing on it and it's still you getting paid. And you know what? That's okay".

* The quotes in the above article are all excerpted from an interview conducted by Martin Cohen of MPR (radio), with Thomas Dyani the night before Incognito took the stage at the 1999 North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland.

Thomas gave me a great performance on LP®'s talking drum. Listen to what this instrument should sound like.