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