Yussef Dayes: “I’ve always been on a search to study rhythm”

Don't mistake the Londoner's music for straightforward jazz

The drummer and south London jazz savant Yussef Dayes is sat in the green garden of his father’s Forest Hill home, gesturing at the unlikely bucolic surroundings. “It’s like a little wilderness,” he says, turning his face up to the sun, framed by lush trees in full summer splendour. “Even though we’re right in the mix of things, we’ve got space. It’s kind of been a pivotal part of my music – even the fact I could just play drums in my house, and I’ve got neighbors and they weren’t super bugging out and stuff like that.” He smiles, reminiscing on what sounds like an idyllic upbringing at the epicenter of a musical family and wider musical culture. After years of banging on pots and pans, playing on trombone during family jams, and, eventually, “sewing the seeds of a new culture” by hosting jazz nights at Passing Clouds in Hackney with his brothers, he has released a new album, Black Classical Music – an instrumental mediation on the cultural histories of jazz and classical music. It’s a genuinely affecting, intricate record that compels you to return to it over and over again.

“I’m reading a lot of Miles Davis and another guy called Rahsaan Roland Kirk,” Dayes tells me, “and in some of their writings they were just not sure about the word jazz. At the time it was given to them, it was kind of thrown in, you know, that was the name of that genre of music. And you just kind of got stuck in that. And Miles mentioned that, you know, classical music is allowed to be timeless. It obviously comes from a certain point in time, but it’s always seen as relevant. And actually, jazz is maybe being stuck in this time frame of like the 1960s, ’50s, ’40s, and it’s like it’s not allowed to break past that.’

What does it mean then, I ask, to call an album Black Classical Music? To eschew jazz entirely? I’m expecting, in honesty, some culture-wars type discussion here, as the focus on Blackness in the title seems to set up a gentle confrontation between a white Anglo-European cultural supremacy and a marginalised Black cultural contribution. Instead, we start a conversation about the qualities listening to different types of music inspire, the ways classical music, as Dayes puts it, “focusses on the instruments”; how classical genres emerging from a European lineage are studied in ways that require close repeat listening, enriching the experience for the listener and prompting a deeper engagement with the possibilities of musical expression that matures over time.

“The lineage of people that I’ve been listening to and have studied and learned from, there’s a lot of details in their music, and sometimes it just means you can listen once, and you hear something,” he says. “The next time you’re going to hear another thing, another sound or another element. And that gives the music a longer time span for me. It might not necessarily be in the moment that everybody gets it, but over a period of five or ten years and even longer than that – which is kind of what Miles was saying. A lot of classical music, sometimes it’s four hundred or five hundred years old, but we’re still playing that music in concerts and stuff. And ultimately, it’s the same with Miles’s music or John Coltrane or Nina Simone. Their music is still relevant now. If anything, for me, as I’ve got older, it’s giving me solutions and ideas. It’s kind of, I don’t know, it’s like a fine wine. It’s got better with time.”

To draw attention to the classical in the context of Black musical culture is also, Dayes points out, to highlight the historical lineages of Caribbean and African sound cultures, and their place in European music. The album makes use of classical instruments beyond those favored by the European culture, and draws on Dayes’ interest in instrument histories and their cultural genealogies.  

“I’ve been to Senegal and stuff, and seen a lot of instruments there and how they relate to a lot of the classical instruments. It made me feel like it could be the term to call this album because I’ve been inspired by a lot of these people through the music I grew up on, and it kind of made me feel like… because if you listen to my music, you might hear jazz elements, you might hear classical elements in this album; there’s jazz, reggae elements, there’s blues elements. As genres they’re always kind of stuck in their own box. And I’ve always been someone that’s trying to be free from this box that you’re put in in the industry, or how they promote your music. You know, my dad played a lot of amazing music, man. Like I said, reggae, jazz, Nina Simone – the list is endless. I want to tap into it and I want to be part of that lineage. And I just felt that classical music was a term that spoke to the people that I’ve been inspired by, but also brings it out of that present of just being a jazz record. And, you know, I feel like even classical music, researching where the harp comes from and where the piano and all these things… I spend my time going to places like Senegal and Cameroon and stuff, and seeing a lot of instruments that felt similar. And when you go to major places like that, you can trace back some of the instruments that are there. [The album title] is just kind of playing on those ideas.”

Releasing an instrumental jazz-classical record in order to play with your ideas seems like the dream, and I wonder how Dayes balances any pressure he might feel to be a thing the industry might want to promote, verses doing what his passions drive him towards. He thinks for a little while and reminisces again, reminding me that his sense of music emerges from a deeper space of family and community. 

“I’ve got three older brothers, and my dad was a musician. My mum could sing and she was a primary school teacher. She was also very into music and has got huge vinyl collection. So, growing up it was always loads of music in the house. So [my brothers and I] was in a band together – do the street parties, I’ll do my primary school’s talent show – and my dad would bring in the drum kit for me and I would perform. Back then it wasn’t like I was thinking about a career. So you do it because you just love it. And my dad would push us and, you know, I’d learn the piano and all these things. But ultimately the aim was just to make music. Just a family, and like, those performances are shared with the street or shared with our little community.

“And just having some discipline and working with my brothers was important for me because I suppose as a teenager I had loads of other distractions, but I know I was like, ‘No, I’ve got to go to rehearsal.’ And because I dropped out of school as well, man. After GCSEs I kind of kept it moving and decided to go crazy with the music and work at it. I remember sometimes we’d perform in front of five people, ten people and like, you’re kind of questioning why this is not working. And then it’s perseverance. It’s been a lot of perseverance and just being on myself back to my youth because back then you do things because you enjoy it, because you love it. It’s your passion. And sometimes when it comes to business stuff, it can become difficult because of the politics that are involved. But I try to keep reminding myself, I’d be playing drums anyway.”

He leans forward and is quiet for a moment, taking a breath before he speaks again, like this is the most important thing he has to say. 

“If I’m in a mad mood or something, and I put a certain record on, it can release that anxiety or tension or whatever. And I’ve always felt with my music that I hope it can also give people a feeling that would maybe just take them out of a certain space, bring them into a different space. You go to Senegal and they’re playing drums. It’s got traditions; there’s things that they’re doing it for. It’s like healing and ceremonies. Or you go to Salvador and like, they’re trying to heal people and it has purpose. And I feel like I’ve always tried to just tap into that side of things. Obviously, you know, I’m a Londoner, so you have to intertwine it with the other elements. But I’ve always been on a search to study rhythm and just learn more about it, and you know, just like, even it being based on the heartbeat, because the music I make is not metronomic. There’s a guy called Milford Graves and he’s an amazing drummer and human. And he said your heartbeat doesn’t beat perfectly; it’s not some robot. I want my music to flow. It doesn’t always have to be this metronomic square thing that we’re kind of tied to. And I think it’s important, man, because it’s a lot of machines now. It’s man versus machine, or human versus machine – and just trying to just keep some of sense of the realness is important to me.”