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‘It’s Been a Long Time Coming’: Yussef Dayes on Creating Black Classical Music for a New Generation

England’s acclaimed contemporary jazz musician will return to Australia for a national tour early next year

Yussef Dayes

Danika Magdelena

A debut album for any artist is by default, a statement of intent. A manifesto of sound, an indication of the artist’s mindset and newly introduced artistry. For Yussef Dayes, his debut album is as much a long anticipated arrival as it is an exciting insight into his fervent blend of influences and sounds.

And to confidently step onto a global stage with a debut album, nineteen tracks strong, titled Black Classical MusicDayes made sure he came out the gate swinging. 

Black Classical Music is a shining example of how to land a debut with impact – for an album that sits within British contemporary jazz, this is a gorgeous show of tactile talent, musicality and ambition. 

Though newcomers to Yussef Dayes via this record may feel like this is a record to come out of nowhere, Dayes’ talents have been on show and evolving professionally since 2016. His love for music and sonic exploration goes back even further, stemming from a family life that had music as a constant feature.

Born in South East London in the early ‘90s, Dayes had multiculturalism at his doorstep – an inescapable blend of accents, styles, histories, and cultural individualism that would be foundational to his evolution as a human and importantly, an artist.

Brought up on a diet of reggae, jazz, contemporary pop and then, as his own musical journey began to diversify, grime and hip-hop, Dayes’ sense of creativity was nourished by his family. His brothers, all musicians, were early collaborators; their friends, some of his early teachers. 

At age ten, Dayes experiences an early encounter with a genre great, receiving tutelage from prolific jazz drummer Billy Cobham; the Panamanian-American percussionist perhaps best known for his work with Miles Davis during the 1960s and 1970s. From here, Dayes’ natural talents as a drummer were nurtured and as he found his own identity and rhythm as a drummer in his formative years, Dayes’ ear and feel for the instrument began landing him in studios, releasing his first record, Galaxies Not Ghettos, with the group United Vibrations, in 2011.

A fusion of Afrobeat, jazz and rock influences, the album was the first hint of the potential Dayes as a young musician was tapping into. 

To trace journey from those days, through to his Black Focus album with Kamaal Williams (as Yussef Kamaal) in 2016; and then here, with Black Classical Music, the threads of this interesting musical tapestry were clearly weaving together the whole way through.

“I wanted to share this album, to show a little bit of who I am,” Dayes tells Rolling Stone Australia. “Through that, you’ll see there’s another way of getting to this point [of success].”

“I didn’t go to music school. I had a chance to study with Billy Cobham, which was amazing; I’ve had drum teachers, but my musical training wasn’t necessarily part of the institution. It was outside of that. And it’s not me saying one way of doing it is right or wrong, I just wanted to share that there are other ways to make things happen. As a teenager, you’re told that you must get the highest grades in school and you have to do certain things in order to make it. I think there is some truth in that but for me, it was in doing what I was doing outside the institution that allowed me to get to where I am now.”

Prior to the release of Black Classical Music, Dayes’ profile had been steadily rising off the back of notable solo performances and projects with frequent collaborators including Charlie Stacey and Rocco Palladino; as well as 2020’s What Kinda Music, Dayes’ joint project with fellow luminary of this current wave of forward-thinking British musicians and producers, Tom Misch. 

With the arrival of Black Classical Music, Dayes has submitted his entry into this growing pantheon of British music that by and large, is classed as contemporary jazz, but really encompasses a wider range of sounds and influences. 

Rhythmically driven and confidently without one set genre, the music artists like Dayes and Misch have become synonymous with reflects the unique perspective with which jazz and instrumental music is being viewed by this bold set of young artists, hungry to experiment. Music imbued with the cultural flavours that fill the community, this is music that incorporates stylistic inspirations from not just jazz, but Afrobeat, breakbeat, jungle, cumbia and more.

It’s a scene that has bred some greats like Moses Boyd, Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia; as well as talented collectives like Kokorolo and this year’s Mercury Prize winners, Ezra Collective.

Dayes is proud of where the scene is going and looking back, even prouder of the work that has been put in, in getting contemporary British music in this space recognised internationally.

“It’s been a long journey, but we’re starting to see the fruits of the labor, from everybody’s hard work over years,” he says. 

“I feel like there can always be more space,” he adds. “Even with this album, I wanted to surround myself with other kings and queens. People who bring a lot to the table, who don’t just centre it around themselves. Understanding that there are many different styles of music happening. It’s only helping get the younger generation onboard and getting inspired, [knowing] that there are groups of musicians making things happen.”

Diving into the layers of Black Classical Music, there’s a lot to take in. 

The insatiable groove of a song like “Jukebox” can transport a listener as easily as the dreamy charm of a song like “The Light”, featuring Dayes’ young daughter, Bahia, wraps one up in a moment of beautiful sonic lullaby. 

The guests on Black Classical Music range from the likes of Palladino and Misch, to artists and musicians like Masego (“Marching Band”), Jamilah Berry (“Woman’s Touch”), the aforementioned Shabaka Hutchings (“Raisins Under the Sun”) and Chronixx (“Pon di Plaza”). Bringing their own touch to Dayes’ compositions makes for a vibrant and engaging listening experience – arranged and delivered to be enjoyed as a full body of work.

“A lot of the music I grew up on, it was always about the full album,” Dayes says. “My dad would put the vinyl on, or you’d have the jukebox and you’d get the full record.” 

“Even little interludes, like on Lauryn Hills Miseducation…those little interludes you find in between, on the Fugees’ records too…they tie in the songs. That’s the mindset I wanted to have, I didn’t want to get lost in a mindset of, ‘This song isn’t going to get a million streams,’ or, ‘This one is ten minutes long!’ – I wanted to let go of it. Already, when you have that in your head, you’re changing the way you would naturally make music.”

Dayes admits that sometimes structure can be good for the overally album making process but for Black Classical Music, he wanted to just let the natural energy of himself and his collaborators flow.

“Tom [Misch] is really good at being like, ‘We need to make a song, and it needs to have these parts…and we’re going to keep it to four minutes,'” he admits. “Not even intentionally, he’s just good at putting it together.” 

“For myself, I wanted some of this record to almost lose that sense of preciseness; I just wanted to feel it out, have it be about the art and how it would be naturally. Not overproduced.”

At the time of our chat, Dayes’ Australian return in 2024 had only just been announced. Having made his debut Australian appearances in 2022, it was evident back then that audiences wanted more. Dayes felt it too. 

Thankfully, neither audience nor artist will be waiting long for that moment of reconnection. Dayes’ national Australian tour kicks off March 1st in Perth, before hitting venues in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide – where Dayes will perform at the 2024 WOMADelaide festival.

Excited to see where Black Classical Music can go live, Dayes muses on the way the album has already been received by fans. Finding your own connection to the music is key and with this record, Dayes has merely opened the door to a bold and fresh sonic playground for folks to have their own experiences within.

“Music’s got different details and layers that, the more you listen to it, the more you might hear things differently than you did the first time,” he says. 

“At the end of the day, I want people to take what they want from this album. There’s no right or wrong to it. Not all the tracks are instrumental, but with the instrumental music, you can find your own narrative or story or vision through it. I had that when I was growing up, if I listened to Herbie Hancock or Miles Davis, it would make me feel a way. It might not have been what Miles or Herbie were feeling at the time, but that’s how music is. It could be certain notes, certain rhythms that just give you a feeling. I’m trying to continue that lineage.”

And so, thinking back to how a debut album can introduce an artist, and lay a sonic gauntlet early, the Yussef Dayes we are presented with on Black Classical Music is an artist whose vision has never been clearer. With the respect and reverence for those impactful artists who came before, and the excitement spurred on by the work of his peers surrounding him, Dayes now charts his own course with such a record.

Black Classical Music is a testament to the limitless nature of the diaspora’s cultural and artistic intersections. Dayes celebrates this myriad sounds and colours through music – a celebration he hopes can permeate any listener’s experience with the record.

“I called it Black Classical Music because of the people who inspired me,” Dayes explains. “I’m seeing how they talk about their music, the terminology that was around. It made me want to be part of this lineage and use similar techniques that they used to make this music.” 

“Sometimes when people hear ‘jazz’, they might be put off, or they might think it is cool. This goes for all genres of music, I feel like sometimes, these words block the music being spread. There may be a lot of influences on here that aren’t just strict jazz influences. This music is meant to be limitless, it’s supposed to make people dance. Your spirit can do what it needs to do, it can free up.”

Yussef Dayes’ Black Classical Music is out now.

Yussef Dayes 2024 Australian Tour

Tickets available via handsometours.com

Friday, March 1st
Astor Theatre, Perth, WA

Sunday, March 3rd
The Tivoli, Brisbane, QLD

Tuesday, March 5th
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, NSW

Wednesday, March 6th
The Forum, Melbourne, VIC

Sunday, March 10th
WOMADelaide, Adelaide, SA