Yussef Dayes’s ‘Black Classical Music’ Shows “The Relation Between All These Different Stars”
Written by Ayana Contreras on September 15, 2023
The Black British drummer’s highly anticipated album Black Classical Music was released September 8.
Yussef Dayes started his career at the age of four with a tiny black drum kit, He and his brothers soon formed a band, and by the age of 10, Dayes was mentored by jazz fusion legend Billy Cobham. Their first album, Galaxies Not Ghettos, dropped in 2011(when he was only 16). But that’s only the beginning of his story.
Previously best known for 2020’s What Kinda Music with guitarist Tom Misch and his 2016 album with Kamaal Williams (released under the name Yussef Kamal), titled Black Focus, his new album is proof positive that his sound continues to evolve in electric ways.
On July 29, Dayes sat down with Vocalo’s Ayana Contreras backstage at the Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa (clad in a custom lilac colored tracksuit) to discuss his new record, his beginnings and inspirations, the philosophy behind the title Black Classical Music and where he picks up his green bananas.
Ayana Contreras: We are at the Blue Note Napa Festival, the “Jazz Festival.” But I think the term jazz is used kind of loosely here.
Yussef Dayes: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
AC: I think it’s artists that involve jazz in their music, as well as traditional jazz folk…
AC: … It’s just all together, intergenerational, in a lot of ways.
YD: Yeah, yeah.
AC: What have been your thoughts about experiencing this so far? Have you had a chance to?
YD: It’s been a big vibe, man. Even the performances were just beautiful, man. It’s just like, yeah, it’s nice to be involved in an event like this, man, and just kind of tap into this vibe, you know? I’ve known about Robert Glasper for a long time, and a lot of artists in the lineup, and to be in the mix and present is yeah, special, man.
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AC: I love your outfit, by the way.
YD: Thank you, yeah.
AC: Is this your own design?
YD: Yeah, it’s my design. Yeah, yeah, yeah [It’s also available on his website].
AC: I love it. Tell me about it.
YD: Okay, so we’ve got the cowrie shells. That’s kind of part of the album artwork as well. And yeah, that’s kind of very important thing for me and all.
AC: So it’s like a tracksuit, with the trim instead of regular stripes… it’s like cowrie shell on a black background.
YD: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah.
AC: It’s really interesting.
So the new project, Black Classical Music, I have heard the album. It sounds amazing.
YD: Okay, thank you, yeah.
AC: Tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind it. You said this outfit relates into it.
YD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, even spending time in Senegal 2015, and I stayed with some Sabar drummers, and it was deep, man. It just opened me up to a new way of thinking about the drums, and they gave me a cowrie-shell chain. And since then, same with the Sabar drums I brought back from there, they’re very special to me, so yeah, man.
AC: So the record, in addition to working with Tom Misch, who you put out that joint project with – there are also a lot of other features and really interesting folks that you’ve collaborated with. Tell me about how you reached out to those people, how those relationships started happening.
YD: Last year I was in [Los Angeles] quite a lot, and got invited to go to Masego’s compound and his studio. And there’s a vibe man, just catching vibes, and literally just set the drums up by the swimming pool.
He’s in his booth, and we’re just jamming, and things happen. And that track in particular, that was definitely a special time. And then that other night, Rocco Palladino and Charlie Stacey, Malik Venner [The Yussef Dayes Experience], they’re very important to the sound. So yeah, that’s the formula of it.
AC: So I’m from Chicago, and Chicago and London, we feel like a lot of the time musically, especially in this scene, we’re kind of sister cities. Tell me about how being raised in London influences your sensibility, your music. Because I know you mentioned traveling also influences you.
YD: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m from Forest Hill Lewisham, so it’s like a lot of culture going on there, man. A lot of different people from around the world are in this place, and obviously that makes you want to understand a culture of a thing even more. And then being blessed to be able to travel to places like Brazil and South America and America, you see some part of your roots.
And obviously my dad’s Jamaican as well, so I’m trying to tap into that side of who I am. And I feel like just chasing rhythms, understanding rhythms, and different places where they come from, that’s my kind of inspiration, you know?
AC: Yes. So let’s take it back a little ways.
AC: When did you pick up the drum kit? When did you start playing?
YD: I started when I was four years old. That’s when I got my first drum kit.
YD: Yeah, yeah, that’s kind of the beginning, man. Yeah.
AC: It must have been the littlest drum kit ever. Because you can’t even reach the little pedal.
YD: It was a tiny black kit. And just from there, everyday man, just battered the kit, man. And my brother’s a musician as well, so we was in a band together. And I played the street parties, played the tennis show and the tings, and that was kind of the beginning, you know?
AC: So for people of color who have never been to London, what’s the first place they should visit? Because I mean, there’s lots of places I’m sure that you love that’re close to you.
YD: Yeah, that’s different… Yeah.
AC: What’s a first place, jump off point?
YD: You can start in Brixton. A lot of Jamaican people in Brixton, and that’s where I get my food from. That’s where I go and get my green bananas, and plantain, and my fruit hunting. And Brixton is a hub, and I’m kind of from Southeast as well. So that’s one of my places to just catch a vibe on.
AC: One thing I wanted to ask you: the album itself, why did you call it Black Classical Music? I know that some people use that as a term instead of jazz.
YD: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I feel like jazz is quite limiting, at the end of the day. You heard some of the tracks in it, it’s not just jazz music, you know? And I think sometimes these boxes that we give in music, it just limits it. And for me, it’s about freeing up on that. And even when I read what Miles Davis is saying and what Rahsaan Roland Kirk was saying, they called it Black Classical Music. It’s classical, it’s timeless, hasn’t got a lifespan. If anything, it gets better with time.
And jazz was something that was kind of just given. And then you’re kind of in this box, and you kind of think of a date or ting. And I feel like actually for me, the music is meant to grow with time. And yeah, man, it just kind of puts an umbrella under all of this music. To me, it’s all interrelated. I know the genres and these words that we use, but to me it’s like, it’s a lineage of people that have come before. So, I’m just trying to tap into that, you know?
AC: You know, that makes me think of… here in the US there’s been some conversation about the Grammys. They have a new designation for alternative jazz.
YD: Yeah, yeah.
AC: I don’t know if you heard about this.
YD: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
AC: Because I mean, there’ve been a couple reasons. People were saying [that it was] because [Robert] Glasper won Best R&B album last year, people got confused about that.
YD: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
AC: But then also, it feels like there’s just not enough oxygen for a lot of these up and coming jazz artists, against the traditional people [in other jazz categories].
YD: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
AC: Do you have any thoughts about that?
YD: Yeah, I think it’s cool, man, because at the end of the day, you listen to my Black Classical Music, the tracks are so vast. It’s not just one ting, but it’s showing you we can combine them tings. Like we got a nice little track, “Black Classical Music” The title track is us freed up on a more traditional vibe. But the whole album is not like that.
It has hip hop influence, has African influence, the islands, reggae. It’s all there, you know? And I think even the classic, we got a string quartet in the orchestra, so it’s just showing you that it’s like, yeah, there’s still using the techniques, but there’s other tings involved in it as well, you know?
YD: Yeah, you can take it in, man. And yeah, there’s a lot of little tings going on, and I think it’s nice to show the relation between all these different stars. And actually they are, they’re linked, you know?
YD: [The album is] is dedicated to my family. I think sometimes people see you at a certain place, but actually there’s a whole aspect of tings going on, that’s being allowed me to do what I’m doing, you know? So it’s dedicated to my mom, passed away in 2015.
AC: I’m so sorry to hear that.
YD: She’s a big influence on my music and taught me a lot of tings. So it’s like, it’s important for me to also show that to the world, what my story is.
But you’ll see, man, it’s in the music.
AC: It’s a beautiful, beautiful record.
Interview and written introduction by Ayana Contreras
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