Chasing the rhythm with Yussef Dayes
Yussef Dayes speaks like he drums: quickly, deftly and with intent. Leaning in and talking animatedly over a formica table-top in a local south London café, the percussionist and producer explains how the frenetic blend of beats he plays are inextricable from his life. “I’m always chasing the rhythm,” he says. “Drums make you feel – they are an ancient form of communication, they command ceremonies, and they also make you move. They forever play to the human heartbeat.”
For the past 15 years, Dayes has been focused on this ineffable combination of bodily rhythms. He has travelled to New Orleans, Senegal, Bahia and beyond, studying everything from sabar polyrhythms to Candomblé, jungle breakbeats, breakneck drum‘n’bass, and jazz improvisation. “It’s all in service to giving the crowd something new,” he says. “A sense of freedom in the groove, rather than the metronome and rigidity we might be used to.”
Dayes first introduced himself to his audience as one half of the duo Yussef Kamaal. Influenced as much by the jazz-funk fusion of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters as by the dancefloor bruk of Kaidi Tatham, the group released their one and only record, Black Focus, in 2016, sparking an ensuing trend for jazz music that referenced the diaspora cultures of its London-based makers as much as the genre’s traditions.
Reluctant to be pigeonholed into “that London jazz scene”, Dayes has since built a wide-ranging and formidable network of collaborators, playing with Alfa Mist and Shabaka Hutchings, releasing an album with guitarist Tom Misch, producing for Kehlani and Kali Uchis, and contributing to records by Pa Salieu and Wizkid. Cementing his genre-hopping, rhythm-forward vision, Dayes has finally taken the plunge solo with the release of his debut album, Black Classical Music.
It is a sprawling body of work which aims to place his varied rhythms into a historical lineage. “People call me a jazz drummer but I am influenced by the dancefloor, West African culture, Brazilian music, all these different things,” he says. “I wanted this album to pull together these interrelated strands, and the one thing that unites them is Black music. This record is part of that heritage.” Taking his grand title from the term that saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk used to describe the broader scope of his improvised music, the resulting 19 tracks traverse everything from epic jazz harmonies on the title track to head-nodding hip-hop (Presidential), clave grooves (Afro Cubanism), reggae (Pon Di Plaza), classical orchestration (Tioga Pass), and other propulsive, percussive forms.
Black Classical Music is an adventurous work that is about more than just the groove, though. Really, Dayes explains, it is a record about his family. “I see my career as a marathon, not a sprint,” he says as he stirs a spoonful of honey into his mint tea. “But it felt like time to share my story now and that means giving love to the people that got me to this point. People like my daughter, my dad, my brothers and my mother. I could never have done it without my tribe.”
Indeed, for Dayes, music is a family affair. He started playing drums at four, after his dad spotted his aptitude for banging on pots and pans, and by 15 he was bunking off school to play gigs with his older brothers, Ahmad and Kareem, as the Afrojazz group United Vibrations. Gigging regularly around London and hosting jam nights at Dalston’s community run venue Passing Clouds, the Dayes brothers went on to become the European backing band for I Need a Dollar singer Aloe Blacc. They even appeared on Jools Holland’s BBC show in 2010 to promote the track, making 16-year-old Dayes one of the youngest performers on the programme. “I remember Paul McCartney was also on that night and he was loving it,” he laughs. “His drummer Abe Laboriel loved it, too, and he was such an inspiration; it was an amazing experience to play with the pressure of being on live TV and have it pay off like that.”
It was after United Vibrations supported Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, though, that Dayes began to understand the true power of the drums. “That was the first time I’d seen a whole room dance to just the beat,” he says, his enthusiasm causing his words to speed up. “The drums were directing the music and it inspired me to find different rhythms to discover my own way of playing.” In Senegal, Dayes watched a clan of 50 sabar drummers, led by master musician Doudou N’Diaye Rose, play fiendishly difficult rhythms almost telepathically. That was the moment, he says, that he began to develop his own sonic identity of fluidity and freedom.
“I want other kids coming up to know that this is possible – that you can lead a group with the drums, or you can turn whatever’s happened in your life into your passion”
“Senegal pushed me right out of my comfort zone. A four-year-old kid played something on a bottle with a stick and I was so confused!” he laughs. “It was a mad rhythm and it showed me that it is good to be in uncomfortable situations because that’s how you learn and thrive,” he says, placing his cup down. “Life is limitless, it’s just about how much you want to keep taking on new information.”
He began to apply this open-eared method to his own playing, incorporating sabar drums into his setup, and soon reconnected with keyboardist Kamaal Williams, who he’d first met through jam sessions at Brixton’s Ritzy. Their new improvised chemistry caught the ears of Brownswood label head Gilles Peterson, and by 2015, a record deal began to seem a possibility. On the cusp of his career truly taking off, Dayes’ mother Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer. In November 2015, she passed away.
“As she was dying, there was just so much love surrounding her and she told us to make something beautiful out of what was happening,” he says. “So when I’m on the drums, I’m just trying to focus on my memories of her, to give every hit an emphasis of love.” A few months later, during the recording sessions for Black Focus, Dayes subsequently only had one thought: “If I’m gonna die tomorrow, this needs to be the best thing I’m ever going to do. The music will do the talking.”
It was this personal motivation that helped shape Black Focus, which received near-universal critical acclaim and a Jazz FM Award for the group as Best Breakthrough Act. But the duo behind Black Focus broke up almost as quickly as they had arrived. “It was a specific moment in time,” Dayes says pensively, turning over the period in his mind. “I’m very proud of that record but it was also intense. I had to make my own journey.” Dayes went on to release a slew of propulsive singles and a 2020 album with Tom Misch, What Kinda Music. The same year, his daughter, Bahia, was born.
It’s only now, though, that Dayes is publicly acknowledging the impact of his devastating loss, using his music as a means to pay tribute to his mother and her “guiding light”, as well as his young daughter. “When Bahia was born, it sparked a different kind of focus,” he says, of this new chapter. “Music has always been the vessel to explore life, but now that I’m older, I wanted to really bring these two powerful, female energies in my life to the forefront.”
Dayes wrote and recorded Black Classical Music between tours in 2021 and 2022, peppering the album with moving and personal references to his family. The Light, which was initially recorded in 2019 and swiftly became an impromptu lullaby for newborn Bahia, was rearranged to feature clips of her vocalising throughout and now plays like a funk-inflected version of Stevie Wonder’s tribute to his own daughter, Isn’t She Lovely. Equally, the soaring, synth-based Turquoise Galaxy is named after Barbara’s favourite colour, which still covers the walls of the Dayes’ family home. Jukebox is named after the device his father used to play the family’s records on. There is even a collaboration of sorts between Dayes and his mother, who used to teach yoga classes in their home.
“On Cowrie Charms, which closes the album, you can hear my mum leading a savasana, which was always my favourite bit of her classes because it’s so relaxing,” he smiles. “It’s healing hearing her voice. It gives me comfort to be able to have her on the album like this, and for my daughter to be able to play it and hear her grandma in the future, too.”
This focus on the next generation is beginning to inform almost everything Dayes does. Working with upcoming jazz talent in his band, from bassist Rocco Palladino (son of legendary session bassist Pino) to keys player Charlie Stacey and saxophonist Venna, Dayes wants to use his projects as a platform for others to shine. “I’m still working out how to articulate everything I’ve been taught, but sharing my story is the first step,” he says. “I want other kids coming up to know that this is possible – that you can lead a group with the drums, or you can turn whatever’s happened in your life into your passion.”
With his biggest tour to date about to kick off – featuring a sold out date at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall – audiences are clearly resonating with Dayes’s story so far. “I remember playing in villages in France with my brothers to only one or two people and even they would leave,” he says with a laugh. “So to be able to connect to 5,000 people at the Royal Albert Hall is a blessing.”
It’s a performance you feel is for his family as much as for his crowd. And it is especially for his mum, who will be guiding his hands from one beat to the next. “The spirit lives on,” he says, smiling. “My journey is just about finding ways to express it.”
Black Classical Music is out now via Brownswood Recordings/Cashmere Thoughts