Thomas 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 stepfather.
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 there."
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 world.
"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 already instilled."
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."
In 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 fall. Bio from Congahead.com