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Spirituality, self-discovery and healing: welcome to Dyani's world of sound

Dyani crafts a rhythmic, sensual DJ mix and talks Tanya Akinola through the creative process behind their album 'Under', one of the truly original records of 2020

  • Tanya Akinola
  • 10 December 2020

Dyani’s connection to sound is spiritual and powerful. On their debut, self-released album 'Under', the Detroit-based Haitan-American artist underwent an unanticipated journey of self-discovery and realization that led them to surprising spiritual conclusions.

Having grown up listening to Caribbean and African-diasporic music by way of their parents, as they got older, time spent in New York surrounded by the city’s queer Caribbean club culture led them to further explore electronic music, and connect the dots between the music they heard growing up and genres like Detroit techno and South African Gqom. All of these influences were channelled into 'Under', the recently released immersive and gut-churning LP where Dyani expands upon the tradition set by pioneers like Drexciya of sonic storytelling, mythology and sound as a conduit for healing.

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Between live performances, DJ sets and mixes across NTS, Foundation FM and Rinse FM, Dyani dedicates much of their time to sound healing practices primarily through their Trust Your Rhythm project. Dyani is fuelled by grassroots community building initiatives, especially those centering queer and Black and brown people, where sound and music can be used as tools to empower and connect.

We caught up with Dyani to talk about their sound healing work, musical influences and the inspiration behind their new album. Check out their Impact mix, their words accompanying the mix and the Q+A below.

Dyani’s words on the mix:

“We are becoming more attuned to the sanctity of our breath
As it is held by our waters.
We no longer judge it,
We just witness.
Enjoying the uniqueness of its rhythms
And never comparing our breath to
that of another.
We empower it
We no longer try to control it
We are witness.”

How have you been spending your time over the past few months?

So actually I just moved to Detroit in June. Before Detroit, I was in London with my mum. I was with her for six months before COVID hit and I was lucky to be with her when COVID happened because I just stayed with her basically. My uncle, her brother, lives in Detroit and I had been thinking about living here for a while, but it all came together in that time. He’s in the art community here, he’s a Sculptor and he had access to different houses and residencies here, and he was like “You should totally come and make up your own residency” and I’m hugely inspired by Detroit music and techno already, so it was a no-brainer for me - the doors are opening for me there, so that’s where I should go next.

Has being in Detroit affected your creative process at all? Obviously there’s a lot happening right now that you didn’t anticipate so maybe it feels like a hard time to be inspired and working?

Yeah definitely. Since COVID hit, I had been building up towards this album release and I was putting all my energy into music. But before that, there had been moments where I had got into healing work, things like Reiki and sound healing and stuff like that, and as soon as COVID hit I was feeling pulled to do that work again, just for myself to stay grounded but then also just finding community in that way felt more fulfilling and necessary. In March/April I started to reach out to friends and be like, would you be down to do a virtual sound bath or something? And I wanted to build around that.

I think that's been the biggest thing that's been keeping me grounded. Through this work and launching it online, I was able to find other Black and healers that are doing virtual healing circles. Theres a specific one that I'm part of now called The Sunday Survivor Series and it was started by this Black queer Haitian woman in Brooklyn, Jewel The Gem, who every other Sunday will do these healing circles, so we do breakout groups and I do oracle readings. Some people do Reiki sessions, sound baths, just a bunch of different things. It’s been pretty wild just to formulate these strong relationships virtually, because I haven't met any of these people but we keep in touch with each other and we make sure that we do exchanges and we all feel comfortable continuing this community online, and that's been a huge inspiration for me creatively too.

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Is that how you started the Trust Your Rhythm sound baths? And is that happening virtually or physically?

So I haven't done too many sound baths. It kind of started a few years ago when I was living in LA and I was working at Everybody Gym which is a queer trans centred gym in LA where they have a wellness centre. I had started doing one-on-one in person Reiki sessions there, and they had initially offered me a larger space where I could do sound baths but it just didn't come together because I was so focused on music. That's where the idea started and fast-forward to now, is where I felt like I could really do something virtually and figure out ways to connect with people that way, so right now what it looks like is I’m doing oracle readings for people that are sound-infused. So I have an mbira instrument that is traditional to Zimbabwe - I don't know if you’ve heard of that before?

No I haven’t.

It has a really beautiful sound. So for the healing circles I play this while people do these free writes and it’s kind of the core of what I use in any oracle reading with people. It’s traditional to Zimbabwe, it’s been used for thousands of years, specifically with the Shona people and actually the full name is mbira dzavadzimu, which translates to ‘the voice of the ancestors’. It’s used traditionally to call your ancestors into the space, so that's been a really powerful experience to combine these sounds with oracle readings with people, and seeing how their ancestors want to speak to them or guide them with whatever they’re going through.

How were you introduced to the instrument?

My mum and uncle grew up in Zimbabwe. My mum was there until 17 and her first language was Shona, so Zimbabwe music and tradition has always been a part of my upbringing. I did a study abroad program in South Africa while I was in college and I was there for six months, and during that time I was able to go to Zimbabwe for the first time and that’s where I got this instrument actually. It was made by a musician there so that was an amazing experience, to be able to be there and meet other musicians.

That’s really cool. So you’ve just released your debut album 'Under' - how are you feeling about it?

It’s so surreal because it’s been a three-year build up, so to have it finally out it’s like, wow I started these three years ago? But at the same time a lot of my immediate community, family and friends have been supporting it for that time too, so it really feels like there’s a community around it that are just as excited. I did a whole kickstarter campaign to get the album mastered, so it was a cool process to be able to do it all independently because that was a really big thing for me too, was knowing that I have the power to do that and to use any connection I have to make it happen that way has been really fulfilling in a lot of ways.

Also working with my sister who is my manager now has been a huge grounding element to this whole process, because we’ve had a lot of mutual dreams of working together and she has been working in music journalism actually for a long time. Everything we were kind of doing on our own has naturally built towards this thing where we can have all the skills to work together, and not only that but also think about what it means to create community around music - so whether it’s a label or whether it’s a management company or just a collective. That’s kind of where we’re at now, just the early stages of thinking about that.

I know the music on the album is largely inspired by Detroit techno and South African Gqom as well as Underground Resistance, Drexciya and the ethos and mythology behind their work. Can you tell us a bit about how you got interested in electronic music and these specific artists and sounds?

There's a lot of influences I would say. I grew up with both of my parents listening to a lot of different kinds of genres. My dad’s Haitan so I grew up listening to Kompa, these very electronic Caribbean styles that are coming out of Haiti. Then on my mum’s side, she’s listening to Zimbabwean music, but then different West African genres as well that were combining these electronic traditions too, so I would say there's a lot of, in my upbringing, a merging of electronic [music] and music of the African diaspora.

And fast-forward to now, all those elements are what I’m trying to synthesize or just [am] naturally synthesizing, and I think in terms of the album specifically, I was making it at a time in New York. It all started in New York because I was living there, that’s the city that I lived the longest in. I was there for seven years, and just being really immersed in the queer carribean DJ scene, that being a huge influence and then also just starting to meet other musicians that are really expansive in their thinking. So like jazz vocalists, and just being immersed in all the genres. And I think at the beginning of this album, I was just discovering Drexciya, and the mythology is what pulled me in really strongly and not only that, but just started to trigger my own memories.

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In what way?

At the beginning, it felt like I’m building a narrative with the music that I’m making. And I think that because I also have a background in film scoring from when I was in school, whenever I’m creating music, it always feels like there's a film or visual element that I'm creating to. And so I think that's also why Drexciya felt so close to me, because it felt like they were doing things I felt like I was always interested in. And so that myth that they were creating started to actually trigger visions for me that I felt I was scoring to.

So it started with this narrative: I saw a woman on a slave ship and she was pregnant and was having twins, a daughter and son, and then decided to sacrifice one of the children in the ocean. She sacrificed the daughter and then the son in this narrative becomes enslaved in the Caribbean somewhere. So there's this story of these twins, the daughter being underwater and the son being enslaved, and they’re having this psychic connection or yearning to know each other after losing each other upon birth. So these are like the early narratives I’m thinking about, and then fast forward maybe a year and into making it, it starts to get deeper where I met this psychic person who the first thing he told me was “Wow I haven’t met someone who was from Atlantis in a long time.” And I didn’t tell him anything about the album, but then he said “You lost a child in your last lifetime” and I was like wow okay. And then I started to connect all these dots, where I was reading this book about past life regression and I was like this just feels almost too... like I know that this is a narrative but now I’m starting to emotionally engage with it in a way where I really feel like I’m feeling something that I didn’t understand before.

And so long story short, it really started to feel like I was tapping into a past life trauma and kind of going through the healing process through music to channel it. And I started to discover with doing different oracle readings and pendulum readings for myself, I got to the details of what happened.

And what was that?

Basically it was in like 1798. It was one of the last ships coming from Benin specifically, which is actually where vodou originates, so there’s actually a direct lineage where vodou was being practiced and retained in Haiti. I learned that I actually lost a child, and I started to think about like, how did I die if I lost this child? And it was this interesting thing where I kept asking but it felt like Spirit was saying “You’re not ready for this information. You can handle this [other information] but this is traumatic.” But then this year I was sitting at my altar and I got a flash of what happened, and all that I saw was waving arms in the water, and so I immediately understood that I drowned. And I had already named the album 'Under' so I was like wow this is literally about the fact that I drowned. Like this whole thing that I didn't know...I just trusted the sounds and now I have all this clarity around what I was creating, and all of the emotions that I was releasing were one in connection.

I had gone through a break-up in this lifetime and I was dealing with loss, and it was really heavy for me but I was trying to understand why it was so heavy. It was deeper than just what was happening in my life now, and I think just going through that whole process and gaining the clarity of what this album really means and the way that it’s this intergenerational healing, I was like, wow this is really powerful as just a way to think about music and the power it really can have on people.

Yeah I mean you entered into the project with one idea and then by the end you had uncovered all of this information that essentially changed your life.

Yeah exactly. And another parallel to all of this is that there's a lot of healing going on but then also throughout the course of making this too, I start to uncover things about myself in terms of gender. This whole tension I was thinking about with the twins, it really felt like this internal exploration of masculine and feminine and by the end of it I realized that I’m non-binary and trans. I finally had the courage to address it within myself and I needed to isolate and create this to just know it and not be afraid of it. So I think there's so many layers to what was uncovered with just this album and that it speaks for itself. I would say that that is also connected to the healing.

And what led you to create in this way? Was it natural or an intentional process?

Because it was the first album there were a lot of doubts, especially in the beginning. I had made a track here and there, but to actually think of an album was very daunting, but it started to come together that way through the narrative. I was like okay there’s a narrative here and I want to explore what that narrative is, so before I think of a full project, I want to keep pushing. And I think the thing that was hard was this pressure I think a lot of musicians feel, that we need to release things. I kept telling people I was working on an album, but it was like two years into this and yeah there’s this pressure of like what’s happening? But I’m also very much a perfectionist. I don’t know if that's the right word, but there's a part of me where if I don't think that it's ready, then I'm going to stick to that, and I’m glad that I did because it just didn’t feel ready until it was ready.

For the first half of creating it, I was living with another musician Yatta who is a huge inspiration, a jazz vocalist, and there was another musician with us too, and just being in that environment having roommates and us all being in the same space creating and collaborating, that gave me more confidence to delve into my own voice. A lot of this too is developing a relationship with my voice. Before, the previous stand alone tracks were production heavy and this is the first time I’m exploring what my voice can do, and using that as an instrument, so there was just a lot of confidence building in this album too.

It’s a very personal project, but what do you hope listeners can take away from listening to it and hearing about your experience making it?

That’s a good question. I honestly feel like the biggest thing for me is releasing the fear of the unknown, because that was the only way I could create this. And that it's also like when you embrace the unknown, and the beauty of it, it feels like this daunting abyss of darkness, but once you get past the fear and the doubt there's a lot of magic within that realm. So what I would want people to take away is just embracing the unknown and the chaos that can come from that. But then coming out on the other side, transformed. It’s all about change and how that impacts all of us. That was the metaphor I was thinking about in the album too, because the first track is called ‘Submerge’ so it's kind of like you're submerging yourself into that abyss and the last track is called ‘Surface’ so you're resurfacing. That rebirth process is what it’s about too.

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I'm curious about your perspective on where spirituality and music meet. Like you’ve said, your Haitian roots play a large part on this album and on the track ‘Agwe’ you explore that. So what’s your view on where spirituality and music intertwine and what does that mean for you?

I think that's why I'm really trying to develop the sound healing process, because I think that's where it comes together in a physical way. We’re made up of vibration, we’re made up of sound, and sound can actually have a detoxing effect on the body in a very literal way. But then on the other end, seeing the body as an instrument in need of tuning, that's kind of how I think about it because I’m doing Reiki practice which is balancing chakra systems and seeing how that relates to different organs, the nervous system and things like that.

I think in terms of my relation to spirit and ancestors, I feel like in order to nurture that relationship my body has to feel in alignment and open, and my main tool has been sound in order to develop that relationship. So whether it's listening to different chakra tones before I go to bed and meditating, and using the voice is a huge realm of spirit because there's an ability to use the voice to channel other voices, so that’s something I think about a lot, like polyvocality and what that could mean, what does it mean to hear someone’s voice and think oh their ancestors are speaking through them right now, I can feel it. I think about that stuff a lot.

And now that your album has been released and you’re settling into Detroit, are you going to focus on sound healing because I guess you can’t really perform right now?

We had a little gathering and I did a DJ set and, despite COVID, I actually have been meeting some really cool musicians here [in Detroit], which another goal of course is to collaborate more because I'm in a place now where I can’t see myself making more music alone. Even though on the last album I was collaborating, I really want to branch out and keep the collaborations alive. And then I think when it comes to my own practice and sustaining myself, healing work makes sense.

Tracklist:

Ana Roxanne - Venus
Mukuna - Lumuenu
Kesswa - Open (Reprise)
N/A - OH (H3LLNAH EDIT)
Dyani - Ascension
Dyani - Sun Beats
Bapari - Lemon Glow (Beach House Edit)
red cartier & Nyokô Bokbaë - VT ZOOK II feat. Lala &ce
Dyani - Golden Egg
Kombé - Translucent Dub
red cartier & Nyokô Bokbaë - VT ZOOK III
Deena Abdelwahed - Wein Al Malayeen
Time Cow & RTKal - Elephant Man
ANGEL-HO - Juice
DJ Firmeza - YOUNEN 3-3
Dyani - Dan-i (Interlude)
Batuk - Dahomey Warrior (Instrumental Version)
Babes Wodumo - Buyisa uBabes Wodumo (feat. Khuzani, MC Tshatha & Mampintsha)
Blicassty - Continuer
Banshee - Living In A Dreem
Dyani - Atlantis
Terrence Dixon - 4
DJ Delish - SHAVE
HOUZ'MON - DEEP 2
The Neighbourhood Character - Leaves, Thorns & Stems (Down Fruitvale Laurel Halo's Dusk Mix)
Ian DPM - The Basement
noleian reusse - Fete (dig mix)
Ian DPM - Airlock
Jagged Edge - Stay Here Tonight
Bambounou - Hale

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