Lifetime Los Angeleno Dexter Story (aka Wondem) is a musical polymath — a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, composer, arranger, songwriter, producer, and ethnomusicologist. He has been known in the international musical community for decades as a first-rate sideman, as proficient in soul and jazz as he is funk, rock, pop, and global folk styles. He is well-known for his work as a multi-instrumentalist for acts like the Sa-Ra Creative Partners, his vocal contributions to Kamasi Washington's and Dwight Trible's albums, to his product management roles with Snoop Dogg and Mack 10, as well as producing Daymé Arocena's 2017 album Cubafonia. He is also a co-founder of the Life Force Trio. Story understands the business from every conceivable angle. After spending so much time working on other musicians' recordings he had precious little time for his own work. His acclaimed solo debut, Seasons, didn't appear until he was in his late forties. He traveled extensively and studied across the Horn of Africa, resulting in the album Wondem (now one of his performing identities) and the EP Wejene Aola, some three years later for Soundway. As a singer, Story's voice inhabits ranges from tenor to countertenor, capable of delivering everything from folk songs to gritty R&B and spiritual jazz expressively and with consummate control. In 2019, four years after the issue of Wondem, Story —who studies in UCLA's African studies and Ethnomusicology departments—went even deeper into his African-influenced sound on the full-length Bahir.
Story was named after jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon and raised in a household where music was pervasive. He began taking music theory, guitar, and piano lessons at an early age, and was fronting local Los Angeles bands and playing clubs by age 14.
Story guested as a drummer in Todd Simons' Ethio Cali ensemble in 2011, and later became their arranger. It was there that he fell in love with Ethiopian music, though he'd been studying various forms of the continent's folk, pop, funk, and jazz styles for decades.
Story's solo debut, the spiritual soul album Seasons, was released in February of 2013 on Kindred Spirits. Its guest vocalists included Gaby Hernandez, Waberi, Jimetta Rose Smith, Nichelle Monroe, i_Ced, and Erik Rico.
The singer and songwriter began exploring East African and Caribbean themes in tunes he was composing (one a day) for a year. After serving as music director for the 2014 Wattstax Revisited concert, he signed to Miles Cleret's Soundway label and began working on a follow-up album with Niño as a co-producer. The finished product, Wondem, was deeply influenced by East Africa, albeit through a Californian's sonic worldview. Story's musical guests included Clive-Lowe, Atwood-Ferguson, Yared Teshale, Damon Aaron, drummer Te'Amir Sweeney, and many more. The album was released in late October 2015. Following international acclaim for the release and claiming the name "Wondem" as one of his recording and performing identities, Story dropped the Wejene Aola single, featuring an appearance by Washington on the title cut and vocalist Nia Andrews on "Eastern Prayer." Two months later he issued the digital-only offering Wondem Remixed. While he and co-producer Carlos Nino delivered their own revision of the track "Lalibela," other contributing producers included Ras G Afrikan Space Program, Todd Simons, Te'Amir Sweeney, Jeremy Sole, and others. In 2017, he produced Cubafonia by Cuban vocalist, composer, and arranger Daymé Arocena for Gilles Peterson's Brownswood and, with Washington as a guest, issued a cover of "Wejene Aola," the classic Ethio-jazz tune by Oromo singer Tlahoun Gèssèssè in 1970. If Wondem was a glance into Story's globally expansive creative vision, its follow-up, 2019's Bahir co-produced with Nino, offered a focused refinement of his efforts fine-tuning and expanding the soundworld he created on the previous album. On the latter he enlisted an international cast of musicians. While his Los Angeles contemporaries were featured throughout, namely Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Josef Leimberg, he also recruited fellow Angeleno vocalist and violinist Sudan Archives (Brittney Parks), Ethiopian producer Endeguena Mulu, and singer Hamelmal Abate in a set that explored North Sudanese shaygiya dance rhythms, Afro-funk, Somali soul, and forays in a program that melded it all into more contemporary global rhythms. Bahir was issued by Soundway in the late winter of 2019. ~ Thom Jurek