Dy­ers: quiet ge­nius of gui­tar in Strug­gle times

The Star Early Edition - - NEWS -

GUI­TARIST, singer and com­poser Er­rol Dy­ers was a self-pro­claimed cul­tural war­rior as well as a cus­to­dian of goema mu­sic and the sweetly sen­ti­men­tal Cape jazz style.

Fol­low­ing his death at 65 he has been fondly re­mem­bered as a quiet ge­nius of the gui­tar.

His ex­cep­tional im­pro­vi­sa­tional abil­i­ties and sub­lime gui­tar wiz­ardry, as il­lus­trated in a fu­sion track such as Son­esta, made him one of Cape jazz’s most ex­cit­ing and cre­ative voices.

In the Cape jazz song book, it is hard to find a more in­tox­i­cat­ing and haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful tune than Son­esta.

The gen­tle and soft-spo­ken mu­si­cian was fiercely proud of the Cape car­ni­val tra­di­tion and his pas­sion and peer­less mu­si­cal gifts were ev­i­dent in his record­ings and live per­for­mances.

Born to a mu­si­cal fam­ily in Clare­mont, Cape Town on Jan­uary 21, 1952, his grand­par­ents were min­strels in the Cape car­ni­val troupes.

Dy­ers’s ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Charles Ran­dall, was a singer who also played gui­tar and vi­o­lin, while his pa­ter­nal op­po­site, Chris­tian Dy­ers, was a well­known banjo player.

His father, Burt Dy­ers, con­tin­ued the tra­di­tion as one of the skil­ful gui­tarists on the goema and Cape jazz scene while a gui­tarist brother, Alvin Dy­ers, was a mu­sic ed­u­ca­tor at UCT’s Col­lege of Mu­sic.

This proud mu­si­cal tra­di­tion gave him a sense of be­long­ing and iden­tity. He regarded him­self as the cus­to­dian of all the sub-gen­res and dance styles that emerged from the Cape mu­si­cal tra­di­tions of the Malays, San and Xhosa – notably goema, lan­garm and sopvleis.

In­spired by his father’s gui­tar play­ing, Er­rol started play­ing the in­stru­ment from 7 years old – a home-made ver­sion fash­ioned out of an oil tin – mainly as a self-taught artist.

One of his fond­est mem­o­ries dur­ing his teenage years was play­ing with a very young Jonathan But­ler dur­ing his first live ap­pear­ance in Athlone, Cape Town.

In later years he per­formed and recorded with an older gen­er­a­tion of mu­si­cians. He regarded their record­ings as bench­marks of South African jazz – the likes of Mankunku Ngozi, Johnny Fourie, Ab­dul­lah Ibrahim, Basil Coet­zee, the late Rob­bie Jansen, Ezra Ngcukana and the Sit­hole broth­ers – penny whistlers Robert and Lu­cas.

A ver­sa­tile mu­si­cian who could also play kwela, gospel and maskanda, Dy­ers was a long-time mem­ber of the car­ni­val and cho­ral troupe The Corona­tions and the Dis­trict Six Mu­seum band. Over the years he per­formed, recorded and toured with some of Cape jazz’s finest lu­mi­nar­ies, in­clud­ing Ibrahim and Ngozi.

As a per­son who was des­ig­nated coloured by the apartheid gov­ern­ment of the day, he re­mem­bered the ar­rests by the po­lice for sim­ply be­ing found in black town­ships like Gugulethu, where some of his col­leagues lived.

It was a life of strug­gle, as he pre­ferred to see it, but one that never damp­ened his spir­its. “Out of the strug­gle of di­vi­sion, growth can take place to pro­duce a pos­i­tive as­set for South African mu­sic. I am one con­trib­u­tor. The plat­form should be full of them,” he said.

One of the high­lights of his mu­si­cal jour­ney was in 1990 when he toured the UK with Jansen and the late Basil Coet­zee. The finest hour of the tour was a live broad­cast on the BBC. Like these two mu­si­cians, Dy­ers con­trib­uted pro­lif­i­cally both as a ses­sion mu­si­cian and band leader to the discog­ra­phy of Moun­tain Records, the iconic la­bel of Cape jazz.

And like Jansen, af­fec­tion­ately known as the Cape Doc­tor, he was blessed with a fan­tas­tic voice that en­abled him to make stan­dards like Ray Charles’s Ge­or­gia On My Mind his own.

His favourite pas­times and pas­sions in­cluded writ­ing plays and po­etry as well as teach­ing chil­dren the mu­sic of his Cape her­itage. “This mu­sic rep­re­sents life, free­dom, di­ver­sity and power. The liv­ing and their de­scen­dants have rights to this mu­sic, the same way they have rights to own their cul­ture. If they don’t own their cul­ture, what is left?” he asked.

Two of his al­bums, Son­esta (Nkomo Records, 1997) and Kou Kou Wa (Sheer Sound, 1999), were warmly re­ceived by crit­ics as works that cap­ture the essence of the Cape jazz tra­di­tion. They fea­ture highly regarded mu­si­cians such as Ngozi (sax), Blackie Tem­pie (trum­pet), Jansen (sax), Hil­ton Schilder (keys), Mark Frans­man (keys), Nic Le Roux (sax), Ed­die Jooste (bass), Camillo Lom­bard (keys), Gary Kriel (gui­tar) and Stimela drum­mer, Isaac “Mnca” Mt­shali.

But he had reser­va­tions about the Sheer Sound al­bum as he felt that there was a com­mer­cial im­per­a­tive which had com­pro­mised its true worth and his own mu­si­cal out­look as the cus­to­dian of the Cape mu­si­cal tra­di­tions. It was pro­duced by an Amer­i­can.

How­ever, he was unim­pressed when the la­bel re­leased The Best of Er­rol Dy­ers (2003). He felt they had writ­ten his mu­si­cal obit­u­ary pre­ma­turely. “My best is still to come. I was not con­sulted about this com­pi­la­tion.It is of­fen­sive be­cause my mu­si­cal jour­ney is still on track. It doesn’t make sense,” he said.

At the time there was an ex­o­dus of prom­i­nent jazz mu­si­cians from Sheer Sound. In the mid-1990s the la­bel had played a sig­nif­i­cant role in the re­vival of South African jazz, but then the mu­si­cians felt that they could make a fresh start else­where.

Con­se­quently, Sheer Sound re­leased a num­ber of com­pi­la­tion al­bums of the out­go­ing mu­si­cians. Dy­ers was one of them. One of his re­cent and sig­nif­i­cant record­ings, Mu­si­cal Democ­racy (2013), was with the Cape Jazz Band, re­leased by Moun­tain Records.

Dy­ers suf­fered from a lung con­di­tion known as em­phy­sema. He passed away on Fri­day night. The fu­neral ser­vice will be held at the Good Hope Chris­tian Cen­tre, Ot­tery on Satur­day from 10am.

‘The liv­ing and their de­scen­dants have rights to mu­sic...’

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