Dyers: quiet genius of guitar in Struggle times
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...’