Cape Jazz Hero: Errol Dyers
As published in B’Jazz magazine
Errol Dyers is a Cape Town based guitarist, composer, playwright and poet. Among others, he has recorded, toured and played with Abdullah Ibrahim, Robbie Jansen, Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi and Basil Coetzee. To date he has released three albums: Sonesta, Kou Kou Wa and the Best of Errol Dyers and Friends. Dyers, along with Paul Hanmer, McCoy Mrubata, Sipho Gumede and Frank Paco comprised the Sheer All Stars, who recorded two albums: 1999’s Indibano and Live at the Blue Room. Some of his compositions were also featured on the Cape Jazz 3 Collection, released by Mountain Records in 2007. He currently forms part of the Cape Jazz Band as led by drummer Jack Momple, who recently released their newest album Musical Democracy. He also has his own band comprised of pianist George Werner, bassist Peter Ndlala and drummer Carlo Fabe. Dyers’ latest offering, a duo album with two-time Grammy nominated singer Angel Rose is currently in post-production.
Dyers is considered one of the leading exponents of Cape Jazz – although it becomes evident that he’s not easily bandied with labels. “I’m not into all these labels and stuff. If I have to look at Cape Jazz, I look at it in another way because I grew up with all these people who played langarm and klopse…and it was just a way of going forward from that type of music.”
Likening Cape Jazz’s musical ID to that of the Cubans and the Brazilians, Dyers describes how it originated from the colonial era amongst people of colour. “We’re the last people to be made free, I’m talking Cape Town now…from the slave times, that’s where I’m coming from!”
Born in 1952, Dyers grew up in a musical family where both his grandfathers, his dad and his uncle played guitar. Most of Dyers’ musical upbringing took place in the backyard where he and his brother Alvin (now lecturer in guitar at UCT) used to peek through a hole in the fence to catch a glimpse of his maestro uncle, Richard Benjamin (who ironically, never played on a stage in his life) play the guitar.
“…he just played in the backyard with a lot of his buddies…Kids were not allowed there, but we made a way to go and at least see what chords they play, what they’re doing and how the music business goes with these guys. They couldn’t keep us away from all this…”
Dyers’ uncle Richard was a jazz purist who took the curious children under his wing and nurtured their love of the music, “You couldn’t sing a pop song in his presence…he was really a master…I mean coming from humble beginnings in that sense, being able to play with breakneck speed…He was also a body builder, so it worked in his favour. You don’t equate those two together, playing guitar and lifting weights! He was such a graceful player as well…”
Dyers and his friends would then perform their own guitar competitions in the backyard by making paper trophies and adopting the elders’ klopse uniforms. He also participated in the Christmas Band activities by filling in for absent guitar players in the frontline during Carnival time. “That was also a learning curve because then you learn from the Christmas choirs especially. You learn a lot of these instruments like the mandolin and the squash box, even a little violin if you’re interested. As kids you’re always gonna want to be observant and want to know things…”
Feeling a little apprehensive about playing jazz full on and associating it with the older generation he learnt from, Dyers later formed his own rock & roll band which he played with for a few years. From that experience he learnt both the importance of being musically open to the vast array of genres that exist and the paramount importance of developing a unique, signature sound. Citing the countless instances of witnessing guitarists modelling their sound on that of George Benson in Cape Town, he constantly reminds young musicians to stay true to their own sound, culture and background. In the same vein he encourages musicians to spend time learning about their heritage and history, as a way of developing their own voice.
“Just be yourself. I mean, if you’re gonna take two years modelling yourself (sound) on someone else, you could’ve spent that time modelling it around yourself.”
His contemporary, bassist Spencer Mbadu asserts that even when Dyers was a child, he already had his own special voice on the guitar, “Errol never tried to copy George Benson and all these other people! There’s an album of Winston Mankunku and Chris Schilder (the Schilder brothers) which Errol is featured on as a guitarist – I think the album must’ve been recorded in the 60s, where you can hear the real Errol Dyers, man.”
To this day, Dyers still feels it’s important to constantly be playing in various genres and collaborating with different musicians as a means to move and challenge himself further, “As artists you can’t play it safe man, it doesn’t work. Art has got a sense of risk…that’s just where I am. You have to be there… (to) push the envelope!”
Much of his constant learning is gained in musical exchange with younger musicians who in some sense, offer fresh and fearless ideas; much like his input as a young musician found reciprocity with Abdullah Ibrahim (his biggest musical influence) during their time spent together. Dyers warmly describes how Ibrahim would invite him to listen to some of his new compositions before they were performed or recorded – to gain Dyers’ input. He also recalls how he (together with the late Robbie Jansen) would assist Ibrahim in ensuring a good live piano sound at gigs.
Although Dyers has been facilitating music workshops in schools for the last 18 years (using the various Bushman bows to illustrate the role that indigenous music plays as a baton of peace), he does not self-identify as a mentor. Dyers’ drummer, 32 year old Carlo Fabe; describes his time playing with him as a mind opening experience, which has introduced him to new musical textures and dynamics:
“Because the history of Cape Town is so rich and the music has so many influences dating back to the beginning of the Khoi and San people (the nomads of this region), these sounds and rhythms are a strong focal point in the music…”
Fabe first came into contact with Dyers for the Cape Jazz Spectacular in 2010, a project that also featured the late Ezra Ngcukana. He cites Dyers’ magical performance at the 2013 Cape Town International Jazz Festival as a career highlight that truly represented the Cape Jazz heritage. Fabe feels the experience of playing with this experienced musician has helped him overcome many of the hurdles and pitfalls of the music business, “It’s up to us (up and coming guys), to grasp what has gone before us and not repeat the mistakes of the elders, but build on what has been laboured thus far; in order to continue to take our music to the rest of the world.”
Dyers has plans to begin recording a new solo effort (already a year in the making), provided he can get all the travelling musicians together in one room for a meeting!