“Write our own stories; own our music; be graceful.” Errol Dyers in his own words

This is a little different from the usual formal obituary: Errol Dyers’ life and music are far more poorly documented than his importance and musical skill merit, and that fragmentary story has already appeared in the press. I’m trying to compile a complete discography, but that will take time. For something much better and more personal than what’s in the papers, try to catch up with Gary van Dyk’s radio tribute, broadcast on July 22 on FMR. But in late 1999, one of the interview team for the ABC Ulwazi radio series Ubuyile interviewed Errol Dyers in Cape Town for the programme. The guitarist had a quiet, gentle voice, the tape was made in his living room with the window open to street sounds, and the ensuing tape wasn’t very radio-friendly, so we couldn’t use it on-air. His contribution, however, was precious for the context it provided. So, to add to the memories and the historical record, here, drawn out of the transcript of that tape, is an edited  (it was a long, discursive conversation) excerpt about the story of his life, in his own words:

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 “…It’s very important that we write [the history], not let the industry write it for us. We have to write those stories; we have to do that. I’m looking at where I come from, where my grandfathers – both of them – played traditional Cape Town music, from the coons [Cape carnival troupes]. It’s my culture. It’s who I am: that’s making me who people think I am…Without the people, there’s no me. And of course without God there’s no me, because I have to look at the higher powers than me.

“…I can’t remember so far [back] how I got into music. Ever since I was alive, I was into music. My family, we were always into music: both sides. My mother’s father played guitar, he sang, and he played violin. Charles Randall. I never met him – in fact, [the] two of them I never met. My other grandfather, Jim Dyers…er, Christian Dyers. He played a banjo…As far as I can remember, before I went to school, we used to make our own trophies for musicians. Out of silver foil… Before the end-of-year festivities in Cape Town. We were too young to be in the real coons or anything like that yet, so we used to make-believe. We used to save our money also: first prize; second prize; and you’ve got to give the money.

“We used to take a Cobra [shoe polish] tin and knock nails through it… almost the same way that you used to make that tin-can guitar – and you just put a little thing there, and knock it there, and make a sound. And I think ever since that day I thought that I’m a musician.

“I liked the sound. I liked performance. I just liked it, you know, because I belonged. And it’s very important to belong. So I’ve never gone far way from that sound, from who I am, and from who the people are…It’s very important for me to be on the ground with the people, playing the instruments that they did; playing the Khoisan bow and singing.

“…There was a guy who was thrown out of our district and he was, you know, part of the Khoisan language…he used to sit there on the street, and then my mother said to him, come and live in our [backyard]. Pooe was his name. So Pooe came here…and then, three-o-clock at night, he used to have this big tin can, singing to his ancestors. I mean, this is an old guy – and never mind how old he is, his culture is older, brother: we’re talking about 50 000 years with him, or more. The first people: know what I’m talking about? The first people are from here. And we let them die, just like that. I’m part of the first people: part in blood, but mostly in spirit…

“…I’ve been listening to Xhosa music my whole life, because I love the people; love the culture. I mean, I’m just sad that I don’t speak [the language] as I would like to speak it. That’s why I don’t speak it to a Xhosa, to offend him.  But we get on…I couldn’t live in Gugulethu, because I wasn’t ‘black’ enough, but I did go and play there. I played with all those musicians, and went to jail with them…When I was 20 or so I got out and dropped somebody there – Winston, or Blackie, or Ezra or whoever was playing with you at that night. Then the cops get you, and “Kom!” You, just on purpose, they put you into a cell. The next morning they let you [out]. I mean, that is not cool, you know?

Dyers spent much time in the interview considering the exploitative nature of the mainstream music industry, and how, much as he respected the work his label was doing (“I like what it does for the music“), he felt a loss of artistic control and agency when someone else produced his work. 

“…If I could change things, I would not have recorded [Sonesta or Koukouwa]. You have to own your own culture, otherwise you lose it. But [the industry] just hears something and the thing [cash register] goes ching-ching-ching. But it’s not about money: it’s people’s culture. We have to build it up ourselves. And if you’re always going to put money into the equation, we’re also going to lose.

“Because we have to take our time and think. I mean, I look at the old beautiful songs that were recorded and that made no money for the artist: Mackay Davashe, Dudu Pukwana,Spokes Mashiane, the Elite Swingsters, Manhattan Brothers – yoh! I mean, that must show us. That’s before me and I am using that as a yardstick for the younger generation…Don’t just play anything man. Although you can play, it doesn’t make you a musician – where’s your sound, where’s your thing?

“You know, we have something here that we can call our own – and let’s keep it jealously. Even compete with the US, compete with the Europeans. You have to do that: show your passion. Show it in a graceful way. You don’t have to always fight… What I want to work on, without remorse or fighting, is just simply being graceful and do what I do – and if people like it: fine…All we have is music.”

support concert poster June
“All we have is music”: musicians came together to support Dyers last month when his health fell into crisis
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