Last week, the world lost a pioneer.
Ripped from us suddenly and far too soon.
It must be said though, that in his short 40 years Sy Sylver, aka Simon Benlolo lived more than many do in their entire lives.
I had the great fortune of meeting Sy last summer, while he was in Montreal enjoying some time off.
A few of us decided that we were overdue for an evening of decadence. We all work so hard. It was a gorgeous June weekend, Sy was in town AND it was his birthday….really we didn’t need a whole lot of persuading!!! We met at Dan & Sharon’s place mid afternoon for a few cocktails on the patio before heading out.
I’d heard that Sy played guitar with DJs at some of the world’s biggest clubs. Playing guitar with DJ’s? What? That simply didn’t compute for me. “It’s easier to understand if you just see it,” Sharon said as she quickly lead me to her office, and fired up a video on Youtube.
There were hundreds of people dancing, lights, lasers and thumping music. There was a DJ up on stage and…woooah…there Sy was… playing guitar in a fenced area right smack dab in the middle of the mayhem. He was obviously LOVING it, and the crowd was loving him right back. Wow.
Now there’s something I hadn’t seen before….
I thought to myself what a wicked job that must be….I totally HAVE to talk to him to figure out how he ended up doing this for a living…..
Meanwhile back on the patio, reservations had been made at one of Old Montreal’s finest restaurants. While enjoying the first round of cocktails, we seriously entertained the idea of designating a driver for the night. Instead a unanimous decision was made to splurge on cabs. It was going to be a party night! It was in the air.
We laughed in the taxi, all the way downtown. The conversation was light and playful and the comedic banter relentless – even the cab driver put in his 2 cents worth! It was evident immediately that this was going to be one of those magical evenings that would serve to lift and fuel the spirit LONG afterwards.
The meal, service, conversation, drinks, ambiance, and company were nothing short of extraordinary. Although we’d only just met, we became fast friends, Sy and I. Over the course of the evening, we had opportunity to broach discussions on love, life, and music. Because of the extremely festive atmosphere and the constant banter, interruptions and general merrymaking – we decided that we’d set up a time when we could really talk. I knew there was a good story here….and I wanted to be able to share it.
After leaving the restaurant, we hit Foufounnes and then made our way back to Dan and Sharon’s for a while.
Fun. Fun. Fun.
The evening wrapped up just before daybreak. It’s not quite a year ago since we did it up, and it still makes me grin every time I think about it.
About a month later, Sy and I enjoyed a marathon call wherein we discussed, in detail, many of the different aspects of his life and career.
Sy figured he’d been playing guitar for about 27 years. He started playing at age 13. While practicing for endless hours in his bedroom, he knew that his dream was to perform.
As a young adult Sy played in a few bands, most notably, Remedy, a regular on the club circuit, and NovaCosum, a multi-cultural band that got a lot of attention from the press and had a special on VHI.
Sy was very honest and forthcoming about the struggles of making a band work. “It’s like trying to run 4 or 5 marriages simultaneously…” he said. Despite Sy’s easy-going nature, and ability to find the “light” in EVERYONE, he admitted that he reached a point in his life where he was really struggling to deal with the fact that, in a band, his dreams were almost completely in the hands of other people.
At 28, Sy put his guitars down. Tired of his career and dreams being at the mercy of other people, he quit music and went to work in the family business.
He described the decision as “agonizing” and “heartbreaking”. He so desperately wanted to perform but had completely given up on music.
During this sabbatical, which lasted almost 6 years, Sy’s thoughts never strayed far from the question of how to perform without having to rely on bandmates.
In the late ‘90s and early 2000s there was a quiet revolution taking place in the live music scene. Show bars were being transformed into dance clubs and live venues began disappearing – giving way to huge super-clubs with bottle & VIP service, long line-ups, and non-stop music that lasted all night.
Sy couldn’t help but noticing that DJs all over the world were suddenly in very high demand, and were getting all the work & money that had previously fuelled the touring show-bar bands.
It didn’t take long for Sy to conceive the idea to play guitar alongside a DJ. He dusted off his guitars and began learning how to play along with house music, techno and hip-hop. There was room within the music to add tasteful solos, accents and the sweet stringed goodness for which Sy Sylver eventually became famous.
He then approached some club owners and managers and pitched his idea. Playing guitar in support of the DJ offered clubbers added entertainment value and offered a unique spin that could help edge out the competition. A club could offer live guitar accompaniment for a very reasonable price – especially when compared to the cost of bringing in an entire band and the equipment to support it.
The economics totally made sense.
Because club owners and managers seemed, in many cases, to be more business-minded than those who were running many of the former circuit’s show bars – they were open to not only hearing Sy’s concept, but testing it.
Business-wise it made sense – dollars and cents!
It didn’t take long before Sy was traveling to the world’s biggest clubs to play alongside the world’s biggest DJs.
But how was this former rock-guitarist able to reconcile playing along to electronic music, house, and techno? I asked him flat-out. (Just one of the things I loved about Sy –he didn’t offend easily, and was always ready to serve it up straight.)
He was quick to tell me how grateful he was to be able to travel the world carrying only a couple of guitars, a Line 6 Pod, cables, a wireless system and a few accessories.
Sy also mentioned that he didn’t miss “babysitting the guys…dealing with divas, drug addicts and alcoholics…” He was happy that he could finally be completely self-reliant.
Another benefit of touring the world, playing guitar in dance clubs was that Sy could be a kind of “ambassador of the guitar”. He, after all, was bringing a real musical instrument into a demographic for whom music comes out of little boxes controlled by sliders and buttons.
He hoped that by playing and being so enthusiastic about playing guitar, he’d encourage clubbers to explore other music, especially guitar-based bands.
“The kids don’t know,” he explained. They don’t know about music, about music history, about the bands who originally wrote much of the music that is being sampled and looped by DJs.
“Hendrix could come back, and they wouldn’t give a f-ck.”
Sy hoped that his love for guitar would inspire others.
On top of all of this, Sy still enjoyed a rush every time he got up to play. Most of the time, he was hearing the music for the first time while he was performing – the thrill of running along the tightrope-LIVE – was challenging, electrifying and inspiring. It’s evident in any video you watch – Sy is having the time of his life while he’s “working”.
Nice guys don’t always finish last after all.
Because Sy always kept a very healthy respect for his “place” in the club – he never was in competition with the DJs.
He often occupied less predominant real estate inside the club, and always played with the goal of embellishing the DJ’s music, thereby avoiding any DJs ever feeling that Sy was trying to steal their thunder.
Even the DJs, who, just by politics stood to be threatened by Sy, ended up loving him.
Sy carved out a niche for himself, blazing a trail that would see him traveling the world taking his own special playing style to thousands.
His guitar, his spirit, talent and determination took him to places nobody had yet even dreamed of.
Those fortunate enough to have met him, will tell you that he had an infectious energy, a smile that brightened any room, a positive, happy outlook and a deep love and appreciate for life, people and beauty in its many forms.
Sy was living his dream. A dream HE created. A dream HE daringly carved out for himself. Sy was a true pioneer, a dreamer, a thinker…unrelenting, passionate.
He moved and inspired people.
He loved and deeply appreciated.
His life story is one of trials and triumph. Sy has given us concrete proof that if we are willing to support our dreams with passion, creativity, discipline, determination and a calculated plan…the sky is the limit.
R.I.P. Sy. We’re going to miss you…but we’ll never forget.