Average reading time: 7 minutes
It’s a summery afternoon and multi-genre-spanning guitar virtuoso Derek Gripper is sitting in a comfy-looking lounge, in his Cape Town home, kicking his feet up between shows. “It’s been a good year actually, I travelled a lot,” he reasons as he rounds up his year. “It’s been great playing shows in the great iconic cities of the world. I looked at myself one day, I was walking in Paris on a Sunday morning and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m in Paris, this is so amazing!’”
He confesses it’s a recurring thought, one he’d also been struck by in San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Cape Town… It’s been a busy 2023 for him. He explains that his tour schedule has been returned to its pre-pandemic glory, “but it really feels like it’s come back with a whole new feel to it.”
Gripper’s taking it slower and allowing himself more time to acquaint himself with the countries he performs in. He’s being more intentional and curating more of his own shows. “We found this hall, for example, this big church in the middle of a forest on a university somewhere in Portland, Oregon,” he proudly explains, “And 400 people came from somewhere in Portland, they parked their cars, they walked down the forest, and they filled this theatre.”
Gripper also credits the online “kind of guitar ashram” that he created over lockdown as significantly having enhanced his touring experience. “I have this amazing community of people all over the world who played with me, on a regular basis online, and who survived lockdown with me, so now when I go travelling, in every town that I go to, there’ll be somebody from that group.”
He decidedly nods his head and adds, “It feels a lot more meaningful and a lot more aligned with how I wanna play and who I wanna play to.”
Gripper paints a vivid picture of his childhood as he relives a core memory dating 1988 – him (aged 10), his mother (a boots-and-flowy-long-dress-clad hippie woman), and his hamster – hopping in a little Datsun bakkie to leave Cape Town and relocate to a farm 750 km away, just outside of De Aar, a tiny town in the middle of the Karoo. “It was a good experience for what happened later: dropping into strange places and having to make it work,” Gripper justifies.
Half a decade later (1993) Gripper stepped onto the Cape Town grunge music scene (age 15) amid what he describes as, “an explosion of live music and bands. You never made any money, but it was a vibe!”
Gripper proceeded to study classical guitar at the prestigious South African College of Music. This, he explains, is where he was exposed to world music and how, being a viola-player at the time, he was invited to arrange music for the string section of a band. Comprising Robbie Jansen (legend of Cape Jazz) on saxophone, Brydon Bolton (iconic bassist), Sivamani (lauded percussionist and composer of Indian music), and Alex van Heerden (trumpet player), the super band spent four days on Robben Island developing music for a career-defining performance on Heritage Day (24 September), 1997.
Gripper would go on to learn Carnatic music in India after Sivamani’s personal invitation, and to collaborate, for over a decade and in various formats, with Alex van Heerden, who also became his brother-in-law, but Gripper thoughtfully shares what was truly the most impactful thing about that experience. “I was playing and watching the audience, and the only person really watching the whole time we played was Nelson Mandela,” he reminisces, still in awe and continues, “We got to shake hands after. That was his first time back on the Island [since release from prison and being elected president]. His wife was there, Walter Sisulu was there, it was big!”
From being invited by Australian classical guitar god John Williams to perform at the iconic Shakespeare’s Globe, to recording an album with the virtuosic Brazilian composer and guitarist Egberto Gismonti, to being invited to collaborate with Indian classical guitar innovator and World Music Hall of Fame (2022) recipient, Debashish Bhattacharya, Gripper’s career is a lengthy list of once-in-a-lifetime moments.
Gripper is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime musician.
A truly dedicated appreciator and explorer of World Music in vastly different iterations, one of Gripper’s farthest-reaching ventures is into West African music, kora music but, specifically music of living kora legends Toumani Diabate and Ballaké Sissoko. After being presented with Diabate’s groundbreaking solo album, Kaira (1988), Gripper went on an isolated journey into studying and transcribing Diabate’s remarkably skilled kora-playing, and reinterpreting it for solo guitar, an impressive first-time feat.
This resulted in recording and releasing two critically acclaimed albums of Diabate’s music reinterpreted – One Night on Earth (2012) and Libraries on Fire (2016) – and touring the world for over a decade, playing this music. After Diabate had heard and been moved by Gripper’s reinterpretations of his music, he invited Gripper to spend some time in Bamako, Mali. From partying with the legendary Malian singer-songwriter Salif Keita on his privately-owned island to collaborating with Diabate, this trip is a particularly colourful chapter in Gripper’s musical story.
Having just returned from the Turkey leg of his international duo tour with Ballaké Sissoko, Gripper enthusiastically brings me into the present as he talks about his most recent album release, a return to his classical roots, and the first of a 6-part series of upcoming releases, reinterpretations of Bach’s Cello Suites. Without missing a beat he’s onto more exciting news and shares that an album he recorded with Sissoke in 2022 will also be available early 2024.
To keep up with Gripper is to remain perpetually mentally stimulated. We’re both having a laugh – me in awe, him in excitement – as he speaks of his ongoing international duo tour with Sissoko and their otherworldly musical connection, and he concludes, “I don’t speak French or Bambara (the official Malian language) and he doesn’t speak English, so we communicate [verbosely, fluently and exclusively] by getting on stage and playing music.”
Writer | Al Clapper
Images | Supplied by Derek Gripper