We’re now living, believes guitarist and composer Derek Gripper, “in the post-world music era.”
For Cape-based Gripper, who launches his latest album with a rare appearance in Johannesburg on Sunday, that’s something of a relief. “I suppose it was necessary to have a label when things like the Womad festivals began.” (Musician Peter Gabriel inaugurated the World of Music and Dance events in the unlikely setting of Shepton Mallet in the UK in 1982).
“But by now we have probably seen every possible combination of genres and players. And not all of it works, especially when a record company does it on the random basis of ‘Let’s get five Cubans and four Malians together and see what happens…’ without establishing any other connection between them”
Gripper might be skeptical about some commercial “world music”, but that hasn’t weakened his passionate interest in the musics of the world.
Starting as a child student of classical violin, he took off aged 19 to study Carnatic traditions in India. On his return, he began working with the guitar and, in collaboration with the late trumpeter Alex van Heerden, began exploring South African traditions: specifically, the goema music of the Cape. That resulted in the unsettlingly beautiful 2002 collaboration album Sagtevlei.
“But as the collaboration developed, we began to see the goema label as just a rationalisation. We debated hotly what exactly made that music ‘South African’. Must we be confined, for example, to music in a major key? By the end, we were simply playing what we wrote."
Half a dozen albums (including a collaboration with tabla player Udai Mazumdar) followed, as well as concerts including the Xhosa bow music of Madosini. But while Gripper was writing music, he was also exploring the compositions of others, “finding connections” and becoming particularly interested in the work of Brazilian Egberto Gismonti and Malian kora-player Toumani Diabate: “one instrument played by one person, with different voices playing in different times, with melodies that exploded in impossibly fast configurations.”
He became so fascinated by kora music – and so frustrated by the apparent impossibility of recreating it on guitar – that he actually learned kora, and painstakingly transcribed music by Diabate, Ballake Sissoko and Ali Farka Toure. At first, that felt counter-intuitive: “That was what I’d learned as ‘classical music’: simply the interpretation of scores.”
But Gripper found that “entering the world of African classical music,” reading his transcripts and experimenting with playing technique, unlocked a door into the kora sound. “When you see it on paper and re-look at it as composition, it actually provides an escape from being stuck in reading – it lets you play.” He developed multiple, and eventually two, master-tunings for his guitar, that allowed him to tackle any Malian work.
“For the first time, the guitar and the kora began to share a musical language…I’m breaking the music open; seeing what the guitar can do that the kora can’t. And getting out of the island of my own composition.” The process is highly interpretive, and speaks to one of Gripper’s ideals: “music as something that is not owned but shared between people.”
One aspect of that sharing is Gripper’s presentation of his music as fee-optional downloads from his website. “The Internet has created a complete change in my music-making. When you make CDs, you’re in debt after every one and can barely afford to release one or two a year. Online, the album advertises itself, and a surprising proportion of buyers choose to pay a realistic market price. It’s actually working for me financially.”
When he plays, sharing means creatively re-imagining another’s work. Reading Diabate’s compositions has been transformed into “a rich form of improvisation, just allowing different aspects … to come out as they occurred to me, with every performance unique”. He sees another example in the collaboration of Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Segal, whose compositions he also plays. “That collaboration works beautifully, because it is founded on a real relationship.”
Gripper’s performance on Sunday will launch and present music from his new album, One Night on Earth, centred on the Malian works. “But my live shows are much more free-flowing than the albums; it’s very likely I’ll play material from other sources too.”
After that, his next project is a recital at the Karoo Classical Music Festival in August, reflecting on the musical connections between Diabate and Bach. Malian music, originating in formal compositions for patrons at a royal court, stems from a context very similar to that which produced the Bach family. “In some ways,” Gripper reflects, “it takes us back to Bach by a fresh road.”
Derek Gripper appears at the Lucky Bean on Melville’s Seventh Street on Sunday 15 July at 1900. Bookings (essential since the venue is small). Tel: 011 482 5572. One Night on Earth can be downloaded – for whatever fee you feel appropriate – from www.derekgripper.com.