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Derek Gripper: Finding the New Cape

Seton Hawkins By

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This was a fearless space of pure creativity: a place without doubt, without complexity, a meeting of souls and a celebration of being where we were.
In 2002, Cape Town-based guitarist, violist, and composer Derek Gripper began a musical collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Alex van Heerden. In doing so, the two men sparked a musical partnership that would, in only a few months, smash through stylistic boundaries on their debut recording Sagtevlei > (New Cape Records, 2010). Drawing upon the rich ghoema musical tradition of Cape Town, Sagtevlei proved to be a haunting and magical journey into the artistic legacy of the Cape, and showcased two young talents who would come to voice a dizzyingly unique new perspective into South Africa's heritage.

Following Sagtevlei, Gripper continued this musical exploration, both as a solo artist and in collaboration with van Heerden and other like-minded figures. Avoiding traditional genres, Gripper ultimately came to dub his newly minted musical aesthetic "New Cape."

In naming it as such, Gripper not only paid homage to Cape Town's position as one of the world's musical and cultural melting pots, he also developed a useful piece of terminology to avoid artistic pigeonholing. After all, it is difficult to stylistically pin down a man who plays Bach on the guitar, jams with a tabla player, and collaborates with an avant-garde noise-rock ensemble, while also composing chamber works of sublimely atmospheric beauty.

Last year, Gripper furthered his mission of exploring and presenting the music of the Cape, in all its nuances, by launching New Cape Records. Providing an avenue to release Gripper's solo works, New Cape Records also offers a glimpse into the musical work of the Xhosa folk music artist Madosini, as well as the psychedelic ghoema rock band Gramadoelas, fronted by van Heerden (who passed away in 2009).

All About Jazz: Can you elaborate on the decision to call the label "New Cape"? Previously, you have described it as a guiding artistic aesthetic, and a launching pad for your excursions into incorporating styles from classical music, to Cape music, to Indian music, to Scandinavian electronica, into your sound. How do you define "New Cape," and how did you establish this as an approach?

Derek Gripper: Alex and I started this musical journey with the CD Sagtevlei. From then on, we kept trying to work out what it was that we were doing musically, and how it related to Cape Town.

It was very important for both of us that the music referred to Cape Town, and that it started a new dialogue with the city, exploring its musical past, and discovering its hidden languages of music. The same thing came up when working on my solo guitar shows, when I was playing the music that I later developed as a continuation of our larger ensemble work. People always asking what kind of music it was, and me saying ,"Well, it's music from Cape Town." It was obvious that this wasn't JUST music from Cape Town—rather, it was something that started here, geographically and culturally, but had no boundaries. So it became "New Cape."

AAJ: Some might find a similarity between Cape Town and New Orleans in that both cities offered a cultural and musical melting pot for styles. Can you speak more about the new dialogue you and Alex were establishing? Obviously, there is a vast history and legacy in the Cape to address.

DG: Well historically we know a little, but we're only beginning to really work out where the music we hear today (the echoes, that is) came from. But simply put, we had the East, Europe, and Southern Africa starting a dialogue in the first days of the Cape Colony. And then in the twentieth century, jazz hits and everything changes, but the soul remains. Violins are exchanged for saxophones and improvisation starts to expand the pallet of the traditional songs. But the directness remains...and the magical quality, which must have been inherited from the Khoisan [also known as the Bushmen, the original inhabitants of the area around Cape Town] no? I think this remains the backbone of our music—and I speak personally—others may disagree but the backbone is the ability to create something out of nothing. And that's magic, isn't it?

AAJ: "Magic," that certainly is an apt word to describe the mood of Sagtevlei. The coming together of styles you're describing results in a variety of genres that may not necessarily be familiar to everyone. And certainly two of these styles come into serious play in Sagtevlei and in your own albums: ghoema and vastrap. Can you describe them a bit?

DG: Well the story goes that on the second of New Year the slaves got to be "free" for a day. They painted their faces white and had a carnival, and the music they played came out of the Cape Town melting pot: rhythms from the East, chord progressions from Europe (probably the church), the trance of the Khoisan. ghoema! Being born on the "other" side of the apartheid curtain we didn't experience this much growing up—just clips on the TV and furtive glances in the streets. But it seeps in nevertheless. Alex explored this music while playing for most of his life with the Cape Jazz greats, and when we started working together I realized it was my music too. In his words, "it had been hidden from me."

Vastrap is another interesting form. Alex loved it because it was a music which was shared by the black and the white Afrikaaners: in other words the Afrikaans people who were black and white and brown and everything in between. And there they were for so long pretending to be different, the one calling the other "baas" (boss) and all that nonsense (which still remains of course) but the whole stupid game being blown by the fact that the music was the same. There were subtle differences, but undeniably the same music. Vastrap, the musical Afrikaans, spoken in different dialects by the South African Arikaaners.

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