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.

AAJ: You mentioned, at one point, that Alex viewed Afrikaans as a space to explore identity and help define the new dialogue in South Africa. This concept may be a bit of a surprise to many abroad, where Afrikaans is often viewed as inextricably tied to the apartheid government. But the reality, of Cape Town in particular, was certainly much more nuanced, no?

DG: Exactly. Even to me, growing up, Afrikaans was the enemy. It was the English against the Afrikaans (the Boer War) and then the Afrikaans against everyone (Apartheid). All these silly battles and divisions. There are millions of black people who speak Afrikaans, but they wouldn't call themselves "Afrikaaners" because that got reserved for white Afrikaaners. Vastrap helps to make this Afrikaans thing even more blurred, because it's magical. And even the white musicians who play vastrap are magicians.

I saw an interesting clip about some studies about improvisation and the brain. Apparently improvisation activates the linguistic areas of the brain. Of course they haven't had a vastrap musician in the CAT scan yet, but if they did they would find a new part of the brain, and the linguistic areas would be very quiet. Perhaps they would even crawl away somewhere.

AAJ: Alex van Heerden is clearly quite central to your own work and development. This fellow seems to have been everywhere at once—doing albums like Sagtevlei with you, jamming with [Cape Jazz pioneer] Robbie Jansen, doing techno albums, and fronting a psychedelic rock band. What was his own introduction to the music, and how did you two initially meet?

DG: When Alex died, I suggested we hold a number of funerals, as he struggled to be tied down to a single identity. But the Cape thing, and the interest in this place was what held it all together. Alex and I met on Robben Island. We played for Nelson Mandela when he first came back onto the island. Walter Sisulu was there too. I didn't know what Alex was up to, but I phoned him up soon after we met and suggested we get a camera crew and travel around playing with rural musicians. I didn't realize he had been doing this for years already! Then I got a call to put together a string quartet collaboration for a live recording at the SABC [South African Broadcasting Company], and I saw the opportunity to get our collaboration going.

So we got together on the farm which gave the CD its name, and we realized that we had a really strong musical connection. 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. We got seriously high on the whole thing, soaking in sunlight, swimming in the dam, dancing in the forests, listening to old Boeremusik LPs, and playing by the fireside under the stars...and getting together for about 30 minutes every day to pen a complete movement of the piece which would become Sagtevlei. Then we took this energy and unleashed it on a few classical musicians with our old friend Brydon Bolton playing bass.

Shame, the audience didn't quite know what hit them! I'd say we divided the room in two that night. Those coming for a ghoema string quartet were perhaps disappointed. I think what we gave them was a rediscovery of the roots of ghoema.

AAJ: Yes, I was thinking anyone expecting a banjo rendition of (classic ghoema song) "Alibama" must've been in for a hell of a shock.

DG: [Laughs] We felt so pleased after. It was like we had given birth to something totally new, and we had done this by being completely honest. For Alex, it was very emotional, as he was someone who had an unbelievable talent for giving people what they wanted. He could seduce anybody! And I think this was one of the first times he carried out his seduction entirely on his own terms, rather than feeling out the adversary and giving them what they wanted (even if they didn't know what they wanted themselves!). And when the music was unanimously well received, he was pretty hurt. The producers didn't like it at first, and this really affected him. Later, however, they raved about it: it is music that takes time to seduce you.

AAJ: You then took this collaboration with Alex to Europe. How did that come about?

DG: Well, we spent the year after Sagtevlei meeting almost every day. We had no idea of where to go next. South Africa isn't a place where you can make a living playing music like Sagtevlei. We experimented with a duo format, using guitar for the first time (which is the roots of what later became my New Cape Guitar thing), and then Alex decided to go to Europe and follow up on the electronic music projects he had started there before we worked together. I decided to leave South Africa too for a while and he persuaded me to come to Sweden. So we spent a month in the North, in a desert of ice, and then a month in Stockholm. We worked with Magnus Johansonn, who is now a dear friend, and we made a CD called Hemisfar, where we tried to map similarities between what we had started with Sagtevlei and what interested Alex in the electronic movement. It is finally being released this year, so many years later.
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