A Little Background


I began playing music on the violin. My teacher was a woman called Mrs. de Groot. She was patient with me even though I rarely practiced. She said I could probably be a violinist in an orchestra one day but that I probably wouldn't be able to be a soloist. Later on, I gave her prediction some thought and decided to learn guitar so I could play by myself.  

My piano teacher at school was a wonderful classical guitarist, Michael Hoole, and slowly he inspired me to take up the guitar. I started lessons by sitting outside his teaching room learning pieces he gave me as he passed (his timetable was full and he couldn't take on another student). I took the scores, played the notes on the piano, and found them on guitar.  Eventually he started giving me lessons. I was playing bass guitar as well, in bands with friends. We started playing the Cape Town club circuit when I was about fifteen or sixteen. 

After years of playing in bands I got tired of being a bass player and got together with three friends, Christian van der Vyver (who now performs prepared dobro under the name Chris Rainer), Chris Stroud, and Lara Bloch. We started an ensemble called The Gilgamesh Ensemble. We booked venues and played concerts for a little over a year: vocals, cello, Chris on guitar, and myself on viola and guitar. We brought in tablas and sitar (I tried to stop them) and harmonium, and we even recorded an album.  

Gilgamesh had an important outcome for me because I was asked to help arrange string music for a performance on Robben Island. Strangely enough, most of my musical future would be set by these four days on the island. The musicians I met included Robbie Jansen (the great Cape jazz sax player), Alex van Heerden (his trumpet player and leader of the psychedelic vastrap band Gramadoelas), Brydon Bolton (bass player), and an Indian percussionist called Sivamani who was visiting Cape Town at the time.  

Three important things came of this experience.  

I became friends with Alex and Brydon, and I played with them for more than ten years in different formats. Sivamani invited me to India, where I began a series of trips as a student of Carnatic music theory. Perhaps most importantly, I shook the hand of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island — he was there for his first visit back to the island since he was moved to the mainland before his release in 1991 (he watched the music without looking away once, while everyone else was distracted).   

In India, after being greatly humbled by the South Indian violin virtuosos I heard, and after having a few violin lessons on Carnatic violin in Chennai, I returned home to focus on guitar. I had an idea to create a guitar music that explored the resources of the guitar, almost as Keith Jarrett explored the piano, to change tunings mid song, and to create long, extended improvisations.  

I had a guitar made, with eight strings and fretboards that could be removed and replaced with other fretboards with different tunings. I studied the theoretical works of Harry Partch and Rameau and Hindemith and tried to imagine a compositional theory that was not constrained by the philosophies of the past, or one that reflected the philosophies of the present. I was reading Adorno and also systems theorists like Gregory Bateson and linguists like Chomsky, trying to understand the relationship between the map and the territory, the language and what is spoken. I was asking myself, “is it possible to make new music using the tools of the old worlds without simply reproducing the same consciousness of this old music?” 

Then Alex van Heerden and I started working together. Alex was a trumpet player in the school marching band, then jamming in the local township with jazz bands, then learning to play Afrikaans songs on the accordion at a small-town church. We made an album called Sagtevlei, which was our new form of Cape music, using a string quartet and his trumpet, voice, and accordion. I played viola. We did more of this for ten years, and during this time I also started recording solo albums on guitar.  

We recorded Sagtevlei in a fit of creative excitement during a few days on a farm outside Cape Town. Then we traveled to Sweden and laid the ground for my first solo guitar album Blomdoorns, and then we met up again a few years later to write a string quartet, which we performed together twice (with The Sontonga Quartet) and sadly only recorded very roughly in the first performance. Then we played a concert together with our friend Brydon Bolton on double bass, and two weeks later Alex was killed in a car accident. It had been ten years of incredible music making and I wonder if I will ever be lucky enough to find somebody to connect with in music like that again. Perhaps once is all you get.  

I spent the years just before and after Alex’s death in 2009 exploring the implications of what we had created together, trying to apply them to solo guitar (most of our work together had been with me playing viola or writing for strings). This started with Blomdoorns on eight-string guitar, the year after Sagtevlei; two more solo albums (Kai Kai and Ayo), and a duo album with tabla virtuoso Udai Mazumdar (Rising). I released Alex’s, Brydon’s, and my final concert as the album Ale!x.  

I continued to return to Bach’s music, which had inspired and informed my classical guitar studies and also my studies with eight-string guitarist Paul Galbraith in 2006 in Brazil. The result was a record called Prayers and Dances, on which I began the experimentation with playing Bach on guitar that continues to this day. After this recording, my work with kora music made the path towards Bach far clearer, and I made a second Bach album (Prayers and Dances II) that is closer to how I would like to hear the music on guitar.  

In 2012 I started thinking differently about Toumani Diabaté, whose work I had been listening to since 2000. I had finally found a composer I really loved whose music could fit on guitar, and the arrangements I made of his music and the music of other kora players was recorded on One Night on Earth: Music from the Strings of Mali and later in an original sound installation for the Venice Bienale inspired by kora (Cassette Locale), and finally Libraries on Fire, the music of three generations of kora players in one album.  

It was during this phase that my international career got busier, mostly because of an invitation to play with classical guitar legend John Williams at Shakespeare’s Globe. We played duets based on kora compositions, with John’s parts written by Cape Town guitarist Reza Khota. I also worked with Cape Town violinist Galina Jurgita to make a string quartet version of Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté’s “Miniyamba,” which was premiered in Turkey.  

The first person bio will be continued...

— Derek Gripper