In a culture bent on compartmentalising its musicians, guitarist Derek Gripper is a slippery character. Here’s a guy who understands that a pigeonhole is not an enclosure but rather a place that a bird comes back to when it’s not busy flying. And why not come back to it? After all, if you don’t understand how a box works, how can you possibly think outside it? And who said anything about coming back to the same box? And perhaps some strategic wall removals won’t bring the whole structure down. Or will they? I guess these are the risks one has to take to bottle the sound of water or catch fish in a tangled net.
Coming on the heels of 2011’s The Sound of Water, which the guitarist self-effacingly describes as an album “that didn’t win a SAMA award” while forgetting to claim kudos for its nomination, Derek Gripper launched One Night on Earth: Music from the Strings of Mali at the Old Slave Church (Long Street, Cape Town) on Saturday 12 May 2012. Both playful as well as poignant, Night on Earth sees the unprecedented “translation” of West African kora music to solo acoustic guitar and features the compositions of Mali’s legendary Toumani Diabaté, who performed at the same, sublime venue in 2009. The album also features compositions by fellow Malians Ali Farka Touré and Ballaké Sissoko as well as French cellist Vincent Ségal.
Although this thrilling and highly-accessible instrumental outing merits attention, Derek Gripper seems less concerned about courting mainstream criticism than using the democratic tools of new media to build a community around his innovations. Released on his home-spun label New Cape Records, Night on Earth forgoes hard copies in favour of digital distribution on a “name your price” basis. Moreover, downloadable guitar tablature scores are available on Derek Gripper’s personal website, which also provides other useful guitar resources and explains his Montessori-inspired method of guitar training. “The only difference between the music of Bach and the music of Toumani Diabaté,” writes open-planner Derek Gripper, “is that Toumani’s music does not exist in the type of score format that allows another musicians to actually play the music themselves.”