Derek Gripper – Music as an ongoing, collective process

Derek Gripper finds inspiration in Classical and West African music.

Derek Gripper, Cape Town guitarist, will share his version of Western Classical and West African griot music at St. James Hall in Kitsilano on Jan. 26, 2019. Challenging the categories of homage and originality, the composer-performer interprets and transforms the works of Sebastian Bach and revered Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, in hopes to reveal the historical and communitary nature of the creative process.

“Between the desire to improvise like [Keith] Jarrett, the desire to play this beautiful cyclical trance music of Toumani and the desire to understand Bach and what his music could have been outside of the idea of Classical music – that’s what makes me myself. And that’s what’s kind of interesting about music,” says Gripper.

The influence of music

Gripper was surrounded by music from a young age. While neither of his parents were musicians, the Cape Town guitarist recalls a house filled with music, as members of his extended family introduced him to a variety of styles and genres.

“On the one side of the house we had this classical musician who was playing piano [and french horn] and who had a big record collection of classical music. And on the other side was this guy who was playing keyboards in bands who was currently working in pop music,” says Gripper. “I think that’s been a little bit of my journey, to kind of move between and try to integrate the two sides of this house.”

While Gripper feels his music is less characterized by pop, his affinity for Western Classical music remains, along with his curiosity to seek out different worlds of music.

The artists that Gripper draws from – and whose music he’s transcribed and performed – range from Sebastian Bach to jazz pianist Keith Jarrett to Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté. By re-contextualizing their pieces, one of Gripper’s goals is to problematize the notion of musical ‘ownership.’

“It makes absolute sense if you write down a piece of music and you say it’s your composition […] and get a certain financial reward for that,” says Gripper. “[But] once you exit this very kind of controlled form of music and of recording music, and you enter something like American [or British] folk music or West African music, you immediately run into massive problems, and you realize that there’s just a massive problem with the idea of ownership.”

Originality and community

Though Gripper feels his musical message in beneficial, he challenges audiences, especially Western audiences, to rethink music as a more collective, ongoing process rather than the ‘musical genius’ of certain individuals.

Perhaps the best example of this was when, in 2012, Gripper had finally completed a decade-long transcription and performance project of Diabaté’s kora performances. Upon learning that Gripper had successfully transformed the music to be playable on guitar, Diabaté was in disbelief: not only did he have to confirm that it was in fact just one guitar that was playing, but he also felt the music was transformed into something totally different, all the while remaining true to the original.

“When Toumani hears me playing a transcription of his music, because I play it so differently than him, he tells me ‘Oh that’s your composition.’ And I’ve had this happen to me so many times,” says Gripper. “So the idea of where you locate originality on the dial differs from culture to culture.”

Having even performed with Diabaté on occasion, Gripper is celebrated by those whose works he has, in Western terms, covered., He continues to challenge perceptions of originality as we understand it, seeking to open people to the idea of creativity as a constant, communal and ongoing process, intentional or otherwise.

“We’re so bombarded by music from all over that everybody has something else in their ears,” says Gripper. “Unless you’re finding someone who’s completely off the grid, everybody’s influenced.”


For more information on the show, please visit